SALMON ARM FRIDAY A.M.
The End of the Internet?
Jeff Chester, The Nation
largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an
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
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
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
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
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.
To ward off virtual toll booths on the information
highway, some new media companies and public-interest groups are calling for "network
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
"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. ∎