A new front has opened in the
battle for media diversity – and this one has even more long-term
implications than changes to cross-media ownership regulation. It’s one
of the new issues that should be the focus of campaigns for media
diversity – rather than the dreams of past broadsheet glory that
currently dominate.

In the US, big telecommunications companies
are mounting a well financed campaign to get Congress to pass measures
which may limit internet freedom. The proposed measures are a blow to
network neutrality – the principle that all online activity must be
treated equally, and that telcos must allow the smallest blog to be
viewed just as easily and quickly as the largest corporate website. The
House Energy and Commerce Committee has already voted down a proposed
amendment to legislation that would have protected Network Neutrality.

There is a good summary of the issues here.
If network neutrality dies, then those sites that earn the most money
will dominate independent and not-for-profit operators. Favoured sites
will become easier to find, and faster to open and use. Some sites may
be blocked altogether.

For example, moguls like Murdoch might
be able to muscle out public broadcasters like the BBC, which as we
reported earlier in the week is taking on News Limited in the online
world. Stand alone journalists, a nascent source of independent
reportage, would wither and die.

The implications are huge for
business of all kinds. Startups and entrepreneurs could be muscled out
of the marketplace by big corporations that pay internet providers for
dominant placing on the Web. Political organising could be slowed by a
handful of dominant internet providers who ask advocacy groups to pay
“protection money” for their websites and online features to work
correctly. Dominant internet companies like AT&T (or in the
Australian context, Telstra) could block access to more affordable
providers for online video and phone calls.

Most significantly
for journalism, bloggers, podcast sites, internet based publications
and “citizen journalists” would see their costs skyrocket to gain
sufficient favoured status to post and share audio and video content.

Tim Berners-Lee,
the inventor of the World Wide Web, has stated: “The internet is
increasingly becoming the dominant medium binding us. The neutral
communications medium is essential to our society. It is the basis of a
fair competitive market economy.”

If Big Media and Big Telcos
are allowed to make accessing independent sites more difficult then
much of the opportunity for a media renewal represented by the internet
will be stillborn.

The principle of network neutrality is absolutely essential to any notion of a fair market place in the online world.

Australian
Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Graeme Samuel is currently
considering issues to do with markets for news and information. He is
also struggling with Telstra, and issues of abuse of market power.
Let’s hope Samuel is up with the network neutrality issues – or at
least as up with them as Sol Trujillo.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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