May 28, 2006

Hand Over Control of the Internet to Who??

The great thing about the Internet is that it makes it really easy for everybody to freak out about the same thing at the same time...and
Save the Internet: Click here
feel like they are thinking for themselves rather than just being told the official story. The thing about the internet is that everybody tells you what to think. There are a million contradictory versions of the story out there all at once. At the same time it is really easy to get tuned into a particular point of view to get your own personal party line. So if you want somebody to tell you what to think, you can find somebody that you learn to trust because they usually tell you exactly what you want to hear. Then when they come up with a new issue, you can just follow blindly along. Isn’t it great?

Actually, I do think it is great. The free and open nature of the net allows you to find other people who share your views, whether you want to persuade others, be persuaded yourself or just hang out. It doesn’t matter whether you have a political cause or a commercial cause. Both have flourished in recent years. Lots of companies are making money online, either through selling stuff to people or by selling advertising on popular sites. Lots of people are enjoying the diversity of products available, time and gas saved and good prices by buying online.

The thing everybody is freaking out about right now...One of the things everybody is freaking out about right now is Net Neutrality. The big telecom companies that control the backbone of the net want to give preferential treatment to sites that pay extra for the privilege. They think that since they own the wires everybody has to use, they should have the right to decide who gets to use them and on what terms. This runs contrary to a general principle that a common carrier should allow everybody to use their network on a equal basis. They get paid for providing this service but they can’t favor one content provider over another. If they were to be allowed to do so, it would be easy for them to use what amounts to monopoly power to promote their own sites or other big business sites that can pay extra at the expense of the rest of us.

Congress is working on a major revision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As part of this revision some Senators and Representatives have written legislation to preserve Net Neutrality. A Coalition of big telecom companies are lobbying hard against it. They have even confused the issue by claiming that Net Neutrality would impose government control over the net and change its essential character. You can check out their website, which includes a cute little cartoon, if you want to see what they are saying. It is worth noting that among their major sponsors are AT&T and BellSouth, who didn’t seem to care so much about the abuses of big government when they ignored privacy laws and released customer call records to the NSA. This is not about the government controlling the internet, it is about whether we want to give that power to a handful of monopolistic telecoms.

Thirty years ago, AT&T was broken up into smaller companies because it exercised monopolistic control over the telephone system. Under the competition that resulted the industry has prospered as never before and the telephone system has developed into what is now the telecom industry, encompassing not only local and long distance phone service but cell phones, the internet and cable as well. Curiously, despite the obvious benefits they have derived from this competition the industry is undergoing a wave of mergers that seems intent on recreating monopoly control by just a few huge telecoms. For most Americans access to phone service, cable TV and the net is controlled by just one or two big telecoms.

In this atmosphere, the threat is not government enforcing neutrality but monopolists enforcing control based on dollars and/or political opinions. Already AOL has blocked e-mail that refers to a site critical of their plan to charge e-mailers for preferential treatment. This plan would bypass spam filters to deliver e-mail from companies that pay a fee direct to members’ inboxes. Those who don’t pay would risk having their mail labeled as spam or relegated to a 2nd tier system. The Save the Internet Coalition has documented a number of similar instances of corporate control. Plus they have their own collection of cute videos.

This is a really interesting coalition that brings together a range of consumer organizations, civic action groups and internet businesses to lobby for Internet Neutrality. Although the telecoms try to make it sound like it is just big companies like Microsoft and Google looking for a free ride, the coalition includes groups from all sides of the political spectrum from the Christian Coalition to Move-On Civic Action, Gun Owners of America, Craig Newmark (of Craig’s List) and Consumer’s Union. Some of these groups never thought they would agree on anything, but the internet is such a powerful communications tool for all of them that they have joined together to preserve their ability to use it. Companies that benefit from the innovation and opportunity of an open net and would rather not pay telecoms extra fees are also on board. The real economic beneficiaries of net neutrality are the small undercapitalized startups who have a great idea. If the telecoms have their way they could be priced out of the marketplace before they even start, which would be fine with the monopolists but not so good for the rest of us.

Here is a petition to help persuade Congress to preserve Net Neutrality.

Tune in next week for more on controlling the net

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