The genius of the Internet, from the distant moment of its inception to the present day, has been its tendency toward openness, freedom and equality. On the great frontier of digital communications, there have been no fences. Every website has been treated equally. Once an American logs on, he or she has known that it is as easy to get to Wal-Mart Watch’s dissident www.walmartwatch.com site as it is to reach the retail giant’s corporate site. It is as easy to go to visit George Bush’s official White House location on the Web as it is to visit the folks at www.afterdowningstreet.org, who would like very much to remove the president and everyone he rode in with.

In 2005, however, the Federal Communications Commission, began to attack the Net Neutrality rules that for decades have guaranteed a level playing field for every web site. They did so under pressure from "old-media" telecommunications corporations — mostly in the cable and phone sectors — that want to "own" the web. If Net Neutrality, the first amendment of the Internet, is completely eliminated in the manner favored by the telecommunications giants, then cable and phone companies can make a fortune by providing high-speed connections to sites that pay for the the service while discriminating against sites that do not pay.

Eliminating Net Neutrality cuts off the potential of the internet, by opening the way for colonization of the World Wide Web by telecommunications corporations that would amplify the voices of the wealthy and powerful while they effectively silence dissent.

The fear of this prospect has led more than 1.6 million Americans and 850 different groups on the political left and right to call for the FCC and Congress to establish rules that reinstate and protect Net Neutrality.

How intense is public support for Net Neutrality?

Tens of thousands of Americans sent comments to the FCC during the latest period of official inquiry by the agency that ended Monday. More than 95 percent of the comments called on the FCC to establish rules to prevent cable and phone companies from favoring paying Web sites or services over those that do not have the resources to buy a place on the right side of the walls erected by media monopolists.

"We see that thousands of people have submitted comments describing how a free and open Internet benefits consumers and telling you the discriminatory practices planned by their Internet service providers would substantially harm their online experience," U.S. Senators Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who have sponsored the bipartisan "Internet Freedom Preservation Act," wrote to FCC chair Kevin Martin. "We hope you take note of these thousands of public comments urging you to protect Internet freedom."

Will Martin and the Bush-appointed FCC majority listen to the people who are saying they want the internet to realize its full potential, of will they allow their corporate sponsors to start erecting fences on the Web? That’s the billion dollar question — at least for the cable and phone companies.

It is, first and foremost, a democracy question: Will the FCC, which is supposed to serve the people by promoting open, freewheeling public discourse respond to the overwhelming demand for Net Neutrality? Or will it close the frontier and subdivide what were once vast open spaces into mansions for those who can pay and hovels for those who cannot?

At a time when American democracy is under assault on so many fronts, the internet has been the one place where freedom really did seem to be on the march. The only message the FCC can take from the great mass of comments it has received is that the people want that march to continue. "Internet users want competitive and affordable services. They don’t want phone and cable companies to manipulate the free flow of information and distort the Web’s level playing field," says Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, which has coordinated the SavetheInternet.com coalition’s fight to keep the World Wide Web wide open. "Now," says Karr, "the FCC must heed demands from people of every walk of life and enforce full Net Neutrality."

(John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.)