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The End of the Free Internet?

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A key reason the Internet has
succeeded as it has is that it’s largely free, aside from the costs of getting
onto it. But its success has been accompanied by more and more efforts to capitalize
on it, from both private enterprise and the government. More changes loom
ahead.

 

Protesting Pay-to-Send
Schemes

 

One of the biggest online players,
America Online, recently made the controversial move of giving preferential
treatment to large emailers if they pay a fee to bypass its spam filters
through Goodmail Systems’ CertifiedEmail service (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.goodmailsystems.com
).

 

This has people in an uproar.

 

One concern is that AOL’s move
will increase junk email, already a huge time-wasting, productivity-sapping
problem. Another concern is that AOL is creating an unfair two-tier email
system, with large companies able to pay to bypass AOL’s malfunctioning spam
filters, while small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and individuals are
unable to reach many intended recipients. And a third concern is that if AOL
succeeds with its project, everybody will eventually have to pay to be assured
of fast and reliable email.

 

In response, hundreds of small
businesses and nonprofit organizations have teamed together to create the
DearAOL.com Coalition (www.dearaol.com),
applying pressure on AOL, Yahoo, and other Internet service providers to stop
or reject such pay-to-send schemes. Among the members of the coalition are the
liberal MoveOn.org and the conservative RightMarch.com political action
committees.

 

Nefariously, AOL temporarily
blocked emails to its subscribers that mentioned the DearAOL.com Coalition
before being pressured into letting that mail go through. AOL has also
described its use of the CertifiedEmail service as giving its subscribers more
choice and more safety and that it’s “a good thing for the Internet, not bad.”

 

Pay-to-send email isn’t a new
concept; Microsoft talked about it a decade ago. But it has finally arrived.
Whether it succeeds depends partly on individual users like you and me and
whether our voices are heard. AOL isn’t the only way to access the Internet,
and if subscribers don’t like its policies, they can always move on.

 

Taking Sides on Packet
Prioritization

 

Companies are eyeing other basic
Internet services for profits too. Telecommunications and cable companies have
proposed schemes to offer preferential treatment to Web sites for the
transmission of their data packets, for a fee. This “packet prioritization”
would enable those sites to be faster and more responsive than other sites.

 

Critics charge that it will also
give large companies an unfair advantage and hurt small businesses, nonprofits,
and individuals.

 

Consumer groups and Internet
companies such as Google and Amazon.com oppose packet prioritization. As
Congress considers legislation that would rewrite the country’s
telecommunications laws, these organizations are lobbying for “Net neutrality,”
also called “network neutrality,” while companies that feel they can benefit from
packet prioritization are lobbying to keep the legal framework as it is.

 

Individuals can join in the
lobbying effort too, letting their elected representatives know how they feel.
Faxes are more effective than email, and old-fashioned mailed letters are more
effective than faxes. FreePress (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.freepress.net
) is a group that
lobbies for “more democratic media.”

 

Taxing Internet Sales

 

Other Internet revenue–generating
initiatives involve state governments seeking to increase their sales-tax
revenues. The growth of Internet commerce over the past decade has resulted not
only from the convenience of online shopping but also from the absence of sales
tax on Web purchases. More and more states are stepping up efforts, however, to
force residents to pay a “use tax” on merchandise bought over the Internet.

 

New York has added a line to state
income-tax returns instructing residents to determine what they owe for Web,
mail-order, and out-of-state purchases or face the possibility of a fine.
California is using banner ads at in-state newspaper Web sites to tell
residents that they may owe use taxes for online purchases.

 

More than 40 states are
participating in the Streamlined Sales Tax Project (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.streamlinedsalestax.org
), which is
attempting to simplify state sales and uses tax codes to make the collection of
sales and use taxes mandatory for out-of-state sellers. It receives funding
from the National Governors Association and other organizations.

 

NetChoice (<span
class=95StoneSerifIt>www.netchoice.org
)
is a coalition of e-commerce companies such as Yahoo and eBay that opposes
Internet use and sales taxes. Avalara (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.avalara.com
) is a company seeking to
benefit from them by offering to e-commerce sites software that calculates the
sales tax customers owe on Internet purchases.

 

As the Internet becomes ever more
integrated into the fabric of our society, it will become ever more like other
sectors of the economy. The days of a collaborative network run by academic and
hobbyist volunteers are over.

 

Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway
.
He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or members.home.net/reidgold.

 

 

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