Taking a side on Net Neutrality

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Sens. Byron L. Dorgan, D-ND, and Olympia J. Snowe, R-ME, should be commended for introducing a bill last week to guarantee that Internet service providers do not discriminate against content providers with a two-tiered pricing policy. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-MA, head of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, plans to hold hearings and reintroduce his Net Neutrality bill this year.

The Senate and House last year failed to pass Net Neutrality legislation thanks to opposition from free-market-minded Republicans and some Democrats with union sympathies. It promises to be an uphill battle this year, too. At stake is the very nature of the Internet and the freedoms it represents in terms of speech and commerce. Perhaps we should have been more vocal last year about the need for such a law. Letting market forces set the rules often is preferable to politicians doing it, but not when it comes to Net Neutrality - the idea that all comers, large and small, should have the same access to consumers over the Internet.

Those in favor of charging extra for delivering rich media content through their pipes include telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon as well as cable companies like Comcast. They argue that not charging content providers a preferential rate will deter investment in delivery pipes as more video finds its way online. Those companies willing to pay more will find their pages loading faster. That rationale does have merit, given that Google's YouTube and Google Video, Yahoo and Fox Interactive Media's MySpace Web sites have sparked a video craze that strains ISP servers. So those who deliver such rich content should be able to pay more to ensure speedy page views.

But opponents say that small firms delivering video will be unable to pay the fees demanded by these ISPs. Another reason to oppose differential pricing for Internet access is the rapidly consolidating telecoms and cable sectors' efforts to turn the Internet into yet another version of cable TV. That should not happen. Think about it: How easy is it to launch a cable TV network today? Why do you think cable networks like Oxygen still struggle despite having well-known backers? There's not enough cable carriage - and therefore, viewers - for media buyers to justify placing their clients' ad dollars.

The Internet's charm is that the barriers of entry are low. This is what proponents of Net Neutrality, like Google, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay, want to retain. These companies did not exist in 1993. Yet because of the Internet's ability to connect consumer with marketer and market, these online companies are worth tens of billions of dollars apiece. That won't happen again - no Jerry Yang, David Filo, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin or Larry Page - if Net Neutrality is not maintained either by law or by industry. As direct and interactive marketers, you can't afford to be neutral on this issue.

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