Information 'highway' or information 'Safeway'?

Cross-posted in PEEK and The Mix.

To put it simply, your ability to access your favorite websites is in danger.

In this week's New Yorker, James Surowiecki pens one of the most comprehensible and sensible pieces on net neutrality yet. It begins with a bit of little-known 'history':
In the first decades of the twentieth century, as a national telephone network spread across the United States, A.T. & T. adopted a policy of "tiered access" for businesses. Companies that paid an extra fee got better service: their customers’ calls went through immediately, were rarely disconnected, and sounded crystal-clear. Those who didn’t pony up had a harder time making calls out, and people calling them sometimes got an "all circuits busy" response. Over time, customers gravitated toward the higher-tier companies and away from the ones that were more difficult to reach. In effect, A.T. & T.’s policy turned it into a corporate kingmaker.
This never happened, of course, and the reason it didn't is because telephone service was treated as a utility and not strictly as a commodity. Phone companies were required to give you, your grandma, or your teensy small business the same service as the Carnegies or the Rockefellers.

Part of the internet's success has been due to the fact that Melissa McEwan's Shakespeare's Sister blog has been given the same service as FoxNews.com (though at present there's no government regulation of taste or intellect to govern how many people attempt to access these sites).

The phone companies' demands to allow "tiered access" (you pay more, you get better service) will give them more revenue to improve the whole system, they say, and besides, they claim, "they have no plans to block access or degrade service to those who don’t pay a premium rate."

This defies logic: if someone gets better service then the others get worse service. By definition this is true. Surowiecki writes:
"All bits of data have been treated similarly, just as the highway system doesn’t allow trucks from some companies to go faster than others, and the electrical grid does not deliver reliable power to some customers and erratic service to others."
But the companies are hoping to frame the debate as a free-market issue. If Safeway can offer premium shelf space to manufacturers who pay for it, why can't internet providers do the same, they argue. This system, while perhaps bringing a highly functioning internet, will perhaps not bring a highly functional one as "Decisions that once were made collectively by hundreds of millions of Internet users would now be shaped in large part by a handful of telecom executives."

For the millionth time: information is not a commodity like tea biscuits or canned pineapple. It's absolutely crucial to a successful democracy.

In April, there's Pulver Media's Freedom to Connect Conference (F2C), dedicated to the idea that "Freedom to Connect belongs with Freedom of Speech, Press, Religion and Assembly," and that "if some connectivity is good, then more connectivity is better."

Also, Ron Wyden (D-OR) has sponsored a bill that would make network neutrality the law, commenting that "Creating a two-tiered system could have a chilling effect on small mom and pop businesses that can’t afford the priority lane, leaving these smaller businesses no hope of competing against the Wal-Marts of the world..."

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