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The New Improved Internet - 200 Web sites, only $79.95 per month

I just had a discussion via Twitter (@BrettTrout) regarding Net Neutrality. The conversation revolved around ESPN's proposal to charge Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for access to online video. "What is the harm in this?" the argument went, "isn't that what the cable companies already do? I pay for MTV and CNN in my basic package, whether I watch them or not."

Cable television is the perfect analogy. If ESPN has its way, the Internet may indeed become exactly like cable. You get a basic package allowing you access to a few hundred websites. For a few extra bucks, you can access a few hundred more. And the remaining hundred million or so other websites? To visit those websites, all you will have to do is move to a country which had the foresight to guarantee Net Neutrality before it was too late.

What? I will only be able to access a few hundred Web sites? That is impossible. That could never happen. The Internet will always be free. Won't it?

Well campers, it is not only possible, but the longer we sit on our tails the more probable it becomes. From the prospective of your ISP and large Web sites, the cable paradigm is much more profitable than what we presently have. If they pare down your access from one hundred million Web sites, to a few hundred, several things happen:

1) These few hundred Web sites will be able to charge enormous amounts for advertising.
2) Some will be able to "kick-back" a portion of this increased revenue to your ISP in exchange for carrying those now extremely profitable websites. 
3) Other websites, like ESPN, will be able to invest this revenue into producing more desirable content for which they can actually charge your ISP a premium.
4) Your ISP passes these additional costs on to you, either in the form of increased monthly fees, increased advertising and/or requiring you to pay for access à la carte.

These few hundred Web sites make more money, your ISP makes more money, and you get left holding the bag. You pay more, for much much less. The worst part is that by the time you realize that there is a problem, it will be too late.

Can you imagine approaching lawmakers with the following pitch: "There are thousands of free video channels out there which cable subscribers would like to access through their existing cable connections. Why don't we pass a law that cable companies have to allow us access to any free video channels willing to plug into their cable system?" Regardless of how great this would be to consumers, or how little it would cost cable providers, you are never going to convince a lawmaker to legislate against an industry pumping millions of dollars into the political machine.

Conversely, if voters act before a system gets set in stone, we may have had a chance. All it takes is for your congressional representatives to vote "YES" on a Net Neutrality bill. Consumer advocates are strongly in favor of such a law. President Obama has even made it one of the priorities in his first year in office:

The only question is who is going to win the race for control of your Internet access. Are you going to convince your lawmakers to protect your access to the entire Internet?Or are you going to allow 800-pound gorillas and ISPs to conspire to irreparably change the face of the internet forever?

To find out more about what you can do to maintain fair and free access to internet, visit SaveTheInternet and the Open Internet Coalition. I would advise checking back here frequently for updates on the issue but if you fail to act soon, you may not have a Web site to come back to.

Brett Trout

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