Fifty years after the Internet's creation, 3 billion individuals across the globe now use it to engage in all aspects of society: connecting with friends, shopping, learning, or doing business. The possibilities it presents are only limited by our imagination.
Why has the Internet worked so well? Because it's a level playing field. Everyone has an equal opportunity to compete, to succeed or to fail, to put one's best ideas or products forward and let the chips fall where they may.
Through a free and open Internet, an excellent idea or an individual can beat a powerful established institution. A scrappy student can challenge the status quo and come up with an innovation to change the world. Almost any citizen with an Internet connection can be heard across the globe and drive millions toward change.
But we need rules to make sure that in the battle of content -- of music, of ideas, of games, of apps, whatever -- it is a fair fight, and that winners and losers are determined by the quality of the content and nothing else.
ISPs offer real benefits to consumers and to our economy. The critical infrastructure they deploy provides the platform for the Internet ecosystem. They aren't the bad guys.
But without clear net-neutrality protections, companies could alter their incentives and business practices. In order to maximize their bottom line, providers may give preference to Internet traffic from companies willing to pay more for faster delivery. ISPs would be able to charge Internet companies for better, faster access and impede others.
This month the FCC is poised to adopt rules to ensure that an open and robust Internet continues. I believe these rules must contain three essential elements: no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization.
First, companies should not be allowed to block access to any website hosting legal content, whether that is video, music, photos, social networks, or email.
Second, companies should not be allowed to slow down Internet traffic based on its content, application, service, or device.
Third, companies should be prohibited from establishing "pay to play" schemes in order to get preferential treatment.
And more generally, the FCC should continue to have flexible authority to prevent other forms of discrimination that threaten Internet openness.
If these elements are contained in the FCC rule, we will continue to have a level playing field on the Internet in the future -- the same one that has allowed innovation to thrive.
Some have suggested that it would be better for Congress to legislate net-neutrality rules instead of relying on the FCC's rule-making authority. That would be fine too; after all, Congress always has the prerogative to legislate. But the open Internet we know today occurred under our existing communications laws and the FCC's watch, so passing a law to trump the FCC's rules is premature.
Once the FCC has acted and we have the benefit of their expertise, we can all roll up our sleeves to look at whether we need to update our telecom laws to better protect consumers, foster future innovation, and enable further investment in the network.
That broader effort, though, must recognize that it is the Communications Act that established the legal and regulatory framework that has spurred investment, innovation, and the creation of untold numbers of new businesses.
One reason the Internet has thrived is that the FCC has had the ability to adapt to a changing environment, protecting consumers and competition while enabling investment and innovation.
The bottom line is that when it comes to an area as dynamic and ever-evolving as the Internet, Congress should, as it has in the past, establish broad policy principles and recognize the advantages of an empowered expert agency to implement these principles over time. And no legislative effort should undermine the essential elements of a free and open Internet.
No one can predict Internet-dependent innovation, the next development that will keep us at the edge of innovation, empowering citizens and consumers, creating jobs and solving complex societal challenges. Nor can we predict which behaviors will negatively impact citizens and competitors who rely on an open Internet. We do know, however, that we will need clear rules to protect net neutrality.
In the last 50 years we've seen a free and open Internet grow our economy and our imaginations. And to make sure that that continues for the next generation, we need a nimble and forward-looking FCC, not the heavy hand of Congress.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai'i) is the ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.