Thursday, September 28, 2006

Web Pioneer: No Internet Without Net Neutrality

Sir Tim
The man who invented the World-Wide-Web sees the phone and cable company plan to gut Net Neutrality as a looming threat to free speech and economic innovation in America. In a New York Times interview, Internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee said that the neutrality of the Net is "essential for democracy."

In the 1980s, Sir Tim first proposed the idea of linking documents with hypertext software pointers -- a concept that evolved, in the 1990s, into the World Wide Web.

Throughout 2006, Berners-Lee has spoken passionately in favor of protecting Net Neutrality. In yesterday's Times interview, he warned against companies, like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, that seek to remake the information superhighway into their private toll roads.

"I think the people who talk about dismantling — threatening — Net neutrality don’t appreciate how important it has been for us to have an independent market for productivity and for applications on the Internet," Berners-Lee said.

According to Berners-Lee, killing Net neutrality in the U.S. would put the country even further behind in the race to bridge the digital divide and bring cheaper, faster access and better economic opportunity to more people.

"[I]f the United States ends up faltering in its quest for Net neutrality, I think the rest of the world will be horrified, and there will be very strong pressure from other countries who will become a world separate from the U.S., where the Net is neutral," Berners-Lee told Times interviewer John Markoff.
"If things go wrong in the States, then I think the result could be that the United States would then have a less-competitive market where content providers could provide a limited selection of all the same old movies to their customers because they have a captive market."
Berners-Lee also clarifies the debate over service fees for special types of data, calling "not actually logical" people who say that Net Neutrality prevents "Quality of Service" upgrades:
"Some people say perhaps we ought to be able to charge more for this very special high-bandwidth connectivity. Of course that’s fine, charge more. Nobody is suggesting that you shouldn’t be able to charge more for a video-capable Internet connection. That’s no reason not to make it anything but neutral."
Berners-Lee echoes SavetheInternet.com's position against discrimination on the Web. We don’t think that it's wrong for the network operators to be able to prioritize certain types of content. For instance, they can prioritize telemedicine over regular data files.

The Net Neutrality rules that we and Berners-Lee support concern stopping discrimination based on the source or ownership of content. If network operators favor one hospital's telemedicine site over another, that’s the problem. That’s when the network operators can turn the Web into their private fiefdoms, awarding fast-lane services to their corporate allies while shunting all others to a slow lane. Under this scenario, the free and open Internet no longer exists.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Senator Stevens Spams for the Telcos

Stevens and his bill
Sen. Ted Stevens' desperation is beginning to show. With his telecommunications legislation in the DC doldrums, the good senator from Alaska has resorted to spamming his colleagues with phone company propaganda.

From his seat at the head of the Commerce Committee, Stevens is emailing around the results of a "bipartisan poll," which, according to the senator's spin, proves beyond a whisper of a doubt that Americans love his legislation and hate Net Neutrality.

One problem though. This supposedly objective poll is a complete sham.

It was paid for by Verizon Communications and carried out by Washington lobbying and consulting firms that boast major phone and cable companies as clients.

No matter for Senator Stevens, who has no qualms once again using the Commerce Committee seal to serve the interests of his friends at the phone companies.

The resulting poll is so stacked towards one side of the debate that no serious pollster, scholar or journalist would dare touch its findings. Here's a sample question lifted straight from the poll:
Which of the following two items do you think is the most important to you:

Delivering the benefits of new TV and video choice so consumers will see increased competition and lower prices for cable TV?

OR

Enhancing Internet neutrality by barring high speed internet providers from offering specialized services like faster speed and increased security for a fee?
As Matt Stoller wrote, "the rest of the questionnaire is similarly structured along the lines of 'do you want lots and lots of pie or would you like a kidney infection'."

What's particularly amazing is that 17 percent of the respondents chose the kidney infection.

But that's no deterrent to the many Astroturf groups that shamelessly front for the phone companies. They have trumpeted the phony survey as proof positive that Net Neutrality is a non-issue for Americans -- dismissing the more than a million Americans who have written Congress, called their representatives and turned out at dozens of pro-Net Neutrality events across the country.

In August alone, these grassroots actions convinced seven senators to announce their support for Net Neutrality -- carrying forth momentum against Stevens' deeply flawed legislation.

In the Astroturfers' version of reality, though, the future of the Internet is best left in the hands of the telco lobby -- conveniently, the same corporations that pay the Astroturfers' bills. Go figure.

The public doesn't really care about Internet freedom, they say -- and hey, they've bought a poll so they must be right. As Jeff Chester wrote in his commentary in The Nation:
[N]either the poll nor the press release issued by Stevens revealed, as the Wall Street Journal did today, that Verizon had paid for the study. The role of Verizon is not surprising, given that the poll was developed by the Glover Park Group lobbying shop (along with Public Opinion Strategies). Glover Park--which is run by such high-level Democratic Party advisers as Howard Wolfson, Joe Lockhart and Carter Eskew--has been helping Verizon in its efforts to scuttle broadband policy safeguards since 2005.
Cynthia Brumfield of IP Democracy heaps more scorn on Stevens:
All of this shameless propagation of corporate-sponsored lobbying dreck reflects nothing other than last-ditch desperation by Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), who is almost out of time to pass his telecom reform bill before this Congress is history. After intensive lobbying, Senator Stevens still doesn't have the 60 votes he needs to shut down a filibuster on the bill.
So whom should you trust on Net Neutrality?

We'll leave that decision to you. But be wary of phone company pollsters and spamming senators claiming they know what you want.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Martin Left With Powell's Untidy FCC Legacy

Originally published at TomPaine.com

Martin in action
Michael Powell’s tenure at the Federal Communications Commission was marked by his blatant disregard for the public. Despite overwhelming opposition to his plans to gut longstanding media ownership rules, Powell faithfully served the interest of the corporate media lobby.

Thus many of us weren't the least surprised to learn this week that the Powell Commission buried at least two taxpayer-funded studies that didn’t toe the official line that bigger media is better for us all.

The first study, completed in 2004 by the FCC's own researchers, found that on average locally owned broadcasters devoted 5.5 more minutes of local news per half-hour newscast than their consolidated counterparts. It concluded that network-owned and operated stations (belonging to the likes of Disney, General Electric, Viacom and News Corp) spent considerably less time covering the communities they're supposed to serve.

Local ownership is good news for local communities, according to the study. But this was bad news for Powell. The findings openly challenged his assertions that "commonly owned television stations are more likely to carry local news than other stations." Thus instructions came down from "senior managers" to destroy "every last piece" of the study.

The second study, which just came to light today, found that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 led to the drastic decline in the number of radio station owners while the actual number of commercial stations in the U.S. increased -- a strong indicator that a handful of companies were hoarding local radio airwaves.

This study, too, was buried during Powell's rocky tenure.

This evidence still would be gathering dust at the agency were it not for whistle-blowers who secreted copies of the spiked reports to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Boxer last week waved the findings before a wide-eyed Kevin Martin, Powell's successor as FCC chairman, during his senate re-confirmation hearings.

This was worse news for Chairman Martin.

The North Carolina Republican had been hand-picked by the Bush administration to clean up Powell's failed turn at the FCC, successfully rewrite media ownership rules and let powerful network owners expand their control over local news markets. Martin previously worked on the Bush-Cheney 2000 election team that fought bitterly to obstruct the vote recount in Florida. Martin's wife, Catherine, had been a top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. He's a shrewd political animal who many feel will parlay GOP successes at the FCC into higher office.

But Powell's untidy FCC legacy may have stalled Martin's ambitions.

Martin was caught unusually off guard during the confirmation hearings when Senator Boxer demanded that he come clean on efforts to "deep six" the first study. Consumer groups and public advocates at Free Press, Consumers Union, Media Access Project and the Consumer Federation of America called on Martin to seek an immediate independent investigation "to determine the circumstances under which the public was denied access to this important, taxpayer-funded research." An Associated Press report on the cover-up ran in more than two dozen newspapers and trade publications.

The unfolding drama has been met with a flurry of denials from FCC chairmen present and past.

Martin wrote back to Boxer repeating over and again that he knew nothing of the study: "I was not Chairman at the time that this report was drafted. I had not seen -- nor was I aware of -- this draft report ... No one on my staff had seen this report nor were they aware of it. I am not aware of any other commissioners, past or present, who knew of the report."

Powell echoed Martin, telling NPR on Friday that he "never saw" the study. "Any suggestion that senior levels of the commission spiked that report, at least from my vantage point, didn't happen," he said.

While Powell scrambles to distance himself from the cover-up -- and Martin scrambles to distance himself from Powell -- the "vantage point" for the public has become disappointingly clear.

We know now that the leadership of a federal agency is bent on deleting evidence that challenges their beliefs -- placing political expediency before the public interest.

We know that this cover-up is part of a larger scheme to clear a path for large media companies to buy up more local news outlets.

And we know that unless the public gets more involved in holding them accountable, the FCC will fulfill the wishes of the administration and its corporate allies, gutting policies that curb media companies' plans to swallow up local markets.

The good news is that now the public has a chance to have its say.

Major media companies have lobbied Martin to erase restrictions on how many newspapers, television and radio stations they can own. They want him to rewrite rules so that such big national companies as Tribune could potentially own the major daily newspaper, eight radio stations and three television stations in a single town.

Martin wants to help these companies do just that. But the chairman – as a matter of procedure – must first seek public comment to any proposed rewrite of the rules. Earlier this summer Martin kick-started the latest effort to weaken FCC protections to local control of the media. The chairman pledged to hold a "half dozen" public hearings but has so far only committed to one, in Los Angeles on October 3.

He and the agency's Republican majority are carrying forward Powell's commitment to scrap any limits to local media monopolies, but they have to at least make a show of public accountability before handing over more local outlets.

More than 40 public and consumer advocacy groups, including Free Press, Common Cause, Consumers Union, National Council of Churches and the Newspapers Guild-CWA have formed the StopBigMedia.com coalition to make sure that the FCC puts on more than a show.

We have encouraged more than a hundred thousand American to make comments in the FCC public docket and hope to turn out thousands more at public hearing scheduled through the remainder of the year.

Before Chairman Martin decides we hope he will take a lesson from Powell's tin ear to popular concerns about consolidation. If Martin really wants to overcome the unsavory legacy of the Powell Commission, he must weigh all the evidence and put the public's needs first.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cover-Up: FCC Bureaucrat Buried Evidence to Protect Friends in Big Media

Big Mike
We have just learned that former FCC Chairman Michael Powell buried a federal study that found media consolidation was harmful to local news reporting.

Powell suppressed the 2004 study to protect the interests of his friends in the corporate media lobby. It revealed that locally owned stations produced more local news than those owned by media giants -- such as ABC/Disney, Fox Television, Viacom and Sinclair Broadcast Group..

Free Press received the secret study today after it was leaked to Congress. News of the cover-up comes at a time when Powell's successor, Chairman Kevin Martin, seeks to hand over control of more local news outlets to massive media conglomerates.

Powell commissioned the study in hopes it would show that consolidated ownership didn't negatively impact local communities. The Associated Press reported Wednesday afternoon that upon seeing the results, Powell ordered that "every last piece" of the study be destroyed.

The study that Michael Powell didn't want you to see: "Do Local Owners Deliver More Localism?" shows locally owned stations produced five-and-a-half minutes more local news in a half-hour newscast than their consolidated competitors -- meaning 33 more hours of local news per year. It also found that Network owned and operated stations (those owned by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) aired significantly less local news.

The report was an inconvenience to Powell's ongoing efforts to aide large media companies' that sought to gobble up more local media outlets and further consolidate their power over America's media system. Had the report seen the light of day, Powell could not deny that locally owned media do a better job of covering local news.

While Powell has left the FCC, his legacy is being carried forward by Martin. The new chairman has made it clear that he intends to side with Big Media interests in the current rewrite of FCC ownership rules.

In July, Martin kick started the latest effort to rewrite FCC rules when he asked the public to comment on his plans to let conglomerates buy up more local news outlets. You can file you comments at the FCC via this link:

The only way to stop media is through public involvement in the rule making. Act now to rollback media consolidation and defend local control of our media.

Major U.S. Trade Group Makes Case for Neutrality

The American Electronics Association (AeA) released a report yesterday strongly supporting Net Neutrality and urging Congress: "Don't stifle competition and innovation by allowing network operators to change and distort what is currently a highly competitive system."

"The principles of Net Neutrality have created the Internet as we know it -- the most dynamic network for communication and commerce in human history," states The Case for Preserving Net Neutrality, a report by AeA, which represents 2,500 companies from every corner of the high-tech industry.

In this latest brief on market competitiveness, the AeA calls on Congress to "safeguard the competitive nature of the Internet by allowing consumers and content providers to connect with each other in an open marketplace, providing consumers with equal access to all content."

According to the report, the only way to do this is for Congress to prevent companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from abusing their market power by imposing discriminatory new surcharges that favor the content from companies and Web sites that pay them the most.

Allowing the nation's largest phone and cable companies to tilt the market in favor of larger and better funded content providers would "undermine the fundamental principles of open and free exchange of information across the network," according to the AeA report.

Despite the spin now emanating from the phone and cable company PR firms, the threat is very real.

Big Ed
AT&T chief Edward Whitacre Jr. (pictured right), claimed last year that Internet content providers plan to start charging extra for use of "my lines." BellSouth’s Chief Technology Officer, William Smith, told reporters that his firm should be able to charge content providers to prioritize their content. Verizon's Chief Executive Ivan Seidenberg told the Wall Street Journal of company's plans to start charging Web sites more so they "don’t sit on our network and chew up our capacity.”

Flat Out Lies

The report explodes the telco myth that content providers aren't already paying for access, conservatively estimating that the largest service providers receive at least $13.1 billion annually in bandwidth fees from 7.3 billion business Internet subscribers.

This is direct contradiction to telco spinmeister Mike McCurry, who in an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun claimed that Google’s access to bandwidth doesn’t cost the company a dime -- an assertion that Tech Dirt's Michael Masnick called "a flat out lie."


Sellout
Neither McCurry (pictured right) nor the army of lobbyists that the phone and cable companies have unleashed upon Washington can be trusted in this argument against Net Neutrality.

Telcos already profit handsomely from charging companies for their share of bandwidth. Now, they want to add surcharges that are based on the ownership or source of content -- a concept that would result in a tiered Internet, weighted towards the largest companies and against the sort of Web innovation that typically bubbles up from below.

According to the AeA report:
"By tiering the Internet based on who pays the most to prioritize their content, the telecom industry is creating a system of haves and have-nots: those that can afford the premium for preferred treatment and those that cannot.

"A tiered system for broadband services is already in place, but it is based on the bandwidth purchased by the consumer and content provider, who both are already paying for Internet access. This current system allows consumers equal access to any legal content they choose and gives even the smallest content provider the chance to compete in a robust marketplace. This system treats all packets equally."


Companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast will stifle the competitive marketplace if they're allowed to discriminate based on who can afford to pay their planned premiums.

The phone and cable companies seek to strip away the egalitarian idea on which the Internet was founded -- which rewards the best concepts or Web sites -- and shift power to the larger companies that can outbid competitors for preferential treatment.

The AeA report provides guidance for those in Congress who are willing to stand with the public and protect the Internet from such predatory and anti-competitive schemes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

New Report Skewers Telco Spin on Competition

Why has the United States fallen behind the rest of the world in accessible and affordable broadband service?

The answer, according to a report released by Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union, is marketplace failures wrought by phone and cable companies' near monopoly control of last-mile broadband markets.

The 44-page report, Broadband Reality Check II, exposes the truth behind America's digital decline: A marketplace controlled by the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast has left Americans with higher prices, slower speeds and no meaningful competition for high-speed Internet service.

It exposes the falsehoods behind phone companies' repeated claims that the U.S. has a diverse marketplace, with myriad broadband choices for the consumer.

It decisively skewers the notion -- put forth by telco executives and their high-paid shills -- that "fierce competition" precludes Net Neutrality protections.

According to Broadband Reality Check II, a few cable and DSL providers account for 98 percent of the residential broadband market. Over 40 percent of U.S. ZIP codes have one or fewer DSL or cable modem providers providing service. In most cases, these are limited to services offered by just one or the other of the nation's largest phone and cable companies, all of which have stated their steadfast opposition to preserving an even playing field on the Internet.

"Our markets lack the competition to bring lower prices, higher speeds, and universal access. Our policies lack the imagination and potency to create real change," wrote the report's author, Derek Turner, research director of Free Press. "Meanwhile, Americans pay more money for less service than a dozen other nations. A third of U.S households are still stuck with dial-up, and another third lack Internet access of any kind. Our broadband problem is becoming a crisis."

Broadband Reality Check II also finds:
  • The 14 other OECD nations saw higher overall net growth in broadband adoption than the United States from 2001 to 2005.

  • Consumers in other countries enjoy broadband connections that are far faster and cheaper than what is available here. U.S. consumers pay nearly twice as much as the Japanese for connections that are 20 times as slow.

  • U.S. broadband prices aren't dropping: Cable modem prices are holding constant or rising, and DSL customers on average are getting less bandwidth per dollar than just a year ago.

  • The market share of "third platform" alternatives like satellite, wireless and broadband over powerline technologies has actually decreased over the past five years.
The report contradicts the rosy picture painted by the Federal Communications Commission, by exposing the agency's failure to rein in broadband monopolies -- an industry-friendly regulatory approach that has left Americans with higher prices, slower speeds and no meaningful competition for high-speed Internet service.

To remedy America's Broadband decline the report recommends that Congress "restore the non-discriminatory, open-access principles — such as Net Neutrality — that enabled the birth and historic proliferation of the Internet."

This is the last thing the nation's largest phone and cable companies want to hear. They have already spent more than $100 million on Washington lobbyists, ads and PR flacks to push legislation through Congress that will gut Net Neutrality and further consolidate their control of the marketplace.

In press releases after press release, public utterances and op-eds, these companies and their shills build their argument on a myth of competition.

Their script goes something like this:
  • "Why would phone and cable companies ever discriminate online?" [They conveniently ignore AT&T, Comcast BellSouth and Verizon executives who have stated their intention to do just that.]

  • "The marketplace for broadband is highly competitive." [They cite FCC stats that have been widely discredited -- by Congress and, even, the FCC.]

  • "If we discriminate online, consumers will simply choose another provider." [They willfully turn a blind eye to thoroughly-researched data that show minimal to no other broadband choice in markets across the country.]

  • "Net Neutrality legislation is heavy-handed new regulation." [They ignore its history as one of the Internet's guiding regulatory principles, which has made the Web a dynamic engine for new ideas, innovation and free speech.]

  • "Net Neutrality hurts consumers." [They can't recall that every major consumer group in the country supports Net Neutrality legislation and opposes the phone and cable companies' stance on the issue.]
"The simple fact of the matter is that the average consumer is lucky to have two providers and many don't even have that," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. "And what happens with two is that these corporations quickly figure out that it is not in their mutual interest to compete down prices and give consumers a better deal."

Despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, phone company shills -- such as the disingenuously named NetCompetition.org -- continue to parrot claims that broadband choice is "diverse" and "expanding rapidly." Yet, without real data to stand upon, these industry frontmen offer little more than a flimsy fa├žade of wishful lies, which they hope to prop up long enough to earn themselves yet another paycheck from AT&T.

But they're dead wrong. Net Neutrality is hardly government intrusion into the open marketplace of the Internet. It is a simple antitrust rule that keeps Internet companies from exploiting a lack of competition at the consumer's expense.

As more and more Americans come to the Side of Net Neutrality, Congress should abandon the shills and support it too.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Beneath Mickey's Deception: Big Media Gone Wild

Mickey
ABC's plan to air an inaccurate 9-11 "docudrama" has ignited public outrage with hundreds of thousands of people sending letters to Disney headquarters and ABC stations to protest their willful distortion of history.

These media protests have had an impact, but the root problem will remain unless we act now to stop media giants from becoming even more powerful.

Rampant media consolidation over the last two decades has put control over the media in the hands of a few large corporations. We see it in action now.

Local stations have been instructed by ABC -- and its corporate owners at Disney -- to air "The Path to 9/11" a five-hour "docudrama" that is riddled with falsehoods about events that lead to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Disney seems determined to wield reckless control over local television for ratings and political gain. Media ownership matters.

The best way to contain these types of abuses is to limit massive conglomerates ability to use our airwaves for political gain.

"The Path to 9/11" reportedly features a series of fictionalized scenes, written by a right-wing activist, that are in direct conflict with the bi-partisan 9-11 Commission's report. It's so rife with falsehoods that an FBI agent who was brought in to consult on the docudrama quit because, he said, "they were making things up."

Now, Disney is forcing local broadcasters to air these falsehoods in our communities.

No matter your politics, we should all embrace the public's right to have a strong voice in how the broadcasters use our airwaves. Sadly, the local station owners that are most responsive to our interests are being pushed around by conglomerates like Disney.

And now the Federal Communications Commission is poised to give companies like Disney even more power, as the federal agency is once again weighing the loosening of anti-trust, media ownership rules that curb runaway consolidation. If rules limiting conglomerates are eliminated, the last vestiges of local media competition will be swept away, replacing varied viewpoints with "media company towns," where Fox News, Tribune Co., Sinclair Brodacst Group or the New York Times completely dominate local public discourse.

This may sound an echo from the past. In 2003, the FCC aligned itself with industry and trade groups in an attempt to lift ownership restrictions. Then-Chairman Michael Powell sought little to no public input – appearing at just a single official public hearing in Richmond, Va. and limiting his appearances to speeches before media lobbyists and their allies.

But that rule change was met with an unprecedented groundswell of popular opposition from all corners of society. Nearly 3 million people contacted the FCC and Congress in 2003, more than called Washington on any other issue that year except for the war in Iraq.

In 2006, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants, once again, to let conglomerates like Disney buy up even more local stations -- and own other media including radios and newspapers in a single town.

Mickey
Martin has promised to convene at least six public town hall meetings to discuss, face to face with Americans, media ownership and localism. Sadly, he has yet to convene a single hearing.

Without public input, these decisions will be made in bureaucratic backrooms where powerful media lobbyists still hold sway.

As Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has warned: "They screwed it up once. Believe me, they're 100 percent capable of screwing it up again."

Too much is at stake in 2006 for the FCC to "screw it up." Without full public input, the agency will do little to contain media conglomerates' damaging influence on our democracy.