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Can We Keep the Internet Free?

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The Internet is no longer just a "virtual" public square--it's the actual one. We debate critical issues online. We launch social movements with tweets. Independent media sites and citizen journalists have outposts in every part of the Web. Stories break all the time, from a range of sources. Advocacy groups collect data and blast information to their activists. Social media provides news scoops ahead of press releases.

On one side are the Internet service providers (ISPs)--the AT&Ts, Comcasts, and Verizons of the world. They've got millions of dollars to spend on lobbying. And they have direct lines into our homes and businesses. And right now there's a war on over the future of the Internet.

On the other side is everyone else--Internet users like you and me, content companies, and online platforms like Netflix and reddit. To put it simply: If you're not an ISP, you should be standing on this side of the line.

Right now, the question is: On which side of the line will the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) make its stand? Because this agency will determine the fate of the greatest communications network ever created.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has a big task. In January, a federal court ruled the FCC could not enforce its Net neutrality rules as written (more on that below). Those rules required ISPs to treat all content and applications equally--if things were running slowly, they ran slowly for everyone.

Now Wheeler and his fellow commissioners have to make a choice. Protect the Internet we know and love--or surrender it to the ISPs.

In late April, Wheeler made his first move, releasing a proposed rewrite of the rules the court tossed out. According to early reports from FCC sources speaking to the press, these rules would give ISPs the ability to pick winners and losers and to discriminate online. ISPs would be permitted to slow down traffic from companies that don't pay special fees. Put another way, if you can afford to pay up, you can be assured that your content is delivered the way Internet users are accustomed to getting it. If you can't pay, welcome to the slow lane.

These rules would also give ISPs the freedom to favor their own offerings over those of their competitors. That would be a financial boon if, for example, you happen to be an ISP like Comcast, which owns NBC Universal and its many content providers.

A (very) brief history of the Internet"This is what one might call a net-discrimination rule, and, if enacted, it will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation," writes Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, who coined the term "Net neutrality." "It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity."

The two-way, networked communication style fostered by the World Wide Web has begun supplanting the old, one-way mediums--broadcasting, print, and cable. It's not about one company or one wire or one tower sending us information. It's about all of us communicating directly with each other.

What has made the Internet so powerful--and so unlike its predecessors--is its very architecture. The Internet originally used telephone lines--a "common carrier" network. The concept of common carriage applies to many industries, but particularly transportation systems such as railroads, highways, and airlines--as well as our long-distance telephone and cellular networks.

In the early days of the Internet, owners of the physical infrastructure could not discriminate based on content. The government's role was to ensure that anyone who wanted to access the networks could use them, without a gatekeeper in the way.

So for startups, independent media, and corporations alike, network owners were not allowed to speed up or slow down access to websites and applications. This is what allowed for so much innovation and competition online.

But the phone and cable companies were looking for a cut of all the economic activity on their networks. They flooded the FCC's offices with pricey lobbyists--and the strategy worked.

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