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Internet in the United States
Internet in the United States
Imagine, wanting to donate money to a charity and not being able to open the nonprofit's web page because of the charity's inability to afford the dominant internet provider's fees required to make the page efficient? Imagine the millions of life-saving dollars these charities will lose if lobbyists get their way? What if your child is sick, and you can't gain access to a support group's page because the support group can't afford the fees? Or even scarier, imagine not gaining speedy access to a politician's views because the specific provider is against his or her ideology?
--Who's the Boss? star Alyssa Milano
Will the internet in the United States become, in the words of AT&T (SBC) CEO, their company's private "pipes"? Or will it remain, as the Supreme Court cited in 1997, "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed"? These two very different perspectives reflect what's at stake in the growing fight now in Congress over the internet's future.
A growing movement of online users, public advocates, internet "visionaries," bloggers, and online corporations are fighting to have Congress enact what are called "network neutrality" safeguards. Such rules would preserve the internet's essential democratic structure: All content would be required to flow into our PCs and digital devices in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner. Network neutrality would help ensure that internet serves the interests of diversity of speech. As the new Savetheinternet coalition put it, network neutrality is the equivalent of the internet's First Amendment.
But an unfettered open road is directly at odds with the broadband business plans of AT&T (formerly SBC), Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon. The cable and telephone industry see enormous revenues as operators of a private internet toll-road. How has the internet -- so diverse and unwieldly -- fallen into their hands? The answer is (of course) the Bush administration. Heavily lobbied by the cable and phone giants, the Bush Federal Communications Commission has been eliminating the rules that required the internet to operate in a nondiscriminatory manner.
Under the "old" policy governing what's called the "dial-up" internet, the public was guaranteed that their internet service provider (ISP) had to treat all online content in an unbiased manner. ISPs couldn't, for example, speed up the email or websites they liked, or decide to slow down content it didn't like (such as from a peace group). The former rules also permitted the public to choose from literally thousands of ISPs to connect them to the internet. Such federal safeguards have, sadly, now bitten the digital dust.
It's all about broadband
Verizon, Comcast and the others had former FCC chair Michael Powell and current chair Kevin Martin strip away these rules because they were an obstacle to their plans to dominate the high-speed internet, or broadband, market. If a purely open and nondiscriminatory internet remained, then anyone could distribute a movie or video program -- a serious threat to the cable industry's monopoly over TV distribution.
No one needs a "Ma Bell" anymore to bring us telephone service. Practically anyone can now use the internet to provide phone service (known as voice over internet protocol, or VoIP). In other words, if the internet remained a real First Amendment friendly pipeline, both the cable and phone industry would see their profits and power evaporate -- fast.
But it wasn't only to prevent competitors that spurred our new broadband bandits to action. With the federal nondiscrimination policy now toast, the phone and cable companies could embark in earnest with plans to -- in their words -- "monetize" digital distribution. Through their sole control over America's residential broadband pipes (they have more than 90 percent of the market), they planned to set up a multitiered and pay-as-you-go private internet highway.
There would be a new fast lane, giving the content owned by the phone, cable and other media giants, the fastest preferential treatment. Video and multimedia programming owned by AT&T and Comcast, for example, would be received lightning speed on PCs, digital TVs and mobile devices. Those that couldn't afford to pay would be relegated to what the phone and cable lobbyists derisively called the "public" internet.
This so-called public lane would be the equivalent of a digital dirt road, easily marginalized by the majority of the public that has come to enjoy ever-faster and more efficient connections. A slew of Silicon Valley tech companies, including Cisco, have built broadband delivery equipment that allows a phone or cable company to make business decisions about every packet of data that travels over its lines.
Imagine a private air traffic controller working for Airline X. Its planes would be given priority takeoff and landings -- while competitors and others slowly circle overhead. Only those who could afford to make a payoff (such as huge fees or a cut of their business) would be afforded similar treatment. The Bells and cable hoped that with this control over the data lines, their broadband content competitors would crash and burn.
The cable and telephone broadband scam, however, is now meeting intense opposition. First, there is a growing opposition movement against the privatization of the internet. Led by Free Press, there is a new "savetheinternet.org" coalition, representing a diverse group of activists, users and experts from across the political spectrum, including Gun Owners of America, the United Church of Christ and Craigslist's Craig Newmark.
Earlier in the week, this group and MoveOn.org helped flood the halls of Congress with emails and online petitions calling on the Congress to enact safeguards for "network neutrality." The power of the cable/telco alliance to determine the future of the U.S. internet has also alarmed many of the country's most powerful online companies --
The GOP -- led by Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Energy and Commerce Chair Joe Barton (Texas) -- is firmly in the grip of the broadband monopoly lobby. Yesterday, Barton's committee rejected a network neutrality provision, 34-22 (sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, among others). Helping the Republicans defeat the internet freedom measure were five Democrats, including Edolphus Townes (N.Y.), Albert Wynn (Md.), Charles A. Gonzalez (Texas), Bobby Rush (Ill.) and Gene Green (Texas). (It was the endorsement of Rep. Rush, a former activist, that permitted the Republicans to call their broadband bill a bipartisan effort).
But the growing outcry to protect the internet led to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's formally endorsing the network neutrality call. There is now growing optimism among "save the internet" supporters that the Senate, which will soon take up a broadband communications bill, will endorse a neutrality rule. A bipartisan plan to do just that has already been prepared by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
Federal rules to ensure that the internet remains a democratic medium of expression is essential if the United States is to ever become a more just and civil society. In the emerging era, the nature of what will be a ubiquitious broadband communications system will greatly define us as a culture. It must be one where the voices of those calling for justice, health care, environmental protection and peace can resonate as loudly as the commercial messages brought to us by Time Warner and AT&T. Network neutrality, or internet freedom, is a necessary and critical step to make sure such voices are part of the mainstream -- not exiled to the digital dirt road.
Jeffrey Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org).