Xu: Internet to split?

There’s a version of the Internet telecommunications companies — the same ones that supply your connection — want you to adopt. This bold, new blueprint involves tiers, splitting the Internet into levels based on content. The most common model involves two tiers, a higher tier for high-speed content providers, such as YouTube, and a lower tier for every other provider. The higher tier would receive preferential treatment from Internet Service Providers, which could manifest itself in higher speeds for these sites, or even exclusive services.

The telecommunications companies complain that, under the current system, consumers are given free reign to use their connection however they wish. Whether it’s accessing high-bandwidth content, such as online gaming or streaming media, or just checking their e-mail, everything operates at the same speed. The companies complain that this is causing the Internet to be overcrowded, and Web speeds are suffering as a result.

So the telecommunications companies envision a future in which they partner with premium content providers ­— read: paid partnerships — to provide even faster high-speed content to those consumers who want it and are willing to pay for it. They see their business models changing to include content-side revenue as well as consumer-side revenue.

And they lay an enticing picture. Like cable TV companies, they can deliver basic Internet at a cheaper rate, albeit at a slower connection speed, and charge extra for much faster, prioritized premium services. Who can complain about paying a small extra fee for just what you need? They propose a prioritized Internet, an Internet that can provide faster YouTube streams or Xbox Live content to premium consumers while maintaining the basic delivery of standard Internet to those who don’t need the higher speeds.

But this is a slippery slope. Under the proposed scheme, ISPs are suddenly far more powerful, able to allow or block access to content however they see fit. They could control what you, the consumer, can ultimately see or do on the Internet.

This could lead to data discrimination. If you get your Internet connection from Comcast, they could legitimately block access to a competitor’s Web site. Verizon can significantly slow down access to AOL services.

Another consequence could be that big Web companies become even bigger, subsequently suppressing start-ups. If this tiered system had been the status quo a decade ago, YouTube may never have existed. They may not have had enough money to establish the paid partnerships that would have gotten them preferential speeds, and thus may have faltered on the less-speedy lower tier. On the other hand, content providers like Microsoft or Google that do have the money to pay for the higher tier could easily push their own services to the fore. A tiered system would reward financial prowess rather than creative prowess.

The battle between the ISPs and the proponents of net neutrality — the Internet we have today, without priorities or preferences — has recently escalated onto the national stage. The preservation of net neutrality has been debated on the floor of both the House and the Senate. Web sites like SavetheInternet.com have emerged to fight for freedom on the Internet, calling governmental regulation of ISPs to prevent any sort of prioritized or tiered system.

If telecommunications lobbyists get their way in Washington, the Internet, and how you use it, could change drastically ­— and for the worse. The Internet was created as a neutral network, and that is how it was meant to be used.

The tiered system is but a profit-minded scheme from telecommunications companies that will only shackle the Internet and destroy our — the consumer’s — freedom to use it how we want. Only with the establishment of true net neutrality can the current, free state of the Internet be preserved.