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The debate over preserving open, equal access to the Internet took a hard, sharp turn away from the theoretical toward a grim future of toll booths on the information superhighway.

The Associated Press confirmed Monday that Verizon and Google want to allow Internet service providers to charge customers extra for premium services over segregated networks. None of this, they claim, should come at the expense of slowing, blocking or charging to prioritize regular Internet traffic — however that gets defined. Brace for heavy eye rolls.

Columbia law professor Tim Wu, writing for Slate, likens the “content-for-cash scheme” to an earlier scandal in another medium: “We could term it ‘Internet Payola’ after the practice of record labels paying radio stations to play their songs.”

The agreement between Verizon and Google to pursue their line of argument in Congress and with regulators should be an alarm bell for consumers, lawmakers and the White House. This is a direct assault on their pocketbooks, and a productive way of doing business.

Wake up Mr. President, reintroduce yourself to your campaign personas, which was shocked and appalled by the potential tampering with a technology that thrived, prospered and evolved thanks to open access for new ideas, devices and software.

The next few days and weeks will introduce a brave, new world of murky language about “managed services” and other contrivances by ISP lobbyists to sell their plan not to treat all customers equally.

The moment is ripe for the Federal Communications Commission and chair Julius Genachowski to reclaim the moral and legal authority to protect American consumers. A judicial setback in the FCC’s ability to regulate broadband only means the agency’s authority needs to be broadened and affirmed by Congress.

The FCC has powerful allies, such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. He knows firsthand how corporate selectivity in service provision can hurt rural markets.

Wu, chair of the media-reform group Free Press, wonders if an inadvertent casualty of the pay-to-play path will be Google’s credibility with customers who trusted the company as a corporate expression of an open-Internet ethic.

Net neutrality is under assault and the consequences are real. The White House, Congress and the FCC must take on a potent, well-financed, politically adroit lobbying force to protect millions of ordinary customers and voters.

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