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Originally published Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 4:01 PM

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Guest columnist

The corporate deal to control your Internet

Federal policymakers seem to be losing their resolve to protect Internet users from a lobbying juggernaut that seeks to dismantle online openness. Guest columnist Timothy Karr argues that Net Neutrality must be protected.

Special to The Times

WASHINGTON is under siege over Net neutrality.

On the one side, elected officials and regulators have heard from millions of citizens demanding that Washington protect this rule that preserves the Internet's open architecture.

On the other is a lobbying juggernaut that seeks to dismantle online openness so that phone and cable companies can rebuild the Internet as a gated community that serves their bottom line.

The problem is that policymakers aren't holding the line for the public. They seem content simply to cut a deal between companies with the most political and economic clout.

If that doesn't worry you, it should.

Because the deal they're cutting is over who ultimately wins control of online information. And it goes without saying that you're not in the running.

Google, Verizon, AT&T and others are reportedly nearing consensus on an agreement that could radically redesign the Web, allowing the carriers to build priority access lanes that admit only large companies that can pay the toll.

Where will that leave the rest of us? Stranded on the digital equivalent of a winding dirt road, with slower service, fewer choices and limited access.

Here's the kicker. The Federal Communications Commission, the one agency tasked with protecting your interests online, may be poised to sign off on this plan. The agency is reportedly convening closed-door meetings with these companies to strike a deal that would let Internet providers implement a "paid prioritization" scheme.

According to The Washington Post, the FCC's chief of staff wanted to "seize an opportunity to agree on ways that carriers could "manage traffic" on their networks.

If recent articles by Amazon and AT&T execs are any indication, paid prioritization would allow carriers to ransom access to their customers to the highest bidder. AT&T's top lobbyist, James Cicconi, wrote that such extortion was "not only necessary but in the best interest of consumers."

Don't believe it. The beauty of the open Internet is that anyone with an idea has a chance to take on giant corporations without first having to bribe network owners for access. Net neutrality is the rule that guarantees this openness.

It's because of Net neutrality that great ideas like YouTube (which began in an office above a pizzeria in San Mateo) and Twitter (which grew out of a daylong brainstorming session among podcasters) blossomed to revolutionize how we connect and communicate with one another.

The paid prioritization deal under consideration wouldn't allow for the next YouTube. And the next Twitter would likely never make it off the drawing board.

This scheme would let companies like Comcast and AT&T favor their own video services, voice applications and social media. It would let Verizon build a wide moat around its Internet fiefdom, insulating itself from competition by upstart innovators that want to show consumers how things can be done better and more cheaply.

Columbia Law Professor (and Free Press board chairman) Tim Wu has said that letting carriers choose favorites is "just too close to the Tony Soprano vision of networking: Use your position to make threats and extract payments. This is similar to the outlawed, but still common, 'payola' schemes in the radio world.

"If allowing network discrimination means being stuck with AT&T's long-term vision of the Internet," Wu concludes, "it won't be worth it."

That the FCC would consider such a deal marks a reversal on Chairman Julius Genachowski's earlier pledge to safeguard the open Internet.

As recently as May, Genachowski proposed to reclassify broadband access under "Title II" of the Communications Act. This move would reverse dangerous Bush-era deregulations and give the agency the authority to protect Internet users from abuse by carriers.

In a letter to the FCC, Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, supported Genachowski's plan to reclassify. Inslee gathered support for this move from more than 30 other members of Congress.

Rather than abandon it to cut secret deals with corporations, the commission should use its power to protect Internet users and preserve the free flow of communications online.

Timothy Karr is campaign director of Free Press, a nonpartisan media-reform group. Karr, a native of Bainbridge Island, lives near New York City.

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