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The Federal Communications Commission’s net-neutrality proposals unveiled last week are important steps toward protecting the Internet from monopoly power.

A hint of that power came a year and a half ago, when Comcast was caught slowing down some large file transfers by its customers. Comcast said this was necessary because the transfers were bandwidth hogs and were slowing other customers’ Internet access.

But critics noted that Comcast offers cable TV and movies to millions of customers, which could give it an interest in slowing private transfers of TV and movie files.

The FCC forced Comcast to change its procedures. Comcast did, but it also filed a lawsuit that challenged the FCC’s power to intervene in the way it had.

Under this pushing and pulling is the issue of control of the nation’s arteries of commerce and information.

This is a new version of an old question. A century ago, Americans struggled with this issue regarding railroads, which were the new arteries of commerce then. Railroads also carried passengers and the public’s mail. People concluded that railroads had to be regulated.

The Internet is even more sensitive, because the information it carries makes democracy work. Government cannot be allowed to control its content, but it must insure that no corporation undermine the nation’s democratic conversation, either.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants a rule of nondiscrimination under which all users are treated alike. The principle is called net neutrality, and we like it. We hope it works because the corporations that control the Internet have repeatedly slowed or blocked content. Comcast should not be allowed to decide what can be accessed on the Internet.

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