The issue is "network neutrality": The principle that Internet service providers treat all traffic equally, which means 1) they do nothing to impair consumer access to lawful content and 2) they show no favoritism in delivering their or partners' content.
Net neutrality has been the rule since the advent of the Web. Scrappy startups scrambled for attention; brick-and-mortar and old-media brands were forced to adapt; winners emerged from whatever brands clicked with consumers.
Now Mr. Whitacre and his cohorts in the shrinking telecom oligopoly want to change the rules. AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon are floating the idea that Web sites should pay for speedy connections to consumers. Google might have to cough up a fee to shoot streaming video to an AT&T user. What about a startup with the next big idea? It'd effectively be banished to the slower lane if AT&T allocated bandwidth to favored partners.
That's at odds with the democratic rules of the Web, and it violates the spirit and intent of net neutrality. It also could backfire: If an Internet service provider constricted delivery of a consumer's preferred sites to free up capacity for favored partners, the user could bolt-or at least trash the offending ISP on the nearest blog.
AT&T found $67 billion to buy BellSouth, but let's suppose it is short on money to build the network needed for video and other services. Solution? Raise monthly fees. That's the right way, honest and transparent. The wrong way is to play favorites with content, offering special treatment to sources able to pay a toll.
AT&T owns the wires, but it doesn't own the Internet. Unrestricted access is good for innovation, for the economy, for the democratization of the Web. Congress needs to act now to protect net neutrality before AT&T gets a chance to change the rules.