If the online universe has had an unofficial slogan to date, it might have been the caption to that famous cartoon by Peter Steiner: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Not only do digital communications allow anonymity, but the underlying TCP/IP protocols that govern the flow of data are supremely egalitarian. Everybody's packets of information are treated equally by the routers. Thanks to that level playing field, entrepreneurs working out of their garages have been able to compete toe to toe with Fortune 500 companies in new businesses.

But with the rising popularity of streaming video and miscel-laneous other services labeled "Web 2.0," some telecommunications companies are arguing that this -model of "net neutrality" must change. Online video quality is relatively intolerant of even small trans-mission delays. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and other companies that own the backbone lines for the Internet would like to prioritize data streams to make the traffic flow more rationally. If they have their way, the Internet's next slogan might borrow from George Orwell's Animal Farm: "All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

The telcos propose "tiered service" for providers of Web content. Currently those providers pay just for the bandwidth they use, but the telcos also want to charge them a premium for guarantees that their data will get preferential treatment. The telcos argue that they will need to invest to handle the growing bandwidth demand. The only alternative to charging the content providers is to charge individual consumers more for access, which seems undesirable.

Critics see a catch. Companies that sign with the telcos, or the content arms of the telcos themselves, could have a huge advantage over their rivals--an antimeritocratic arrangement that would distort competition and handicap start-ups. In the most abusive situations, some Web sites would become virtually unusable. And of course, the expense of those extra fees will eventually get passed along to consumers anyway in higher costs for content.

On balance, those favoring net neutrality make the better case. A system for prioritizing data traffic might well be necessary someday, yet one might hope that it would be based on the needs of the transmissions rather than the deal making and caprices of the cable owners. Moreover, personal blogs and other Web pages are increasingly patchworks of media components from various sources. Tiered service would stultify that trend. If the costs for video are not to be universally shared, perhaps it will ultimately be fairer and more practical for individuals to pay for the valued data they receive.

Ending net neutrality might feel safer if the telcos did not often enjoy local monopolies on broadband service. Almost half of all Americans have limited or no choice if they want high-speed connections. That dearth of competition lowers incentives for the telcos to keep overall network service high.

In June the House of Representatives dealt net neutrality a blow by passing an overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that specifically omitted any protections for it. The Senate is drafting its own sweeping telecommunications reform bill. To express your preferences on this important issue, contact your congressional representatives and consider signing one of the dueling petitions organized at SavetheInternet.org (favoring net neutrality) and HandsOff.org (against it).