Who owns the Internet?

As we all are acutely aware, the Internet is the most powerful and world-changing new medium since the invention of television. In just a few years, it has become an indispensable part of all aspects of daily life and the greatest democratizing force in history. And the wonder is that it remains an open, egalitarian and transparent network accessible to all.

That could change—and will change, if we aren’t vigilant. The “information superhighway,” as it was once simplistically called, could become a toll road. The nation’s largest telephone and cable companies—the ones that control the wires, towers and switching systems that make up residential broadband—have been moving with new aggressiveness to establish themselves as gatekeepers on the Internet. They haven’t been able to make the profits they seek off the vastly increased value of the Internet, and they’re moving to change that.

Last October, Comcast was caught blocking traffic for users of the file-sharing, peer-to-peer protocol BitTorrent. In September, Verizon Wireless was found to have blocked a pro-choice organization from sending text messages to members. Earlier in the year, AT&T censored comments by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder that were critical of President George W. Bush.

Adding to the fear of content control and “traffic cops” on the Internet is the specter that cable- and telephone-company executives may intend to impose “tiers” of access, with nonprofits, community-access sites and independent bloggers relegated to a slow lane. The model is cable TV, which charges more for premium services than basic access.

A few months ago Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced House Resolution 5353, the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act,” which would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to “preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of broadband networks.” Lined up to block it is an array of powerful telecom companies eager to take control of the Internet.

Get involved: Call your representative; inform your friends. We need an Internet that has enough regulation to prevent the giant telecoms from changing its fundamental workings, but little enough regulation that the government can’t censor or favor one type of content or user over another. That’s what “net neutrality” is all about.