The Internet has spawned tremendous choice and innovation for consumers and businesses.
But that would change if the phone and cable giants played favorites in who uses their broadband networks, and how they're used.
That's why U.S. policy-makers must protect the principle of an open and free Internet. Under this idea of "network neutrality" that has long prevailed, any Internet user has unrestricted access to all Web sites, content and services without interference from network providers.
Last week, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced legislation to enshrine this principle in law and prevent network operators from discriminating against certain types of Internet traffic. The "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" deserves passage.
The Net neutrality debate has taken on new significance with the explosion in Internet video, which chews up huge amounts of bandwidth. A video surge recently prompted Comcast to block or delay some video traffic from file-sharing networks like BitTorrent, actions Comcast says are needed to prevent bandwidth hogs from crowding out other users.
The video boom also is prompting broadband providers to consider pricing plans based on amount of use, a step toward tiered service that undermines Net neutrality.
The Markey bill would update federal communications law to protect against "discrimination" and "degradation" of content by network operators. It would give the Federal Communications Commission a clearer mandate to protect neutrality. It would also require the agency to conduct public broadband "summits" and to assess whether broadband services are ensuring an open Internet.
Like the telegraph and telephone before it, the Internet is a public medium that should be free of undue interference from network operators. This principle has made the Internet an unrivaled platform for innovation, allowing anyone with new ideas, opinions or businesses to access the Web on equal footing. That's what gave rise to Amazon, eBay, Google, Internet phone calling, file-sharing and now Internet video.
Keeping the Internet neutral is key to U.S. leadership in the digital economy. We should not take this bedrock principle for granted.
Copyright 2008 San Jose Mercury News