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SALMON ARM FRIDAY A.M.               

February 10, 2006                                                                             ONLINE ONLY

The End of the Internet?

 

By Jeff Chester, The Nation

 

The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online.

Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants are devel­oping strategies that would track and store information on our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency. According to white papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and telecommunications industries, those with deepest pockets - corporations, special-interest groups and major advertisers - would get preferred treatment. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and televi­sion screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out.

Under such plans, all of us - from content providers to individual users - would pay more to surf online, stream videos or even send e-mail. Industry planners are mulling new subscription plans that would further limit the online experience, establishing "platinum," "gold" and "silver" levels of Internet access that would set limits.

To make this pay-to-play vision a reality, phone and cable lobbyists want the federal government to permit them to operate Internet and other digital communications services as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. Indeed, both the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are considering proposals that will have far-reaching impact on the Internet's future. Ten years after passage of the ill-advised Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone and cable com­panies are working to convince compromised or clueless lawmakers to subvert the Internet into a turbo-charged digital retail machine.

The telephone industry has been somewhat more candid than the cable industry about its strategy for the Internet's future. Senior phone executives have publicly discussed plans to begin imposing a new scheme for the delivery of Internet content, especially from major Internet content compa­nies. As Ed Whitacre, chairman and CEO of AT&T, told Business Week, "Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment, and for anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"

The phone industry has marshaled its political allies to help win the free­dom to impose this new broadband business model. At a recent conference held by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank funded by Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and other media companies, there was much dis­cussion of a plan for phone companies to impose fees on a sliding scale, charging content providers different levels of service.

 

Net Neutrality

To ward off virtual toll booths on the information highway, some new media companies and public-interest groups are calling for "network neu­trality" on the Internet. Common Cause, Amazon, Google, Free Press, Media Access Project and Consumers Union, among others, have proposed that broadband providers would be prohibited from discriminating against all forms of digital content. For example, phone or cable companies would not be allowed to slow down competing or undesirable content.

Without proactive intervention, the values and issues that we care about - civil rights, economic justice, the environment and fair elections - will be further threatened by this push for corporate control. Imagine how the next presidential election would unfold if major political advertisers could make strategic payments to Comcast so that ads from Democratic and Republican candidates were more visible and user-friendly than ads of third-party can­didates with less funds. Consider if an online advertisement promoting nuclear power prominently popped up on a cable broadband page, while a competing message from an environmental group was relegated to the mar­gins. It is possible that all forms of civic and noncommercial online pro­gramming would be pushed to the end of a commercial digital queue.

If we permit the Internet to become a medium designed primarily to serve the interests of marketing and personal consumption, rather than global civic-related communications, we will face the political conse­quences for decades to come.

Why are the Bells and cable companies aggressively advancing such plans? With the arrival of the long-awaited "convergence" of communica­tions, our media system is undergoing a major transformation. Telephone and cable giants envision a potential lucrative "triple play," as they impose near-monopoly control over the residential broadband services that send video, voice and data communications flowing into our televisions, home computers, cell phones and iPods. All of these many billions of bits will be delivered over the telephone and cable lines.

Video programming is of foremost interest to both the phone and cable companies. The telephone industry, like its cable rival, is now in the TV and media business, offering customers television channels, on-demand videos and games. Online advertising is increasingly integrating multimedia (such as animation and full-motion video) in its pitches. Since video-driven mate­rial requires a great deal of Internet bandwidth, phone and cable compa­nies want to make sure their television "applications" receive preferential treatment on the networks they operate. And their overall influence over the stream of information coming into your home (or mobile device) gives them the leverage to determine how the broadband business evolves.

At the core of the new power held by phone and cable companies are tools delivering what is known as "deep packet inspection." With these tools, AT&T and others can readily know the packets of information you are receiving online - from e-mail, to websites, to sharing of music, video and software downloads. These "deep packet inspection" technologies are part­ly designed to make sure the Internet pipeline doesn't become so congest­ed it chokes off the delivery of timely communications. Such products have already been sold to universities and large businesses that want to more economically manage their Internet services.

Internet technology giant Cisco urges companies to "meter individual sub­scriber usage by application," as individuals' online travels are "tracked" and "integrated with billing systems." Such tracking and billing is made possible because they will know "the identity and profile of the individual subscriber," "what the subscriber is doing" and "where subscriber resides."

Will Google, Amazon and the other companies successfully fight the plans of the Bells and cable companies? Ultimately, they are likely to cut a deal because they, too, are interested in monetizing our online activities. After all, as Cisco notes, content companies and network providers will need to "cooperate with each other to leverage their value proposition." They will be drawn by the ability of cable and phone companies to track "content usage ...by subscriber," and where their online services can be "protected from piracy, metered, and appropriately valued."

It was former FCC chairman Michael Powell, with the support of then­commissioner and current chair Kevin Martin, who permitted phone and cable giants to have greater control over broadband. Powell and his GOP majority eliminated longstanding regulatory safeguards requiring phone companies to operate as nondiscriminatory networks (technically known as "common carriers"). He refused to require that cable companies, when providing Internet access, also operate in a similar nondiscriminatory man­ner. As Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig has long noted, it is government regulation of the phone lines that helped make the Internet today's vibrant, diverse and democratic medium.

Phone companies are lobbying Washington to kill off what's left of "com­mon carrier" policy and operate Internet services as fully "private" net­works. Instead of the free and open network that offers equal access to all, they want to reduce the Internet to a series of business decisions between consumers and providers. Both industries oppose giving local communities the right to create their own local Internet wireless or wi-fi networks. They also want to eliminate the last vestige of local oversight from electronic media - the ability of local governments, for example, to require telecom­munications companies to serve the public interest with services like pub­lic-access TV channels. The Bells also want to further reduce the ability of the FCC to oversee communications policy. They hope that both the FCC and Congress - via a new Communications Act - will back these proposals.

The future of the online media will ultimately depend on whether the Bells and cable companies are allowed to determine the country's "digital destiny" So before there are any policy decisions, a national debate should begin about how the Internet should serve the public. Phone and cable companies must operate their Internet services in the public interest - as stewards for a vital medium for free expression. ∎