By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 7/25/2006 11:01:18 AM ET 2006-07-25T15:01:18

Did readers have opinions on “ How Washington Will Shape the Internet ?”  Well, as I write this we’re up to 533 messages on the message board and hundreds of e-mails as well. At least 90 percent said that generally speaking, the government should keep hands off — but others made interesting arguments for some government control. And at the end, you’ll see that this topic even launched one reader’s imagination into overdrive.

Catalina Corleone, North Fork, CA: I think the government has its paws into enough aspects of our lives as it is. They ought to butt out of the Internet. If they start making rules, laws and regulations, it will only accomplish two things: 1) It will make the Internet hopelessly inefficient and boring 2) It will cost us more money.

Anonymous: If the Government wants to regulate something, how about prescription drugs or gas prices?

Robert Brown, Austin, TX: Government can't even manage themselves. Why in the world would anyone think they could manage the Internet? If they become involved the only thing for sure is big business wins and the consumer loses, just like everything else government has a hand in.

Todd Nielsen, Sandy UT:  You write: "Congress has the chance to do the right thing here and make sure all Americans have decent access to the digital world". What a load of crap. Digital access is not a right granted by the Constitution. Why should I have to help pay for someone else's Internet access? I'm tired of people with their hand out stretched.

MR: Some readers, on the other hand, could see a case for certain kinds of government intervention:

Beth, Lakeville, MA: They need to crack down on the millions of daily frauds occurring, and fine the sites that are allowing it to happen.  Maybe they would be more apt to police their own sites and stop it from occurring all together.

M. C. M. Dayton, Ohio: The Internet should be paid in one's taxes and that all cities should offer a free Wi-Fi connection. This would be much more convenient and definitely the more promising method. Philadelphia is offering a system like this in the year 2009. Why can't all cities offer this?

Daniel: Telecommunications, and energy infrastructure, (among others) should be built and maintained by the public sector as public goods. If the private sector didn't have to build infrastructure (lay cables, etc.) at private expense, the consumer could have better content provision at lower costs.

Alice Berg, Spokane, WA: I would like to see cheaper Internet and cable and satellite as well. The seniors of this country have fought for our freedom and paid the taxes to the state and phone companies. They built this country and they don't get any consideration in pricing. In their older years they should have the benefit of the Internet, but the prices are out of range for them. It is a disgrace to our seniors.

Edward Norton, Mitchell Indiana: The ISPs and cable companies should be forced to provide the rural areas with broadband, like the President signed into law a few years ago, and not just when they think they can market in an area. Here in Mitchell, Indiana, we have SBC providing DSL 1 block to the north and Charter cable offering broadband 2 miles to the south but for all of us in the middle…we’re forced to endure a 12.5 Kbs Internet while our neighbors are getting 100 Mbs! Our 52 Kbs modems are funneled down to 12.5 KBS! WHAT A CROCK!

Al Meekins, Collingswood NJ: Everyone should have a secure identification before they can go on the Internet — sort of a license. And then all emails should be traceable. This can help identify scammers, spammers and those who would send viruses

Ray Minot, ND: Make it so that any company that sells anything on the Net must have a license from the FCC. The FCC can see what type of company it is and what products will be sold. This also makes them responsible for having to pay taxes on the sale. If a company gets the license it will have to carry a certificate; if it doesn't have the certificate then search engines will ignore it. This gives people better control to govern what their kids view.

Anonymous: I believe something must be done to allow people like me, who can only get very slow dial-up Internet, to receive the high speed Internet service for the same if not lower cost. I've only owned a computer for about six years and my parents don't really understand much about how the Internet works. Although this may mean a tax increase through the next few years, this increase should not be put on consumers but applied to large businesses.

Joe Greco, Milwaukee WI: You wrote “retrofitting America for fiber is going to be phenomenally expensive and it will be hard to recoup those costs selling Internet access.”  I have to take exception to this statement: in the '90's, under the guise of the Info Superhighway, the telcos received massive subsidies and other considerations in exchange for agreements to run fiber everywhere.  They pocketed the money and deployed DSL instead. But your statement made it sound like the work is something the telcos haven’t been paid for.

MR: What I was referring to specifically was the cost of running fiber to the home, which has only just started and — because it involves lots of block-by-block, house-to-house work — is likely to be very expensive. I believe the telcos hope to pay for that with their national TV franchise.

You’re certainly right that a lot of fiber was laid in the Nineties—though I suspect more was paid for by unlucky investors in all those go-go telecom stocks than by the Feds.  And while that “dark” fiber is still in the ground, there are substantial costs involved in all the electronics and software required to light it up.  So there are still substantial costs going forward, and that’s everyone’s in Washington with a hand out.

Two topics attracted the most specific responses: national video franchising (which will let the telephone companies deliver video without local approval) and net neutrality—the highly controversial issue of whether network owners can charge more for certain kinds of Internet traffic.

On national video franchising:

Wallace Stuart, Plymouth, NH: Retention of local video franchising may delay the consumers' cost savings that could come from the fast deployment of telco video distribution, but there are downsides to national video franchising. National franchising will hurt PEG (public, educational, and governmental) access TV services that spring up locally. Buildout and maintenance of video services to remotely located or low income neighborhoods will not happen as frequently or as well if Washington and the FCC are in charge. The FCC may carry a bigger club, but local franchising authorities will more tenaciously fight for their constituents’ interests.

Dan Guthrie, Sheridan Oregon: I think the video franchise requirements should apply to all, or none. Favoring one entity over another will surely cripple many small operators. What will happen when the small town cable TV providers cannot compete with the telcos who pay no franchise fees? Could it be the lobbyists are actually lobbying the government to create a scenario where the small cable companies are forced into bankruptcy?

MR: On network neutrality, I was pleased that both sides of the argument thought my description of the issue was biased toward the other side. One thing was clear: the hot-button word here is “censorship” — as in, will network owners use tiered pricing as a way to restrain competitors or smaller sites?  Here’s how that angle has filtered down to the teen audience:

Max Eber, Owings Mills, MD: This whole thing is just for companies to censor what people get to see on the Internet. This means non-mainstream artists will be blocked out due to monopolized charges. I'm a teenager, I like having access to artists and underground music reviews.

MR: And here’s the censorship perspective from someone in the “adult content” business:

Gary Roberts, Ft Collins CO: If net neutrality is NOT maintained, you will see a whole new era of censorship hit the Web, putting independent adult site operators like myself instantly out of business and most likely making me an overnight felon. Built into this massive takeover is new involvement by the FCC, something lusted after for almost a decade, and the "plausible deniability" that comes along with a tried and true neocon principle of letting private industry do your dirty work under the blanket phrase "market forces." It's too beautiful. The Justice Department is helpless to stop online porn and bound by the Constitution. AT&T has no such restrictions. So a guy like me, permanently injured and disabled, drawing sex cartoons for a small Website and making a reasonable living at it, now lives in fear of losing my livelihood and my family's future should all the telcoms decide "no more porn." Thanks a lot. I'm working on a hosting and billing deal out of the Netherlands.

MR: But is it really about censorship, or more about money?  Here are two views from people clearly well informed, one on each side of the argument:

Ben Collins, TX: The capability that the carriers want to preserve is that of having access to the Internet at various levels of throughput, not the ability to filter based on content type.  Different content types require various levels of throughput, so it's easy to conflate the two, but ultimately they are vastly different concepts.

James Lowden, New York, NY: Net neutrality isn't about buying bandwidth or building infrastructure. The telcos already have a means to charge for their services. What they want — and won't say they want, but is what they're asking for — is the right to charge differently based on *content*.  Not how many bytes or how fast, but what *kind* of bytes.  Charging based on content has negative and positive implications. On the negative side, it puts the telcos in a position to decide which information is cheap or expensive. I leave it to you to consider the implications of that kind of control for a democracy. 

MR: Who’s right? Having now read dozens of e-mails on the issue, I think the topic contains some very tricky verbiage on both sides — and that it’s still far more about money and competition than censorship. In the long run, I believe that if net neutrality prevails, the big network owners will figure out another way to institute tiered pricing. And without guarantees of net neutrality, the government will still be called upon to intercede in cases of unfair competition. And if the big network owners start censoring certain bits — adult content or gambling, say — then I have a feeling that market forces will quickly provide alternative carriage for those very profitable enterprises. 

Finally, on a somewhat lighter note, Brian Lee of Clarksburg, MD provides a few of his own projections of an Internet with too much government control:

"Oh no! I've been arrested by federal agents for accessing MySpace after the Internet curfew!" - Teenage MySpace user

"I'm sorry Ms. Jones. I couldn't do the homework because my dad didn't pay his Internet taxes, and the IRS stormed in last night and took away our dial-up modem." - Bobby, 6th Grade, Central Middle School

"Welcome to Google, where you can search just about anything (pro-Bush related). Please enter your Social Security number for verification before searching." - The new Google.com

"Unit 100, we have reports of suspicious activities at godaddy.com. Possible illegal immigrants attempting to register a domain name. Suspects may be armed with a USB 2.0 flash drive." - Federal Internet Patrol (FIP)

The Ten Internet Commandments: 1. Obey Internet curfew 2. Pay your yearly Internet taxes 3. Do not travel past the Internet speed limit 4. You must be a U.S. citizen to access amazon.com 5. Respect and be courteous to the Federal Internet Patrols 6. MySpace blogs may only contain pro-Republican comments 7. Children under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult 8. Have your government-issued modem registered every 6 months 9. Have your Social Security number ready for verification at all times 10. Illegal immigrants are restricted from accessing .us, .gov, .mil, and .edu sites

*NEWINTERNET LAW!* *PLEASE READ!*  Government has set up toll booths for traffic-heavy sites: eBay.com, Amazon.com, MySpace.com, Yahoo.com, Google.com, Microsoft.com, Facebook.com, and MSN.com $1.50 to enter these sites. Have your Social Security numbers ready for verification.

Parents Arrested for Leaving 16 Yr-Old on the Internet (Associated Press, August 20, 2006) Yesterday, Kim and John Roberts were arrested in their home by the FIP (Federal Internet Patrol) for leaving their 16-year-old Amanda on the Internet by herself. Federal Internet law requires that all children under the age of 18 be accompanied by an adult on the Internet. Amanda had also logged onto MySpace after the government-issued curfew hour and illegally posted Democratic comments. She is also in custody and may face time in the Children-who-Misused-the-Internet Federal Juvenile Detention Center in Death Valley, California.

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