Congress wants to change the Internet.
This is news to most people because the major news media have not actively pursued the story. Yet both the House and Senate commerce committees are promoting new rules governing the manner by which most Americans receive the Web. Congressional passage of new rules is widely anticipated, as is President Bush's signature. Once this happens, the Internet will change before your eyes.
The proposed House legislation, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE), offers no protections for "network neutrality."
Currently, your Internet provider does not voluntarily censor the Web as it enters your home. This levels the playing field between the tiniest blog and the most popular Web site.
Yet the big telecom companies want to alter this dynamic. AT&T and Verizon have publicly discussed their plans to divide the information superhighway into separate fast and slow lanes. Web sites and services willing to pay a toll will be channeled through the fast lane, while all others will be bottled up in the slower lanes. COPE, and similar telecom legislation offered in the Senate, does nothing to protect the consumer from this transformation of the Internet.
The telecoms are frustrated that commercial Web sites reap unlimited profits while those providing entry to your home for these companies are prevented from fully cashing in. If the new telecom regulations pass without safeguarding net neutrality, the big telecom companies will be able to prioritize the Web for you. They will be free to decide which Web sites get to your computer faster and which ones may take longer - or may not even show up at all.
By giving the telecoms the ability to harness your Web surfing, the government will empower them to shake down the most profitable Web companies. These companies will sell access to you, to Amazon.com, Travelocity.com and even BaltimoreSun.com, etc. What if these companies elect not to pay? Then, when you type in "amazon.com," you might be redirected to barnesandnoble.com, or your lightning-quick DSL Internet service might suddenly move at horse-and-buggy speed.
It might appear that the direct ramifications of this bill are somewhat obscure. Why should you care, if your Internet fee isn't altered? Or if your Web surfing will (possibly) be only minimally disrupted? (The telecoms understand that completely barring access to certain sites - especially the most popular ones - would be counterproductive.)
You should care because any corporate restriction on information gathering directly counters the original purpose of the World Wide Web.
"Universality is essential to the Web," says its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. "It loses its power if there are certain types of things to which you can't link."
If calling up the Web site of your favorite political commentator takes far longer than surfing to a commercial site, the new laws will have a direct impact on the Web's democratic utility. The proposed laws also facilitate future steps toward corporate censorship. Do you think that the telecoms, under the proposed regulations, would make it easy to visit the Web sites of their disgruntled - or possibly striking - employees?
The proposed new rules have received surprisingly sparse media coverage. The new laws have economic, political and social ramifications. There are several explanations for the silence.
The most probable is simply that because the laws have strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, they do not appear particularly newsworthy. COPE has been promoted vigorously in the House by both Texas Republican Joe L. Barton and Illinois Democrat Bobby L. Rush. While a few legislators are attempting to preserve net neutrality - most notably Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine - they are clearly outnumbered.
The history of American telecommunications regulation does not offer a promising model for the future of net neutrality. In the late 1800s, Congress approved of Western Union, America's telegraph monopoly, censoring the Associated Press. The 1934 Communications Act resulted in political discussion over the national airwaves being tightly moderated by CBS and NBC.
Most telecom laws are sold to the public as the "natural evolution" of communications technology. Yet there is no truly natural evolution to our telecommunications laws. Only very rarely is regulation completely ordained by physics or technological limits. More commonly, it emerges from the political process. This is news to many Americans unaware of their own media history.
Many people believe the Internet's decentralized structure guarantees that no company or oligopoly could control it. Internet censorship - whether by corporate or state interests - simply sounds impossible. Yet not only is it theoretically possible, but the history of telecommunications regulation tells us it is probable. By the time the telecoms start changing what you see on your screen, it will be too late to complain.
Michael Socolow is an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.