Perhaps the most important proposal affecting sustainability currently before Congress has nothing to do with the environment -- at least not on its face. It's the "net neutrality" law that was introduced last week that will assure that the Internet remains single-tiered, and is not divided into a fast lane and a slow lane (see story here).
Any website today, no matter how big or how small, has equal access to web users. For years, however, cable and telephone companies, have advocated for a two-tiered Internet that will grant users high-speed access to companies who pay large fees. Users of start-ups', non-profits' and individuals' websites who can't afford the high fees will be relegated to second class.
Although the battle is being portrayed as pitting supporters such as Google, Yahoo, and Amazon against carriers such as Verizon, AT&T; and Comcast, it has critical consequences for all of us. Net neutrality is necessary to preserve the Internet's role in promoting new businesses, free expression and the collaboration necessary to move us toward sustainablity.
Net neutrality will help maintain the Internet as world-wide, bottom-up, communications vehicle. The Internet permits dissemination of critical information -- historically through email and websites, but more and more through powerful collaborative tools such as wikis. Best practices can be shared across the planet in areas such as energy efficiency, land use, and water management. Environmental Defense's Scorecard site, for example, aggregates data and uses powerful Internet technologies to provide local information about pollution. Non-profits such as Ecological Internet provide information retrieval tools, portal services and analysis that aid in the conservation of climate, forest, ocean and water ecosystems. And critically important for our purposes, sites such as Treehugger would unlikely have become such large centers for environmental information if it had to pay hefty fees to get on the fast lane.
The Internet is becoming ever-more important for sustainable commerce. Athough Ebay is not widely recognized as a "green company" its business model is based entirely upon the "Reuse" in "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle." And new businesses emerge everyday that use Web 2.0 technologies to support sustainability principles.
A two-tiered web will have the powerful affect of maintaining the status quo in communications in commerce at a time when we desparately need change. Maintaining net neutrality will help insure the vitality of perhaps the single most important tool we have to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.
Photo credit: Ecological Internet