Three consumer groups repeated their calls for a U.S. law to prevent broadband providers from blocking or slowing customer access to some Internet content by saying the public wants government protection.
In a survey released Wednesday, more than two-thirds of respondents said the large telecommunications and cable companies offering broadband services should adhere to so-called network neutrality principles, which would guarantee that broadband users can go to any legal Web sites they want and run any Internet applications they want.
Without strong consumer protections, the openly accessible Internet is in danger with few broadband provider options available to most people, the consumer groups said.
"If we're not careful, we'll miss signs that there are threats to openness that makes the Internet so great," said Michael J. Copps, a Democrat on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), speaking at the consumer groups' press conference. "The more concentrated that our [broadband] providers become, the more they have the ability, and possibly even the incentive, to act as Internet gatekeepers.
"Our open and vibrant and freewheeling Internet is to me the last place on earth where we should tolerate gatekeeper control," Copps added.
A Verizon Communications Inc. spokesman said Congress should avoid regulating the Internet.
"Verizon provides consumers open and unfettered access to the Internet and supports the Internet neutrality principles," said David Fish, the Verizon spokesman. "The Internet is flourishing because consumers are in the driver's seat and government meddling has been kept to a minimum."
Officials with large broadband providers Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc. didn't have an immediate comment on the press conference hosted by the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Free Press.
The FCC's net neutrality principals, endorsed in early 2004, would give broadband customers access to the legal content and applications of their choice, allow them to attach the legal devices of their choice and allow them access to information about their service plans.
Congress will consider adding the net neutrality principles to law as it debates a telecom reform bill this year, but large broadband providers have generally opposed the rules. Large broadband providers such as Verizon and Comcast have called net neutrality rules unneeded regulation, saying they have no plans to block access to some Web sites.
But VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) provider Vonage Holdings Corp. has complained about some broadband providers attempting to block its service.
Some broadband providers have proposed a separate, faster service for their own broadband video services, or faster access to Web sites that pay the providers an extra fee. Officials with the three consumer groups Wednesday complained that large broadband providers are "double dipping" by trying to get both Web sites and Internet users to pay them for service.
"What we have here is no less than the future of the Internet as we know it," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a consumer group focused on the media.
According to the groups' survey of 1,000 people, performed in the fourth quarter of 2005:
-- 72 percent of respondents agreed that broadband providers should administer their networks in a neutral manner.
-- 47 percent said they believe broadband providers will voluntarily support network neutrality principles.
-- 55 percent supported a national net neutrality policy, with 54 percent supporting congressional action.
"If you change the way the Internet operates, then those customers are going to show up to Congress with pitchforks," Scott said. "They're going to be asking, 'Why is it that our Internet, which used to be a free and open platform, now has a fast lane and a dirt road?'"
Also in the survey, more than 65 percent of respondents said the Internet was important or very important for e-mail and market research, and more than 50 percent said it was important or very important for getting news. More than 40 percent said the Internet was an important part of banking and shopping.
The Internet is used for "the stuff of daily lives in our society," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. "People do really get how important the Internet is and how important it is to keep it open."
The survey results are available at http://www.consumerfed.org/pdfs/net_neutrality_poll.pdf.