Imagine if a telephone company tried to tell people what they could discuss over the company's lines. Not a cellphone company, mind you, but an old-fashioned, attached-to-the-wall, phone company.
It declares certain subjects off limits. Then it restricts whom people can call. Dial the wrong number, say someone on a competitor's lines, and static pollutes the connection.
No one would tolerate it. Yet that is exactly what telecommunications companies want to be able to do when it comes to cellphones and the Internet.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering rules that would discourage them. This is not a time for mere discouragement. If the FCC does not create so-called "net neutrality," Congress should.
The worry is that communications companies might play favorites, especially at a time when many of them provide not just the pipes for data but also the content. Suppose an Internet provider also dabbles in video or has a television arm. It might decide to slow connections to competing video companies to discourage customers from using them.
Likewise, companies could demand that some Web sites pay special fees for full-speed access to customers. If, say, Amazon.com does not pony up, the Internet provider could make surfing the bookseller's site unpleasant.
Already some telecommunications companies have abused the current system.
The FCC held a hearing recently into Comcast Corp.'s practice of throttling back some Internet data associated with multimedia. Some of its customers have been using BitTorrent technology to share files illegally, so the company shrank the pipe for everyone, even the ones using the software legally.
Comcast, which has customers in the Roanoke and New River valleys, should do what it can to discourage piracy and must take reasonable steps to manage its resources, but that does not include quietly and arbitrarily limiting some customers' services.
Another incident occurred last fall.
Verizon Wireless blocked Naral Pro-Choice America from sending text messages to cellphone users who signed up for them. Verizon wanted no messages about abortion or other controversial subjects on its network.
It ultimately backed down following public outcry, but it demonstrated that consumers cannot rely on the goodwill of telecommunications companies.
The FCC and Congress have the power to ensure companies provide the services they promise without any bias against legal content. If they do not act, Americans who use the Internet, cellphones and future communications technologies could face corporate censorship.
Copyright © 2008 The Roanoke Times