The emerging politics of net neutrality
While the 2008 presidential election is only a year away, major candidates are debating hot topics like immigration, the economy and the war in Iraq. But there is one technology related topic that is beginning to demand a great deal of their attention as well.
That topic, dubbed "net neutrality," has already been a hot topic in the nation's congressional rows, and is becoming a very important topic in many presidential campaigns as well.
Net neutrality is the principle that prevents Internet providers from speeding up, blocking or slowing down web content based on its source, ownership or destination. Simply put, it seeks to prevent censorship or preferential treatment on the Internet.
The Internet is actually a large conglomeration of many connected networks that act as one big network. These individual networks are primarily owned by communication companies like phone and cable providers. The debate about network neutrality centers around these providers (ISPs) and what they are allowed to do with the Internet communications, or traffic, that passes through their networks.
A number of large tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, eBay and Yahoo want federal legislation that would protect and ensure net neutrality by making Internet censorship and discrimination illegal. A great many across the nation agree with them.
Supporters of net neutrality claim that many national communications providers want to be Internet gatekeepers by instituting a tiered, rate-based system that would give preference to customers who can afford to pay a premium for enhanced service.
Picture the Internet as a big, high-speed freeway. The vehicles on the freeway represent the information being transmitted across the network. Supporters of net neutrality are essentially suggesting that these providers want to install toll booths on all the on-ramps and make those who can't pay use the less traveled roads instead.
Censorship has also been a big part of the issue. Many worry these providers may block or heavily degrade access to other online video, teleconferencing, and phone services, to deter customers from using services from alternative providers.
But the issue extends far beyond that, many say. ISPs who also host websites could provide inferior service to those who can't afford to pay their premiums by throttling back the speed and responsiveness of their websites. Many small businesses would not be able to afford to stay competitive online.
But those in opposition of net neutrality point out that the Internet broadband market is relatively new and suggest that hasty legislation could actually stifle innovation and limit the Internet's usefulness. In fact, they say, net neutrality laws could actually cause economic harm by discouraging investors from taking an interest in Internet providing businesses and technologies.
Many also claim that legislation could actually have an adverse affect on quality of Internet service. Internet censorship laws, they claim, could actually make it illegal for ISPs to block spam (unsolicited email) intended for their customers.
Some have even argued that legislation will set a precedent for more restrictive and intrusive legislation in the future.The Internet's unwavering success, they say, can be attributed in part to the fact that the Internet has largely been deregulated.
Regardless of the outcome, there's no doubt that the debate over net neutrality will certainly shape the Internet in years to come. It's an emerging issue that many citizens will want to be informed about.
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