The battle for the future of the Internet has reached Kansas.
At issue is a concept called "net neutrality" — whether all data should be treated equally as it flows through the lines that make up the Internet.
That's more or less the way the Internet runs now. Federal regulators and Congress are expected to decide soon whether to pass regulations to keep it that way, or to let Internet service providers reshape the net to let some data move faster.
Net neutrality supporters say that allowing Internet service providers to speed traffic for some will mean slowing it down for others, allowing huge companies that can pay for preferential service to dominate the Web and shove aside smaller rivals. They want regulations ensuring that won't happen.
Opponents of net neutrality, primarily large telecommunications and cable interests, say they could open worlds of wonder in personal medical monitoring, video delivery and online gaming if they can prioritize certain types of traffic that flow through their data network. They want regulation of the Internet held to a minimum.
Until now, the debate had pretty much bypassed Kansas.
But last week, the co-founder of the Internet Innovation Alliance opened the issue up here with a luncheon presentation, sponsored by area pro-business groups, opposing net neutrality.
What's at stake
To understand the issue, you first need to know a little about the way data is transmitted over the net.
The data that makes up a website is transmitted in electronic "packets," which are reassembled to build the full page on the user's computer.
In the present system, with few exceptions, all data packets are created equal and information is transmitted without regard to content.
So, for example, data from a giant corporation might have to wait in line behind the data that makes up Grandma's recipe blog.
Proponents of net neutrality see the Web as being like a public utility and support laws and regulations that would guarantee that all customers are treated equally.
Opponents want the laws to be less restrictive so they can give preferential treatment to some data, especially if content providers are willing to pay them to have their pages load faster.
Nationally, the controversy has created some strange political bedfellows and doesn't divide along Washington's usual left-right fault line.
Common Cause, Consumers Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America and the Service Employees International Union are all part of the Save the Internet coalition, an umbrella group that campaigns for net neutrality.
The Internet Innovation Alliance, which opposes net neutrality, also has a diverse set of members, including AT&T, the National Education Association, the American Conservative Union and the Hispanic civil-rights group LULAC.
Battle in Kansas
The net neutrality battle has been primarily fought by industry and consumer-affairs titans on the two coasts.
But last week, the fight came to Wichita at a luncheon sponsored by a coalition of local groups including Americans for Prosperity Kansas, the Kansas Policy Institute, the Wichita Independent Business Association and the Mid-American Communications Alliance.
About 100 people heard Bruce Mehlman, a lobbyist and co-founder of the Internet Innovation Alliance, explain why he thinks net neutrality is a bad idea and why Kansans should tell their congressional representatives to oppose regulation.
He said two-thirds of American households have broadband service and, because it's largely unregulated, the Internet has grown faster than any previous telecommunication technology.
Both sides in the debate claim to have free-market principles on their side, partially accounting for the fact that major conservative political interests have lined up on both sides.
Mehlman argues that freeing providers to charge for priority access is no different than Internet search companies that take money to move Web sites to the top of their search lists through "sponsored links."
If a company with a Web site "wants to shell out cash to make it a better customer experience, it seems illogical to me to say ... you can't invest money to make it more convenient or a better experience for consumers."
Mehlman also said allowing Internet providers to offer priority speeds would allow the companies to capture some of the revenue that content providers now make.
That, he said, would give the companies more money to invest in expanding the data-carrying capacity and reach of the Internet.
Mehlman said he's not worried that allowing priority access to some would mean the rich would get an information superhighway while others get back roads.
"I do not think that's where we're going," he said. "I do think some providers of video content, some providers of real-time health content ... are going to want and need their own high-speed connections that consumers want."
But, he added, "I think there always will be a market for high-speed Internet and the vast majority of the public will be able to access the vast majority of the services over ever-increasing speeds."
Fighting for neutrality
Derek Turner, research director for Save the Internet, says the free market is on the side of net neutrality.
As things stand, he said, "anyone with a good idea has an opportunity to be the next Google or Skype or Facebook."
Internet neutrality "allows them to compete on a level playing field," he said.
If priority access is allowed, big Internet companies would have the market power to strangle entrepreneurial startups and "carve up the Internet among themselves," he said.
"That's not pro-free market, that's pro-big business, and that's a lot different," he said.
He also disputed Mehlman's analysis that getting a larger revenue share from content providers would spur increased investment in the public Internet.
He said the opposite would result.
In order to be able to sell priority access, Internet service providers would have to make sure it was better than the ordinary service.
That, Turner said, creates an incentive "to make the experience on the open Internet a really crummy one."
The road ahead
The FCC really opened the net neutrality fight in 2008 when it issued an order to stop cable television giant Comcast from blocking data from a service that allowed individual Internet users to share files.
Comcast sued, and earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington sided with the company. The court said the FCC order conflicted with a 2002 decision by the agency to deregulate broadband.
Now, the FCC is considering reversing that earlier decision and reasserting control by redefining broadband as a regulated telecommunications service.
That would allow the agency to craft regulations to protect small players on the Internet.
Congress may take action as well.
Net neutrality has strong populist support and backing from President Obama, who supports regulations to guarantee it.
Opponents have a virtual army of lobbyists and more money on their side to fight regulation.
The two sides had appeared to be at more or less a stalemate until last week.
On Monday, the nation's biggest Internet service provider, Verizon, and the largest Internet search firm, Google, announced they had reached an accord on net neutrality.
The two companies agreed on a joint white paper outlining a framework that they're shopping on Capitol Hill as a blueprint for legislation.
The two companies say their plan would establish regulations to protect neutrality on the land-line Internet while allowing companies to create some fast lanes for new higher-speed services.
The burgeoning wireless broadband market would be mostly exempt from such regulation.
The deal sparked widespread protest online and a demonstration Friday outside Google's California headquarters.
Neutrality supporters said they felt betrayed by Google, a longtime supporter of net neutrality whose corporate mantra is "Don't be evil."
Google issued a statement Friday denying that it had "sold out."
"At this time there are no enforceable protections — at the Federal Communications Commission or anywhere else — against even the worst forms of carrier discrimination against Internet traffic," said the statement by Google Washington counsel Richard Whitt. "We're not saying this solution is perfect, but we believe that a proposal that locks in key enforceable protections for consumers is preferable to no protection at all."
Turner said that from his perspective, the only good thing about the Google-Verizon deal is that it has moved the debate along.
Now, he said, either Congress or the FCC will probably have to act soon.
"We'll know what they're going to do, probably before the election," he said.