After numerous deaths in committee, failed amendments and missed opportunities, network neutrality is returning to the foreground as a key priority of President-elect Barack Obama's technology agenda. Senators Byron Dorgan and Olympia Snowe have also stated their intention to reintroduce legislation on the issue. With a new administration and a new Congress, the time has come for Washington to finally enact meaningful network neutrality regulation.

Network neutrality principally requires Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all legal Internet traffic equally, regardless of content, source or destination. It guarantees consumers’ rights to use their bandwidth how they see fit. Whether paying your electric bill, watching viral videos or chatting with a friend, the network should faithfully facilitate the data transfer without interference.

Network neutrality, an essential part of the Internet since its inception, has been in jeopardy since 2005 when a series of FCC and Supreme Court rulings eliminated the existing non-discriminatory regulations that applied to Internet providers. At the time, cable and telephone companies cheered the decisions, stating publicly their desires to see a less open Internet. Executives from BellSouth, AT&T and Verizon promoted the concept of a tiered Internet, where the service provider could arbitrarily speed up, slow down or block traffic depending on business arrangements.

With a tiered system, an Internet provider could set up an exclusive arrangement making, for example, Yahoo the preferred search engine. The ISP could then block or artificially slow down access to Google or competing services to the point of rendering them useless. Comcast could decide it wants to protect its On Demand service and block users from purchasing TV show episodes from iTunes or instantly viewing online movies from Netflix. AT&T could prevent all voice over IP (a technology used for Internet telephony by services like Vonage) traffic other than its own. A tiered system would force content providers to negotiate not just with their own ISP, but with every company that may be providing service to its users in order to guarantee universal access. Small businesses, organizations and individuals simply could not compete.

If allowing ISPs to restrict access to competitor Web sites wasn’t bad enough, Internet providers could also begin limit consumers with tiered-access. Want to look for an apartment on Craigslist, or check out movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes? You’ll have to upgrade to the premium package to do that.

This should sound familiar. We already have a system that operates on principals like these—it’s called cable television. Channel operators must persuade the cable companies to carry their channel. Cable consumers do not pay based on their usage or the quality of their connections but for access to content.

In a perfect world, competition among Internet providers would obviate the need for regulation. In reality, FCC reports conclude that telephone and cable companies control 98 percent of the broadband market, and only half of Americans have any choice in ISPs at all. What is the effect of this lack of competition? Internet prices in many markets around the world market are dropping and the available speeds are increasing, while U.S. prices haven’t changed and Internet companies enact usage caps and huge fees for overages. In this oligopolistic situation, the market alone cannot be entrusted to ensure network neutrality.

Already, some Internet providers are abusing their position. In 2004, Madison River, a North Carolina ISP, blocked their customers from accessing rival Web-based phone services. AOL has blocked e-mails mentioning a Web site that opposed their new company policy. AT&T censored a live Web cast of a Pearl Jam concert when lead singer Eddie Veder began criticizing the Bush administration. A September 2007 New York Times exposé revealed that Verizon refused to allow NARAL text messages on its network.

Most recently, the FCC went after Comcast for arbitrarily and surreptitiously disrupting BitTorrent traffic by sending bogus data to the user forged to appear as though it came from BitTorrent. The FCC, however, cited violations of network neutrality principles rather than actual rules or legislation. Comcast is suing to have the decision overturned, and it is unclear what the courts will rule on the case.

Given the very real and present threat to an open Internet, the time for real network neutrality legislation is well overdue.

The new administration and Congress will have a clear choice to make when they get to Washington. They can maintain the status quo and support the interests of the cable and telephone lobbyists. Or they can bring real change and support the interests of consumers by finally making network neutrality regulation a reality.

Dan Weinand

Dan Weinand is a software engineer who has built Web applications for companies and organizations of all sizes, from local retailers up through fortune 500 companies. He currently works for HeadMix, a startup providing an enterprise microsharing platform to large companies and organizations.