Congress is about to return to Washington this week after taking a long summer break for campaigning and before taking a long fall break for campaigning.
During the brief period of governing that will be wedged into the month of September, a lot of damage could be done — particularly to “The First Amendment of the Internet”: the principle known as “Net Neutrality.”
Net Neutrality, which has until now been the guiding principle that preserves a free and open Internet, ensures that everyone who logs on can access the content or run the applications and devices of every site on the world wide web. The neutrality principle prevents telephone and cable companies that provide internet service from discriminating against content based on its source or ownership.
As the “Save the Internet” campaign [www.savetheinternet.com], a broad coalition of groups fighting to maintain open access to all sites on the web, explains: “Net Neutrality is the reason why the Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and free speech online. It’s why the Internet has become an unrivaled environment for open communications, civic involvement and free speech.”
Telecommunications firms salivate at the prospect of eliminating Net Neutrality requirements and setting up systems where websites that pay for the service will be more easily reached than sites that cannot afford the toll. And U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who has for many years been a dominant figure in communications debates on Capitol Hill, is determined to change the rules so that Internet gatekeepers such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner, can create an “information superhighway” for those who pay and a dirt road for those who fail to do so.
A sweeping overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that is being promited by Stevens does not include Net Neutrality protections and would effectively clear the way for the telecommunications giants to colonize the Internet.
Stevens, the chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, wants to see action on the measure before Congress breaks for the remainder of the election season in early October. But rewriting the rules to favor the telecommunications conglomerates may not be as easy this year as it was in 1996. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has placed a hold on the overhaul legislation and says he will not lift it until Net Neutrality protections are written into the measure.