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WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1, 2006
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EDITORIAL

Pay-for-priority proposal would hurt cyber-commons

A proposal by several major phone companies that they be permitted to offer priority treatment to customers willing to pay more for speedier Internet transmissions would undermine the social value of the Internet.

The Internet transmits data in "packets" that may arrive at their destination at different times. A single e-mail may have multiple packets that reach their destination at different times, but the packets are reassembled at the destination point.

That's no big deal if the transmission is an e-mail. It just arrives a few seconds late. Some Internet transmissions — like Web-based telephone service and video games — suffer when packets are routed at different speeds.

Phone companies want the ability to provide tiered Internet service so those wanting priority treatment of their packets' journeys can pay to get it.

If the Internet were nothing more than a business engine, the proposal would make some sense. The Internet, however, is much more.

It is invaluable to democratic societies as a purveyor of information. It connects different people with different perspectives, even if continents separate them. It allows the disabled to hold down jobs. It promotes health by giving access to life-saving information. It helps locate missing children, gives citizens access to their governmental leaders and, by promoting understanding among different peoples, could even help prevent war.

The amazing success of the Internet is a result of its availability to all. Like a commons, the public land that villagers once used for their animals to graze, the Internet is nobody's, or everybody's, but it gives priority to no one. It is one of the few public assets in a world increasingly dominated by private ownership.

The proposal by phone companies puts a fence in the commons. If the companies want to upgrade the Internet for everybody, great. Otherwise, fences destroy the social benefit of the cyber-commons.

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