Who'll control Web's fate‾

Who has the right to control the data pipe that comes into your home or business‾  Will it be the service provider or the customer‾

That's much more than a rhetorical question. Internet activists are up in arms over "network neutrality," the notion that network ISPs should not be able to dictate (or charge transaction fees) for services running over their broadband connection. In the United States, this hasn't been too much of an issue yet because under the traditional network model that has evolved here, ISPs bare largely silent middlemen, charging a monthly fee and keeping hands off any interference with the content.

This could change, however, because the ISP business has been consolidating around DSL (typically offered by the telcos) and cable modem (offered by MSOs.) And in about two years, FCC restrictions upholding "network neutrality" on telco giants Verizon and ATT, who both just completed large mergers, expire.

Service provider executives argue they built the broadband pipe, so they've got the right to charge fees to other vendors, whether they be voice competitors such as Vonage or highly profitable content providers like Yahoo and Google. It's one of many highly volatile issues in the U.S. Congress, where federal telecom reform legislation is being debated (and fiercely lobbied).

Net activists have their own ideas about the network neutrality debate. One group, mediacitizen, recently put up a blog (mediacitizen.blogspot.com) where the issue is being vetted. Timothy Karr, the campaign director of a group called Free Press, argues that "mega-media corporations" destroyed commercial television and radio in the U.S. "by hording the public airwaves for profit." Now, Karr writes, they are moving on the Internet "scheming to control what content you view, which services you use online and whether others can see the content you create."

Free Press says it has organized 220,000 activists in a letter-writing campaign to pressure "the CEOs of the most rapacious telephone and cable companies to keep their hands off our Internet." I bet you can guess who those rapacious folks are.

These are no doubt fighting words to the cable companies and telcos (who are doing a pretty good job of fighting each other at the moment to offer triple- and quadruple-play services to a price conscious customer base), but this issue is going to gain real momentum as the months go on.  The fear is that once the service providers dismantle the neutral network, innovation will be stifled and competition will be destroyed.

What do you think‾ Which side is the true defender of the free market‾ E-mail [email protected]