From Tech Soup, June 14, 2006
By Henry Kumagai
Imagine if your nonprofit had to pay a fee to your Internet service
provider in order for your Web site to turn up on search-engine
results. Or what if your constituents could only access your site on a
slower, more unreliable connection -- unless you made a higher monthly
payment to your ISP?
While they may sound far-fetched, scenarios like these could become a
reality if changes proposed by telecommunications companies are
approved by the U.S. Senate.
The term "network neutrality" describes an Internet that does not
discriminate based on the content or source of information. It is just
as much an ideal as a practice: currently, users can go anywhere they
want on the Internet, with phone companies and cable providers
treating all traffic in a neutral manner.
The concept is similar to that of the common carriage provisions that
govern the telephone system in the United States, whereby phone calls
are treated with equal priority across a network, regardless of their
source or destination.
Yet new legislation threatens to shut down this open system, setting
up what have been described as "toll booths" on the Internet that
would allow service providers to block or degrade access to competing
sites and services. This would divide the Internet into two sets of
users -- those who can afford to pay the heavy tolls to use the fast
lane and those who are relegated to the slow lane because they can't
pay the tolls, according to the PBS article A Closer Look at Net
A Raging Debate
Network neutrality has become a hot issue over the past months as
Congress prepares to update the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to
address the rapidly changing nature of the Internet and telecommun-
On June 9, the House of Representatives voted to approve the
Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act of
2006, a bill that lacks strong provisions for network neutrality and
has withstood several attempts by House representatives to amend and
include neutrality protections. The proposed legislation now moves to
the Senate to decide how COPE will appear in its final form.
This is in no small part due to the influence of several large
telecommunications service providers and their equally powerful
lobbies on Capitol Hill. ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast have
expressed interest in creating a tiered Internet, whereby they would
offer their broadband customers expedited service to content providers
paying a premium for the privilege. With the growing popularity of
high-bandwidth Internet content like streaming video, Internet
providers say that a tiered Internet would allow them to build better
networking infrastructure and higher bandwidth.
Yet companies including Apple, Amazon, eBay, Google, Microsoft, and
Yahoo - along with organizations like the American Civil Liberties
Union and the Christian Coalition of America - argue that the plan
would effectively make broadband providers like AT&T the gatekeepers
of Internet content, giving them the power to control who accesses
These net-neutrality proponents argue that the "pay-to-play" model
threatens to disrupt the equal cost of entry to disseminating
information online, and even the democratic nature of the
medium. Granting this authority to a few service providers could have
dangerous consequences on freedom of speech and information. Net
neutrality, they maintain, is vital to ensuring that the Internet
remains a medium where information flows regardless of a provider's
political or financial might.
Net Neutrality and Nonprofits
Earlier this year, AOL and Yahoo! appeared to test the waters on this
issue by announcing that those sending emails (and especially mass
emails) could pay a surcharge to bypass the mail clients' spam
filtering mechanisms for direct delivery to their customers' inboxes.
Immediately, organizations such as Oxfam America and Friends of the
Earth -- which, like many nonprofits, rely on mass emails to stay in
touch with their constituents -- rallied to voice their opposition.
The result? Yahoo! abandoned the policy, while AOL agreed to allow
nonprofits to send unfiltered mail to their customers without paying a
fee, so long as they adhered to basic anti-spam policies.
Now, nonprofits must again put up a fight to ensure that the Internet
remains a free and open medium in the United States. The Internet
offers nonprofits a powerful, affordable platform to raise money,
reach out to constituents, and engage new ones. Nonprofits are
becoming innovators in leveraging online technology to raise awareness
and create social change. If network neutrality is not preserved,
nonprofits may have to pay more to continue using the Internet as an
The Internet has allowed people around the world to share and
distribute content quickly and inexpensively. As a tool of
communication, it is unprecedented not only in its accessibility, but
also in its democratic nature.
In a recent speech, former Vice President Al Gore stated, "It is
particularly important that the freedom of the Internet be protected
against either the encroachment of government or efforts at control by
large media conglomerates. The future of our democracy depends on it."
As nonprofits, we must fight to keep the Internet neutral, not only
for our own sakes, but for the sake of our causes and for free speech
Learn More and Get Involved
Google the term "network neutrality" and you'll find Web sites, news
articles, blog entries, and even videos devoted to the subject. Below
are links to sites where you can learn more about the issue and join
the network neutrality movement.
The Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006
Common Cause's outline of the bill, including its supporters and provisions
and ways to get involved.
National Journal's Insider Update - Ongoing coverage of the Telecom Act.
Save the Internet - A nonpartisan coalition of groups across the country
that have banded together to lobby for network neutrality. Sign the Save the
Internet Petition at http://MoveOn.org.
About the Author: Henry Kumagai is a Technology Analyst at TechCommons, a
project of CompuMentor.
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