Where Is the Debate Over the Internet?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- We're all familiar with the incredible changes that have taken place in society over the last two decades as a result of the Internet and digital communications.

Google ( GOOG), Apple ( AAPL), Facebook ( FB), Amazon.com ( AMZN) and others have emerged as great American brands, and this burst of innovation has made all our lives easier in a myriad of ways.

Still, we're only at the beginning of the digital revolution. For everything the Internet has done, it still has yet to really replace other important media, like our telephony, broadcast and cable networks, all of which remain central to the way most Americans live.

That will change. It's only a matter of time before people start using the Internet as their sole medium of communication and source of information and entertainment.

That transition means many more profound changes to our way of life are on the way, but there's very little discussion of how we should be reacting to that from a public policy standpoint.

This concerns me because a small handful of private companies -- cable and telecommunications companies includinge AT&T ( T), Verizon ( VZ) and Comcast ( CMCSA) -- control the pipes over which most people get access to the Web, giving them inordinate power over how the medium evolves.

The companies can be counted on to pursue an agenda that will further their business interests, which may or may not align with the public interest in terms of the future of the Internet. The situation demands better journalism and a more vigorous and informed debate over this crucial aspect of our society.

It's no coincidence the concept of free speech is enshrined in the very first amendment to the Constitution within the Bill of Rights. Speech -- communication -- is fundamental to the health of democracy, and I think the woeful state of the content on mass media in the U.S. is largely responsible for the woeful state of American democracy.

The rise of the Internet, meanwhile, offers the prospect of a communications overhaul in our society that could right this wrong and revive democracy and enrich our culture.

This process, however, could be interpreted as a threat to the business interests of the companies that control broadband Internet networks. For instance, Comcast might be inclined to squelch access on its networks to sources of entertainment that might compete with its own entertainment properties. Verizon, meanwhile, might want to tamp down on a cheap method of online communication that takes business away from its phone services.

These are simply examples that underscore my point that the public's interest in the evolution of the Internet may well be in conflict with the interests of the giant corporations that are the gatekeepers to the medium. The situation requires far more civic engagement than it is receiving, and these companies have enormous influence over public policy through their lobbyists and campaign contributions.

There is a raging debate over these issues known as "net neutrality" going on in some circles, but it's not well understood by the general public or, in my experience, by many of the people that are actually holding the debate. Not surprisingly, the topic doesn't find its way much onto the airwaves controlled by old media companies that have a big stake in its outcome.

It has already been documented that the U.S. is far behind other countries in access to broadband Internet service, price and quality. If we continue to neglect these issues, we could miss our window of opportunity to protect the public interest in the communications arena of the future.

The Internet, with its unique powers of social interaction, should be a boon to democracy and transparency. It would be a shame to miss out on that.

Follow me on Twitter @NatWorden

At the time of publication the author owned shares of GOOG and AAPL but not in the other stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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