Saturday, September 29, 2007

My Letter to the Washington Post

You may have missed it. A couple of weeks back, Washington Post senior business writer Steve Pearlstein took a shot at blog readers who support Net Neutrality -- calling them "economically illiterate." I fired off a letter expecting a circular filing -- but three weeks later ...

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Saturday, September 29, 2007; Page A17

In his Sept. 9 commentary "Whiny Techies, II" [Sunday Briefing, Business] Steven Pearlstein called net neutrality supporters economically illiterate for demanding that consumers "be able to pay the same monthly fee for using the Internet, no matter how much bandwidth they use."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Supporters of net neutrality aren't asking that users pay one fee for all grades of access. We want a truly competitive marketplace where people can choose from numerous broadband companies offering access at different speeds and costs.

What we are demanding is a better system, where the few phone and cable companies that dominate the market can't leverage their control over Internet access to become gatekeepers of Web content.

If AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are allowed to discriminate against Web sites that don't pay their new tolls, the free-flowing Internet that has driven economic growth and innovation will come to a screeching halt.

Pearlstein took a shot at people who get their news from "The "Daily Show" or "Daily Kos." But who can blame them for going elsewhere? When it comes to news of the policies that shape the Internet, they're getting a lot closer to the truth than The Post's business pages do.

-- Timothy Karr

The writer is campaign director for Free Press, which coordinates the SavetheInternet Coalition, an advocate for net neutrality protections.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Verizon Scrambles Lawyers to Keep Wireless Market Closed

Verizon Wireless, America's second largest mobile phone service, is suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over its recent decision to unlock cell-phones from restrictive carrier agreements.

The FCC decision, limited to cellphone use on the 700 megahertz band "C block," had been heralded as a landmark move by the FCC -- one that would benefit consumers by unshackling mobile phones and bringing competition and innovation into the wireless devices marketplace.

Locked Down

Verizon Locked Down
(photo courtesy of Wired)

In reality, it was a small step on the long road to breaking up the anti-competitive, anti-consumer oligopoly that controls nearly every level of the wireless marketplace: devices, services, networks and applications.

Send Lawyers, FUD and Money

Yet even such a minor gesture towards consumers was enough to unleash Verizon's lawyers.

In a Monday court filing at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, Verizon claimed that the FCC decision was "arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by substantial evidence and otherwise contrary to law." It also accuses the Commission of exceeding its authority under the 1934 Communications Act, the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure's Act, without offering further detail.

Reading between the lines we see a brazen effort by Verizon to use the courts to deprive consumers of choice in America's wireless marketplace.

Locking in a Frozen Business Model

America lags far behind other technologically developed countries. A lack of competition has left wireless companies complacent and stifled innovation. At the moment a consumer can't use his or her cellphone with other wireless carriers, and many of the devices themselves are "crippled" by carriers so they can't perform to their full potential

"Many consumers feel trapped having bought an expensive device or having been locked into a long-term contract with significant penalties for switching," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said during a July House Subcommittee hearing on wireless freedom.

This system has left the U.S. generations behind the rest of the developed world, a failure that prompted New York Times blogger David Pogue to call American carriers "calcified, conservative and way behind their European and Asian counterparts."

"For some reason I have never been able to understand, I have to ask permission of Verizon Wireless to attach a computer or the computers that they now call phones to their wireless networks," Jason Devitt, co-Founder and CEO of Skydeck testified during the Markey hearing. "I have to ask their permission to run applications and services on those phones."

Half Gestures in Small Slices

The FCC's July 31 order was meant to remedy this. In a four-to-one vote the agency moved to follow the "Carterfone" provisions that were imposed on the AT&T monopoly in a groundbreaking 1968 telecommunications decision.


Life without Carterfone

Prior to Carterfone, AT&T controlled every phone on its network, as wireless providers do today. The 1968 ruling pried opened the devices marketplace so that numerous new phone products -- including answering machines, fax machines, cordless phones, and early computer modems -- could be introduced by other manufacturers.

Applying Carterfone rules to the wireless marketplace could open the market for a similar revolution in gadgets while freeing up users to bring their handheld devices with them from one carrier to another. But the FCC order only applied to a slice of the 700 MHz band.

The FCC's move was praised in the trade press, even though it was a "half gesture" towards consumer and public interest advocates who have been calling for rules to foster innovation and create real open access standards across the entire spectrum.

But as with any change to the system, no matter how small, it posed a creeping threat to those that now dominate the marketplace.

And that's why Verizon sent in their lawyers.

Uncovering DOJ's Hit Against an Open Internet

Net neutrality supporters today submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Justice to shed light on their recent hit job against net neutrality.

The request, submitted by Free Press, the media reform group that coordinates the Coalition, seeks to uncover whether industry lobbyists or White House politics had a hand in the Justice Department's unusual, and unusually late, action.

Lame Duck Alberto

Gonzales: Mum for Now

On Sept. 6, the FCC received an ex parte filing nearly two months after the FCC's formal comment period on net neutrality had closed, raising significant questions about timing and intent. The filing encouraged the FCC to allow phone and cable companies to filter Web traffic and wall off parts of the Web for those that pay an extra toll.

Prying Open Justice

"We want to know what motivated the Department of Justice to oppose net neutrality this late in the process," said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press and author of the request.

"The filing lacks any evidence of serious investigation into this critical issue and fits into a pattern of politically motivated decisions coming out of the Justice Department. We want to know if the Bush administration's lawyers reached out to any of the thousands of groups, businesses or individuals who support net neutrality -- or if they only talked to industry lobbyists at AT&T and Verizon."

The DOJ ruling raises legitimate concern that powerful corporate and White House gatekeepers are working together to dismantle Internet freedoms and impose their will upon the Web.

Between the White House and AT&T

The Justice Department filing parroted phone and cable industry arguments against net neutrality. It's also part of an emerging pattern of collusion between the White House and those companies that control access to high-speed Internet service for more than 96 percent of residential users in America.

In late 2006, the DOJ's antitrust division rubber-stamped AT&T's takeover of BellSouth -- the largest telecommunications merger in history -- without seeking any consumer protections. The FCC ultimately required AT&T to respect net neutrality for two years as a condition of approving the deal.

Last month the U.S. Director of intelligence revealed that the government and AT&T had conspired in far-reaching efforts to spy on Americans without legal warrant -- efforts for which the Bush administration is now seeking to give immunity from prosecution to AT&T and other phone companies.

Lastly, the filing came during Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' final days at the helm of Justice -- raising concerns that the departing attorney general was seeking to deliver last-minute favors for White House allies.

Short Changing the Public on Universal Access

The Bush administration has fallen well short of its goal of universal access to the Internet by 2007, instead opting for policies that support the duopoly of cable and telephone companies and stifle free market competition.

Actions taken against privacy and the open Internet by AT&T, Verizon and the Bush administration are precisely why we need to make net neutrality the law. The lack of broadband competition has given giant companies like AT&T enormous power to advance their own interests -- at a huge public expense.

By replacing duopoly control with healthy competition on open and free networks we can achieve universal and affordable high-speed access for everyone. Net neutrality would protect Americans from the types of Internet gatekeeping favored by the White House and their phone and cable allies.

Today's FOIA request could dig up more evidence of efforts in Washington to dismantle basic Web freedoms and distort the Internet for financial and political gain. It's now up to the Justice Department to respond.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Guess Who's Afraid of an Open Internet?

Open Internet advocates just received a parting gift from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

In a Thursday filing to the Federal Communications Commission, Gonzales' Department of Justice urged the agency to oppose Net Neutrality -- the principle that all Internet sites should be treated equally.

Lame Duck Alberto

Last-minute favors for friends in Texas

The DOJ stated that broadband companies like AT&T should be able to erect toll booths and filter traffic -- upending the even playing field that has made the Web an unrivaled engine of democratic discourse and new ideas.

The DOJ ruling once again proves the point: Powerful corporate and government gatekeepers are working together to dismantle Internet freedoms and impose their will upon the Web.

While Gonzales' feckless reign at Justice is near an end, his legacy at the department is becoming clear: The DOJ has established itself as a friend to the powerful and enemy to the basic freedoms that Americans once took for granted.

As Gonzales slinks back to Texas, he is merely pulling last-minute favors for friends in high places. This week's filing reeks of the same sort of cronyism that has left a slime trail wherever the attorney general has gone.

Going AWOL on Internet Freedom

In October 2006, the DOJ went AWOL in its duty to protect consumers and competition when it rubber-stamped AT&T’s bid to gobble up BellSouth. It was left to the FCC to step in and restore Net Neutrality safeguards to the massive merger.

When AT&T was accused of illegally tapping its customers' lines, it was DOJ lawyers that moved in under the cover of night with an attempt to dismiss the suit.

It was late last month that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell admitted the extent to which the government and AT&T had conspired in far-reaching efforts to spy on Americans without legal warrant. The Bush administration is now pushing for immunity from prosecution for telecom firms that eavesdrop on customers.

AT&T has long sought to use "deep packet inspection" tools to sift Internet user content. The company has already "demoed" this technology to the RIAA and MPA as part of a plan to scour the Web for file sharing that doesn’t conform to the industry’s draconian interpretation of copyright.

Without Net Neutrality protections, it was only a matter of time before phone companies and government used this same technology to spy on the everyday activities of Net users.

Parroting Ma Bell

Thursday’s filing by a lame duck Attorney General is instructive in this context. According to public interest lawyer Harold Feld of Media Access Project, the DOJ document reads like the "Cliffsnotes version" of AT&T’s own anti-Net Neutrality filing.

"The filing parrots the industry arguments that adopting a rule that would prevent telephone and cable companies from monitoring and filtering internet traffic would harm investment and innovation," Feld writes, "despite mounting evidence from Europe and Asia that the opposite is true."

Indeed, the DOJ filing uses hollow industry rhetoric about market forces to provide cover for more nefarious aims. According to the filing:
Other proposals would require interconnection, open access and structural separation of companies offering both Internet access services or transmission and content or applications deliverable over the Internet.

The Department submits, however, that free market competition, unfettered by unnecessary government regulatory restraints is the best way to foster innovation and development of the Internet.
This is utter nonsense. The DOJ knows, as does anyone paying attention to American broadband, that there is no "free market competition" or consumer choice when high speed Internet services are controlled by so few.

Open Internet = Free Market

Free market competition is exactly what we need. To get it, we must move beyond the broadband duopoly that has left America far behind the rest of the world in services and connectivity.

Moreover, we need to safeguard Internet traffic from the types of surveillance and "content shaping" now being deployed by these same companies.

Net Neutrality should be the cornerstone of any national broadband plan. It frees the types of economic innovation and competition that have been a hallmark of the Internet’s development.

Net Neutrality guarantees that each of us gets an equal voice and equal choice without meddling from the likes of Gonzales and his friends at Ma Bell.