The Worldwide Web is a universe of information, and we travel through it largely unfettered, searching for whatever we want - videos, blog posts, obscure products and services, whole catalogs of knowledge like Wikipedia. It is, as experts say, an open Internet where access to any and all information (with the exception of newspapers behind paywalls) is free.
Though the Internet is young (its evolution accelerated in the mid-1990s), it's hard to imagine what life would be like without the Web. The technology has revolutionized commerce and the dissemination of information.
It's hard to imagine a new era in which the Internet is carved up into galaxies and black holes controlled by cable companies, but that's what Open Internet advocates say could happen.
Cable companies including Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Cablevision, Verizon and AT&T are pressing the Federal Communications Commission to adopt new pay-to-play rules that would effectively block free access to the Internet.
The FCC has floated a plan to allow "paid prioritization" tiers on the Internet. Companies and individuals who could afford it would pay a premium to telecommunications companies for faster access to the Web, while everyone else would have a "minimum level of service."
The proposal has generated an outcry from Open Internet advocates who say the cable companies want to limit free, public access to information. Libraries, nonprofits, small retailers would suffer, while big retailers, news organizations and corporations would benefit from the ghettoization of the Web.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, heard from supporters of an Open Internet - a librarian, the owners of The Vermont Country Store and Logic Supply, and a former FCC commissioner - at a field hearing held at the University of Vermont on Tuesday. Leahy is pressuring the FCC to adopt a "Bill of Rights for the online world." In a commentary penned for the Huffington Post this week, he declared that the government "cannot allow an Internet that is divided into haves and have nots."
Earlier this year, the D.C. Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's 2010 open Internet rules. In April, the FCC proposed new rules that would ban "commercially unreasonable" competition and would allow unregulated, paid prioritization.
Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now an advocate for the nonprofit group Common Cause, was one of four witnesses who testified at Leahy's hearing. The Internet, Copps said, is the most "opportunity-creating tool of our time." If the FCC rules are adopted, he believes the Web will become "the playground of the privileged few" that would create "a stratified and unequal America."
Copps says the impact on society would be dramatic: Innovators and start-ups would suffer; small retailers would be relegated to the sidelines; and distance-learning would be hampered.
Worst of all, free expression and democratic engagement would suffer, Copps said. "An Internet controlled and managed for the benefit of the 'haves, discriminates against our rights not just as consumers, but more importantly, as citizens," he said.
Marty Reid, the Vermont State Librarian, told the panel that no-fee access to the Internet is crucial to an informed and engaged citizenry. Libraries cannot fulfill their mission without an Open Internet, she said. A tiered system would create insurmountable obstacles for disenfranchised citizens who are unemployed, under employed and can't afford Internet service.
Online sales represent 40 percent of The Vermont Country Store's business. Cabot Orton, co-proprietor, compared the Open Internet to Rural Free Delivery which was essential to the success of his family's business when his grandparents first started the catalog company 70 years ago.
Orton said the FCC rules would hold small companies ransom and marginalize websites that don't pay a premium.
"We don't want to imagine an America with two Internets: a fast one for giant corporations and a slow one for everyone else," Orton said.
A tiered Web would stifle innovation and creativity, which he says is the lifeblood of small businesses.
Logic Supply, an industrial computer manufacturer, could lose its competitive edge over Taiwanese companies if the FCC allows paid prioritization, according to Lisa Groeneveld, co-founder and chief operating officer of the South Burlington company.
Search engines prefer faster websites, as do customers, and businesses that can't pay more for access would suffer, she said. Logic Supply would have to take funds away from research and hiring to pay for the Internet fees, she said.