By Craig Newmark
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Craig Newmark is the founder and customer service representative of craigslist.org, an online community that helps people find jobs, places to live or other services unique to their city. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of America's most influential people.
(CNN) -- Most Americans believe that if you play fair and work hard, you'll get ahead. But this notion is threatened by legislation passed Thursday night by the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow Internet service providers to play favorites among different Web sites.
Here's a real world example that shows how this would work. Let's say you call Joe's Pizza and the first thing you hear is a message saying you'll be connected in a minute or two, but if you want, you can be connected to Pizza Hut right away. That's not fair, right? You called Joe's and want some Joe's pizza. Well, that's how some telecommunications executives want the Internet to operate, with some Web sites easier to access than others. For them, this would be a money-making regime.
Next stop is the Senate. If this becomes law, your Yahoo Inc. e-mail account could operate more slowly, unless Yahoo ponies up big bucks to the major telecommunication companies that bring the Internet into your home. By the same token, your craigslist classifieds (I'm the Craig from craigslist) could grind to a halt, unless my company pays up. This is not fair.
Telecommunication companies already control the pipes that carry the Internet into your home. Now they want control which sites you visit and how you experience them. They would provide privileged access for themselves and their preferred partners while charging other businesses for varying levels of service.
But why change a good thing? Right now, the Internet is a level playing field for everyone. The wonky term for this is "Net neutrality." When the Internet is neutral, everyone can use it, just like everyone can use public roads or airwaves. All businesses on the Internet get an equal shot at success.
Here's how Susan Crawford, a professor of cyberlaw and intellectual property at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, puts it:
"Think of the pipes and wires that you use to go online as a sidewalk. The question is whether the sidewalk should get a cut of the value of the conversations that you have as you walk along? The traditional telephone model has been that the telephone company doesn't get paid more if you have a particularly meaningful call -- they're just providing a neutral pipe."
That's the gist of the issue. The telecom executives tell us that they can be trusted to play fair to let all companies, and not just their paying partners, be equally accessible from homes everywhere. But some of these executives have admitted that they intend to cheat.
William L. Smith, the chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., recently told the Washington Post that BellSouth should, for example, be able to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc. or vice versa. "If I go to the airport, I can buy a coach standby ticket or a first-class ticket," Smith said. "In the shipping business, I can get two-day air or six-day ground."
In my view, executives like Smith forget that they get the use of public resources, like the airwaves and public rights of way, on which they have built their businesses and made a lot of money. As such, they shouldn't be able to squeeze out some Web sites in favor of others. This would be a betrayal of the public trust.
You, the consumer, should be able to choose which sites you want to visit without the telecommunications companies interfering. What it really comes down to is this: The telecommunications executives say we should trust them to provide a level playing field of service, but can they be trusted to play fair?
You already know the answer. If not, ask your repair guy why he didn't show up when promised or consider why the telecom companies block some high-tech services from reaching your cell phone as their own services flourish, as reported recently by Walter Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal. Or how about the fake grass-roots Web sites, such as Hands off the Internet, the telecom industry has set up to support its cause? Is that the height of honesty?
It seems to me that many telecom execs have a deep investment in "truthiness," where they make claims about this or that thing without bothering to support those claims with facts. Perhaps the clearest example of this behavior is when they say that keeping the Net neutral, as it is now, involves more government intervention and regulation, when really the opposite is true.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on CNN.com that offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.
CNN.com asked readers for their thoughts on Craig Newmark's commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," an old adage goes. This applies to the Internet. Allowing some companies to dictate who gets high-speed service and who doesn't is a restriction on our freedom to choose. Subscribers should be the ones dictating what sites they want to visit, not some "Big Brother" corporation. Internet users are already paying monthly subscription fees, some of which goes to the telecom companies for their services.
I've always said that the internet was too good to be true. It was only a matter of time before the big conglomerates started rubbing their dirty paws together, stirring their brew and figuring out a way to get even richer at the expense of internet CONSUMERS. It's really sad. But corporate America will win this fight, too, and yes, the rich will get richer while the rest of us working stiffs get the shaft ... again. Gotta love this country. Just add my Internet bill to my gasoline tab.
When it comes to Net Neutrality and taking counsel from a guy in a suit versus a guy with a beret, I'll take the advice of the guy in the beret.
I have been following this issue for some time and there are pros and cons for both sides. The World Wide Web needs to maintain what its name says it is -- world wide. Recently I have noticed attempts to make the web regionalized. China's censorship is an example of this and France's funding of private sector web engine development is another. The world, as a whole, needs to take part in funding this overhaul. How? There is probably no end of suggestions. Since the web benefits all, perhaps a tax specific for this.
The Internet is much the same today as interstate highways were in the early 1960's; We cruise the web much the same way we cruise the highways only using a different vehicle. Allowing the telecoms to commercialize and allocate the user's priority is no different then forcing a motorist to exit at a restaurant that chooses to pay higher road taxes. Thank goodness our road taxes and laws were never structured that way. Nor should the Internet.
A two-tiered Internet is not in the best interest of the average internet user. It's analogous to letting a third party write a disclaimer on material that does not belong to them but favors them. A stamp on a web page about cattle that says something like, this material has not been evaluated by the pork industry for errors, although no one solicited the opinion of the pork people. Intellectual rights and freedoms should be protected and retained, not abused by giant corporations in their zeal to dole out the bandwidth necessary for the "fast side" of the Internet.
While I don't believe that the U.S. government or any other government for that matter should regulate Internet access and how it is managed, Net Neutrality is necessary. It essentially mandates a hands-off position that those on the business end of the telecommunications lobby don't like.