Tom Peck: Handing traffic control to 'gatekeepers' would be an evil intervention, say critics

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The Independent Online

Net neutrality may be a relatively new term, but the concept behind it is far older than the internet itself.

The Pacific Telegraph Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1860 to aid communication between America's east and west coasts, stated: "Messages received from any individual, company, or corporation... shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception."

Fast forward 150 years and much has changed, but for the proponents of net neutrality (who, perhaps until now, have included Google), that simple idea remains sacrosanct.

According to Google's own Guide to Net Neutrality, published in 2006: "The internet has operated according to the neutrality principle since its earliest days... Fundamentally, net neutrality is about equal access to the internet.

"In our view, the broadband carriers should not be permitted to use their market power to discriminate against competing applications or content. Just as telephone companies are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say."

Today, the website for the campaign group SaveTheInternet.com is dominated by a banner proclaiming "Google: Don't Be Evil."

Critics of the neutrality lobby have labelled it "a solution in search of a problem", arguing that broadband service providers have no plans to block content or degrade network performance, a stance surely weakened by the potential Verizon deal.

The American computer scientist Vinton Cerf, recognised along with Sir Tim Berners-Lee as the father of the worldwide web, has supported efforts to introduce network neutrality legislation in the US, arguing that "the internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services."

In 2006 he told the US Congress: "Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the internet such a success."

For Lawrence Lessig, the American academic and founder of the Centre for Internet and Society: "Without net neutrality, the internet would start to look like cable TV. A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it costs you.

"Most of the great innovators in the history of the internet started out in their garages with great ideas and little capital. This is no accident."

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