The thing many Americans love most about the Internet is its utterly democratic nature. Anyone can start a site for next to nothing and, if its content turns out to be broadly appealing, change the world or harvest a fortune from advertising. But the Internet isn't immune to efforts to manipulate its open path for economic benefit. Some Internet service providers have suggested that some Web sites could have their content delivered more quickly if they would pay a toll to be in an Internet fast lane, leaving competitors lagging behind. Creating such a class system is a bad idea - bad for the creative efforts that have driven much of the Internet's early growth and bad for consumers who have benefited from the Web's open nature. It should be blocked before it starts.Fortunately, advocates of "Web neutrality" have introduced legislation in Congress that would bar such discriminatory treatment of Web users, giving the Federal Communications Commission responsibility for policing service providers' behavior. Some Internet service providers are lobbying against the bills, arguing that the added income could be used to upgrade Internet networks and launch new generations of high-speed services. But net neutrality advocates counter rightly that equal access without interference is at the heart of what the Internet is.
This debate relates to a larger challenge. The Internet was invented in the United States but service here is far slower, more expensive and less available than in many other countries, putting America at a disadvantage. Legislation aimed at promoting Internet service competition and a recent FCC upgrade of standards should help improve America's competitiveness on the Internet superhighway. Beyond that, political and industry leaders should develop strategies to invest in and improve the Internet so that America can regain the advantages of Web leadership.