What we think of as the Internet--e-mail, the Web, instant messaging--is in reality a set of applications that run over the network the way a word processor runs on a computer. The bits those applications transfer are carried by the physical infrastructure provided by telephone companies such as Verizon and AT&T, cable outfits such as Comcast, and even electric utility firms. Now those same Internet access providers want to charge the largest content providers for premium access---in essence, an extra fee for the use of a digital "fast lane" to reach customers.

Google, Microsoft and consumer groups, among others, are protesting, noting that open access to the telecommunications network spawned the innovations of the past 20 years. They argue that new network services and consumer access to vital information could be stifled by added fees. The tempest has resulted in several bills being introduced in the U.S. Congress to preserve "network neutrality": the principle that all traffic over the Internet is treated the same, even that of the company providing the bandwidth. No bits get priority, unless a higher class of service is offered to all at no extra charge. No traffic, moreover, can be blocked by the network operator.