The World Wide Web is the most democratic mass medium there has ever been. Freedom of the press, as the saying goes, belongs only to those who own one. Radio and television are controlled by those rich enough to buy a broadcast license. But anyone with an Internet-connected computer can reach out to a potential audience of billions.
This democratic Web did not just happen. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the Web in 1989, envisioned a platform on which everyone in the world could communicate on an equal basis. But his vision is being threatened by telecommunications and cable companies, and other Internet service providers, that want to impose a new system of fees that could create a hierarchy of Web sites. Major corporate sites would be able to pay the new fees, while little-guy sites could be shut out.
Sir Tim, who keeps a low profile, has begun speaking out in favor of "net neutrality," rules requiring that all Web sites remain equal on the Web. Corporations that stand to make billions if they can push tiered pricing through have put together a slick lobbying and marketing campaign. But Sir Tim and other supporters of net neutrality are inspiring growing support from Internet users across the political spectrum who are demanding that Congress preserve the Web in its current form.
The Web, which Sir Tim invented as a scientist at CERN, the European nuclear physics institute, is often confused with the Internet. But like e-mail, the Web runs over the system of interconnected computer networks known as the Internet. Sir Tim created the Web in a decentralized way that allowed anyone with a computer to connect to it and begin receiving and sending information.
That open architecture is what has allowed for the extraordinary growth of Internet commerce and communication. Pierre Omidyar, a small-time programmer working out of his home office, was able to set up an online auction site that anyone in the world could reach — which became eBay. The blogging phenomenon is possible because individuals can create Web sites with the World Wide Web prefix, www, that can be seen by anyone with Internet access.
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Last year, the chief executive of what is now AT&T sent shock waves through cyberspace when he asked why Web sites should be able to "use my pipes free." Internet service providers would like to be able to charge Web sites for access to their customers. Web sites that could not pay the new fees would be accessible at a slower speed, or perhaps not be accessible at all.
A tiered Internet poses a threat at many levels. Service providers could, for example, shut out Web sites whose politics they dislike. Even if they did not discriminate on the basis of content, access fees would automatically marginalize smaller, poorer Web sites.
Consider online video, which depends on the availability of higher-speed connections. Internet users can now watch channels, like BBC World, that are not available on their own cable systems, and they have access to video blogs and Web sites like YouTube.com, where people upload videos of their own creation. Under tiered pricing, Internet users might be able to get videos only from major corporate channels.
Sir Tim expects that there are great Internet innovations yet to come, many involving video. He believes people at the scene of an accident — or a political protest — will one day be able to take pictures with their cellphones that could be pieced together to create a three-dimensional image of what happened. That sort of innovation could be blocked by fees for the high-speed connections required to relay video images.
The companies fighting net neutrality have been waging a misleading campaign, with the slogan "hands off the Internet," that tries to look like a grass-roots effort to protect the Internet in its current form. What they actually favor is stopping the government from protecting the Internet, so they can get their own hands on it.
But the other side of the debate has some large corporate backers, too, like Google and Microsoft, which could be hit by access fees since they depend on the Internet service providers to put their sites on the Web. It also has support from political groups of all persuasions. The president of the Christian Coalition, which is allied with Moveon.org on this issue, recently asked, "What if a cable company with a pro-choice board of directors decides that it doesn't like a pro-life organization using its high-speed network to encourage pro-life activities?"
Forces favoring a no-fee Web have been gaining strength. One group, Savetheinternet.com, says it has collected more than 700,000 signatures on a petition. Last week, a bipartisan bill favoring net neutrality, sponsored by James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, and John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, won a surprisingly lopsided vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
Sir Tim argues that service providers may be hurting themselves by pushing for tiered pricing. The Internet's extraordinary growth has been fueled by the limitless vistas the Web offers surfers, bloggers and downloaders. Customers who are used to the robust, democratic Web may not pay for one that is restricted to wealthy corporate content providers.
"That's not what we call Internet at all," says Sir Tim. "That's what we call cable TV."