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Among the many things the Internet does with incredible efficiency is breed conspiracy theories.
So as the great network has evolved, concerns about whether the companies that control the Internet's pipes might one day discriminate among what Web sites you could see, or whose movies you could download, have often been dismissed as silly, impossible or both.
The response from network owners, particularly the cable-television companies that provide increasing percentages of high-speed Internet connections, has always been: "Is there evidence that we've ever done this?"
For the most part, no. But the concept of "network neutrality" has not just been a worry of the usual lineup of consumer groups and liberal Internet think tanks.
Large tech companies such as Amazon.com, Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. raised the alarm last year, asking the Federal Communications Commission to consider establishing principles that would help ensure that the Internet grows up as a place that allows basic consumer choice.
Their view is that the Internet is such a vital component of life that it should resemble, in a small but crucial way, the electrical grid. One can imagine the chaos if your power company could take money from Sony Corp. so that its appliances got a higher quality of juice -- and thus worked a tad better -- than those of Mitsubishi Corp.
The power system wasn't built that way, but high-speed Internet service providers have that very capability. Technology now exists that enables network operators to recognize the data packets that move across their systems, and to prioritize them. This is, in fact, how some universities are spotting and cracking down on music file-sharing over campus networks.
Would Internet service providers exercise that control? Some intriguing speculation came recently from the Yankee Group, a market research firm that services major corporations.
In a controversial report issued early this month, Yankee analysts looked at one of today's hottest technologies, voice service over the Internet, also known as VoIP. Specifically, the analysts were pessimistic that the biggest VoIP player today, New Jersey-based Vonage Corp., could survive once the cable and telephone companies that provide most broadband Internet connections jump into the VoIP game, as they are beginning to do.
Primarily, the analysts said, the Internet operators would effectively bundle VoIP with other offerings, making it hard for independents such as Vonage to compete. But the analysts also said this: