The Internet is an engine of economic growth and innovation because of a simple principle: net neutrality, which assures innovators that their next great idea will be available to consumers, regardless of what the network owners think about it.
No previous mass media technology has been so remarkably open. Traditional media -- newspapers, radio, TV -- have gatekeepers standing between consumers and producers, with the power to control content. The Internet eliminates the gatekeeper.
Now, however, the Internet's unprecedented openness is in jeopardy.
Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have been lobbying to kill net neutrality. They say they won't build an information superhighway if they can't build it as a closed system. No other industrialized country has made that devil's bargain, and neither should we. Without net neutrality, online innovation is vulnerable to the whims of cable and phone companies, which control 99 percent of the household market for high-speed Internet access. And Silicon Valley venture capitalists are unlikely to bet the farm on a whim.
Network owners say the threat of abuse is hypothetical. But actions speak louder than words. Last fall, Comcast was caught secretly blocking popular technologies that can bring HDTV to your laptop -- used by everyone from the Hollywood studios to NASA. It was no coincidence: Comcast is targeting a growing competitor to its cable TV service.
In response, the media reform group Free Press and a coalition of public interest organizations and legal scholars filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission calling for urgent action. This is a bellwether case -- a signal of whether we're headed toward an open or a closed Internet.
After the FCC started an investigation, Comcast admitted to blocking, but thumbed its noses at the government and the public -- going so far as to hire seat-fillers at an FCC hearing at Harvard University to stifle the debate.
Public, government and media scrutiny ultimately forced Comcast to stop blocking one of the file-sharing companies. But we can't expect everyone to negotiate a side deal for permission to innovate. This limits the online marketplace to ideas and commerce that don't pose a threat to network owners -- a chilling prospect.
This type of behavior shows why we can't trust the future of the Internet to these companies. Just two years ago, telecom executives went before Congress vowing never to interfere with the open Internet. Their broken promises are exactly why we need net neutrality laws back on the books. Fortunately, members of Congress from both parties have introduced legislation that would do precisely that.
But net neutrality is just the first step. If this nation is to return to the economic growth of the 1990s, it takes a renewed commitment to Internet deployment and technology. The past eight years have seen America fall behind other industrial nations -- a deficit that we will pay for in jobs, wealth and social opportunity.
Better policies in other countries have created a competitive high-speed broadband market. But these policies require political leadership -- and public pressure to ensure that politicians aren't distracted by the telecom industry's cash and clout.
Today, the FCC is holding a hearing at Stanford University -- the birthplace of our Internet economy -- to give the public a chance to weigh in on this debate. It's not often that federal regulators leave the Beltway to ask people what they think. It's time to stand up and make your voice heard.
The threat posed by would-be gatekeepers is real and getting worse. The success of future innovation depends on an open Internet for everyone.
Lawrence Lessig is a law professor at Stanford University and founder of the Center for Internet and Society. Ben Scott is policy director of Free Press, the national, nonpartisan media reform organization ( www.freepress.net).