SAN FRANCISCO - Two-thirds of Americans now have Internet access at home, but more than 75 percent of them are worried that the days of free and diverse Web services may be over, according to a survey commissioned by the Consumers Union, Free Press, and Consumer Federation of America.
More than half of the 3,000 people polled by telephone say they want Congress to pass legislation that protects their access to free Internet services like voice-over-Internet telephones, streaming Video, and Google, according to survey results released this week.
Consumer fears are based on recent decisions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enabling network providers--companies that own the actual cables through which the Internet flows--to charge Internet application providers like Yahoo! and Google for the use of their networks.
Charging these providers will lead them to pass the costs on to customers, say consumer advocates, many of whom worry that these changes will introduce a kind of class hierarchy to the Internet.
"Congress should enact tough new laws prohibiting cable and telephone companies from blocking consumer access to content and services on the Internet [and] bilking both consumers and Internet-based companies," said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.
"If they don't, these big companies will use their market power to line their pockets by discriminating against competitors in favor of their own content and service offerings," Kenney said in a statement.
Before the FCC ruling, network providers were legally required to treat all data equally, on "reasonable, non-discriminatory rates and terms.'' This policy was known as "network neutrality".
But now the legal situation has become unclear, with some network owners beginning to charge Internet companies for the use of their wires, and with others waiting to see what Congress decides.
Should the idea of changing the law gain approval by the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the result will be a "sort of cartel of elite sites'' and the destruction of the "fundamental architecture of the Internet, which is open access for all," Ben Scott, a Policy Director at Free Press and co-author of the report, told OneWorld.
Web site and applications providers that pay the fees demanded by network companies will run at sizzling speeds, Scott said, but these companies eventually will charge consumers for services that used to be free.
Meanwhile, public advocacy groups and bloggers--or online diarists--also may be stifled by the costs required to obtain fast operating speeds, he said, adding that Internet innovators also could be impeded.
"Let's say you came up with the next great idea for Internet service--an interactive video game that cures cancer, who knows? How are you going to get people to notice your Web site? You aren't going to have the money straight out of the gates to buy your [super-fast] site."
Currently, ordinary citizens produce 60 percent of content on the Internet, Scott said. "If this is suddenly relegated to a dirt road and out of the fast lane we create first-class and second-class citizens on the Internet."
Should the proposed changes in law take effect, consumers will have little choice but to go along since network providers hold virtual monopolies in various regions of the country. Scott calls these "fiefdoms".
Rep. Joe Barton (news, bio, voting record), the Texas Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and John Dingle, the Michigan representative who is the panel's ranking Democrat, have addressed the dilemma of network neutrality in the draft of a new telecommunications bill they plan to bring before the Committee this February.
But consumer rights advocates like Scott worry that while the draft pays lip service to network neutrality, as the FCC has done, its language is too vague.
"The draft starts out saying thou shalt not block service, thou shalt not discriminate, thou shalt uphold network neutrality--except in the interest of creating a 'premium' service. But nobody knows what that means, that's the real problem," Scott said.
"It's like making a law against jaywalking unless you're wearing shoes. Basically, everybody can get around it."
Others said a shift away from network neutrality could hurt the ability of a wide range of public advocacy groups to properly inform the public via the Internet.
"It's not just Joe Schmo and his blog that will be affected. It's Consumers Union and other nonprofit groups like Common Cause that are important in informing consumers," said Karen Menichelli, executive vice president of the Benton Foundation, a group that aims to demonstrate the value of communications for solving social problems.
"It hurts our civic culture if certain information is less accessible because of speed or price and if the full range of views necessary for making informed civic judgments are curtailed," Menichelli told OneWorld.
Advocates of bridging the digital divide between the rich and the poor also are concerned about giving discriminatory power to network providers.
"Many digital divide activists are concerned about the Internet becoming balkanized in such a way that entire communities of people are denied access simply because they can't afford to pay a high premium," said Andy Carvin of the Digital Divide Network.
However, Hance Haney, director of the technology and democracy project at the nonpartisan Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C., said there are holes in these arguments.
Billing Internet companies to use networks will not necessarily hurt consumers but rather, could benefit them, said Haney, whose public policy think tank conducts research on technology, science, and culture.
For example, Haney said, a deal between Bell South and Movielink, an Internet company that sells downloadable films, requires Movielink to pay Bell South for every film it sells. But in exchange, Bell South delivers movies at ultra-fast speeds, a service that benefits consumers, even those with typically slow dial-up connections.
The money Bell South makes off this deal also benefits consumers by keeping down the cost of Bell's basic network subscription, Haney said.