For thousands of years, doomsday predictions have been a favorite pastime for those struggling to find their way in a changing world. Early Christians saw the fall of the Roman Empire as a sign of the end. Medieval Europe thought the Black Plague announced the coming Apocalypse. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, said an angel told him that when he reached 85 years of age, the world would come to an end -- he died at 38.

One of the most famous predictors of the world's end was Nostradamus. His prophecies inspired countless others who even today predict the end is nigh.

In the Information Age, a growing chorus of activists fears a calamity is set to befall the online world. In the past, many who foretold of the coming Armageddon based their claims on little more than religious fervor or mysticism. Today, however, those who believe the death of the Internet is at hand make their case with a compelling, if emotional, set of arguments.

The fear is that without something called Net neutrality, the Internet will cease to be the open, unbiased and largely unsupervised online dimension we've come to know and love. Net neutrality advocates claim that unless Congress intervenes, the Internet will be transformed into a tiered, prejudiced and centralized network with the exclusive purpose of extracting as much profit as is possible from every user and content provider.

Are these warnings of online fire and brimstone worth heeding? Or are they, like so many in the past, little more than misguided fear mongering?

Not a Big Truck

Net neutrality is perhaps one of the most ambiguous terms yet contrived in an era of technology-related misnomers. The definition of the word varies significantly depending on who is doing the defining. But what it comes down to is whether giant telco and cable companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will control the Internet's destiny, or whether Congress will pass federal legislation restricting the types of business models they may choose to follow.

"Chairman [Ted] Stevens [R-Alaska] has pointed out a number of times -- there is no definition for Net neutrality," said Joe Brenckle, communications director for the Senate Commerce Committee. "And depending on who you talk to, it can mean very different things. We can't predict the future of Internet technology, and we don't want to limit any future innovations."

The perceived problem can be traced to the structure of the Internet itself. As Stevens -- chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation -- infamously put it, "[The Internet] is not a big truck. It's ... it's a series of tubes." The clumsy metaphor was roundly lampooned, most notably on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Despite its silliness, Stevens' visualization of the Internet is at least partially accurate.

Instead of a series of tubes, most people think of the Internet's inner workings as a big pipe, and the need for a bigger pipe through which more data can flow more quickly is a common discussion. Stevens' point was that the tubes are starting to get clogged with too many bandwidth-intensive applications like BitTorrent and other forms of video. And therein lies the core issue.

According to the telco and cable companies, to expand the abilities of the Internet infrastructure and accommodate the bandwidth-hogging applications of the future, they need to charge content providers like Google, Amazon and Microsoft more to support investments in the network.

Net neutrality proponents fear that the telcos want to create a tiered Internet that relegates average consumers to an Internet "slow lane." In addition, Net neutrality advocates believe that unless Congress acts to stop telco and cable companies, nothing will prevent them from degrading or even blocking access to Web sites that

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.