When Internet pioneer Lawrence G. Roberts was developing the technology for the first computer networks, he and his collaborators did not envision video transmissions, but they did predict a demand for equal access.
"We anticipated that there would be a need for equal access and tried to build that into the structure so it would be very hard to avoid," he said in an interview this week.
Now that the Internet has become a necessary communication tool, a multimedia platform, and a high-tech combination town square/international bazaar, millions of Americans are in a battle over who gets access and how.
Federal authorities and hardware companies are trying to ensure that the government can monitor what is taking place on the Internet. Telecommunications companies are trying to hold onto their ability to charge customers what they want. Internet-spawned companies like Google, Amazon and eBay have joined with bloggers, musicians and others pushing for legislative guarantees that the Internet will remain the open forum it is today.
Most of the players argue they are trying to preserve freedom, and the winners could affect the future of the network for years to come.
"It has been a truly free market in a lot of ways, an unparalleled source for the free exchange of ideas and debate. We're at a critical juncture," Craig Aaron, director of communications for Free Press, a media reform organization, said in a recent interview.
The Internet was born 37 years ago, with the launch of the first major packet network. Roberts was in charge of information processing techniques for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He helped plan, create and develop ARPANET, the government and academic network that has evolved into today's Internet. In 1971, there were 23 sites, mostly belonging to research groups.
The number of Internet endpoints is now doubling annually, Roberts said. That growth rate is one of several factors behind an increasing struggle for control. A Federal Communications Commission spokesperson said a series of policy and legal decisions are causing a shift in equilibrium too. Several of those decisions " including the impending relief from local video franchising constraints " set the stage for an explosion of audio and video content online.
"A couple years from now, every Web site could be a TV station," said Aaron, whose group joined SaveTheInternet.com to promote network neutrality guarantees in Congress. "All of these decisions are being made by Congress, by some folks who don't even have e-mail, I'm sure."
The FCC determined less than two years ago that VoIP is not subject to state telecommunications regulations, and Madison River agreed to stop blocking VoIP on its broadband network. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC's decision that cable modem service is not subject to common carrier regulations. The FCC declared DSL an unregulated information service and adopted a broadband policy statement.
Some interested parties, like Google, are demanding that the government act now to prevent a duopoly from taking over. Bloggers, musicians and political groups have joined them to warn that the free nature of the Internet is threatened. They claim the telecommunications companies will block content, restrict consumers' choices, and possibly discourage an open and democratic platform.