Net losses?

THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION took a leap of faith last week when it slashed regulation of high-speed Internet services.

The commission declared that the phone companies' DSL offerings are an "information service," not a "communications service." This move put DSL operators on the same regulatory footing as cable TV companies' high-speed services, which is only fair, given how similar the two products are. But it also opened the door to potential abuses that could threaten openness on the Internet.

The shift could wipe out the competition that local phone and cable companies face from independent Internet providers. The concern is that this could make it easier for cable and phone companies to cut deals with online content or shopping sites, then try to steer traffic toward those sites at the expense of others on the Web. Tech companies also worry that broadband providers will dictate the equipment people are allowed to connect to the Net, the services they can use and the applications they can run.

For instance, your DSL provider -- acting as your gatekeeper onto the Internet -- might agree to promote a shopping site in exchange for a small percentage of the site's sales. If you would try to go to or eBay, you might be delayed and, while you wait, shown a page urging you to go to the partner's site. Amazon itself is worried about such a scenario. Or a cable operator might join forces with an Internet phone company, then make sure its partner's calls were clearer and more reliable than its competitors'.

These fears are speculative but not wholly farfetched. In the early days of broadband, when cable operators were the only providers, they often barred users from hooking up home networks. And last month, one of Canada's largest phone companies and Internet service providers, Telus, quietly blocked its subscribers from viewing a website presenting an opposing side of a labor dispute.

The FCC last week adopted a policy statement declaring its belief that Internet users are entitled to access content, run applications and connect devices without interference from their provider, as long as they aren't breaking the law. But rather than trusting the commission's ability and its will to enforce these principles, it might be better for Congress to put teeth into this wish list, as Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has proposed.

Best of all, Congress and the FCC should act swiftly to generate more competition for cable and phone operators from other broadband providers. That type of competition would not only help keep prices down, but preserve the qualities of the Net that make it so valuable.

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