Monday, January 07, 2008

Towards a People-Powered Web in 2008

In the dimming days of 2007, we bared the Telcos' ugly side for all to see. Powerful communications companies including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast brought us a year of privacy invasions, threats to free speech and the deceptive blocking of Internet applications and access.

But all is not bleak. The year saw a number of prospects for getting high-speed Internet access and open communications to more Americans. But protecting a free-flowing Internet from these would-be gatekeepers depends largely on decisions we will make in 2008.

Below you'll find ten hopeful moments from 2007. Each in its own way has set the stage for the year ahead:

1. Presidential Candidates Back Net Neutrality

For the first time in recent memory, communications policy became an issue on the campaign trail as presidential hopefuls came to realize that a people-powered Internet was good for everyone. Candidate after candidate (at least on the Democratic side) came out in support of a raft of an open Internet.

Hillary Clinton pledged her support for Net Neutrality in January. In May, John Edwards called for true open access while standing alongside millions of activists who support Net Neutrality. Barack Obama's unveiled a comprehensive open technology plan during a November event at the "Googleplex." Other candidates, including Mike Gravel, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson expressed support for Net Neutrality, as did Mike Huckabee (albeit obliquely). Expect to hear more from all of those left in the race as new legislation is introduced in the House later this month.

2. iPhone Gives World a Glimpse of the Mobile Web

The geek idol of 2007 remains the iPhone, which despite all its faults (see last week's No. 7) foretells a not-so-distant future where Internet access is constant for those on the go. The mobile Web - a promise made very real by the iPhone's growing popularity - raised real questions about the policies that allowed carriers to control our mobile experience. Why should access to the free flowing Internet be limited by our choice of device?

According to Farhad Manjoo, the iPhone "forced us, for the first time, to confront the thorny public policy issues that the mobile Web will raise, issues sure to consume Silicon Valley, Hollywood and regulators in Washington for the foreseeable future." We took issue when wired line ISPs played gatekeeper to the Web in our homes. We now will take issue with attempts by cellular carriers to wall off Internet access over wireless networks. In November, Google introduced "Android," an open-source mobile phone operating platform. The iPhone and Android opened our eyes to the future and helped us make the case that the Internet - on any device - should be free and open.

3. Telcos Declare New Love for Open Access

A shift in spectrum policy forced the wireless carriers to declare a newfound love for openness. They were singing a different tune less than six months before when public interest groups called on the FCC to make "open access an absolute must" for the upcoming 700 MHz auction. The FCC responded in part by requiring that wireless carriers allow any legal device or application to operate on this new network.

Soon wireless network giant Verizon announced that it, too, believed opening their networks to any device was a good idea. AT&T's wireless division followed suit declaring itself "the most open wireless company in the world," where people were free to use any cell phone. What's less clear - at least from their rhetoric -- are the reasons these "walled gardens" changed their tune on open devices. (After all, Verizon is the same company that had filed suit against the FCC, calling its open requirements "arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by substantial evidence, and otherwise contrary to law.")

The answer: Sound policy, public advocacy and consumer demand can force change to even the most entrenched ways of doing business. Had it not been for this potent political cocktail, the big carriers would have happily left their networks closed, their cell phones locked and their technologies far behind the curve.

4. We Told You So: Verizon, AT&T and Comcast Are the 'Problem'

In 2007, the discriminatory tendencies of the would-be gatekeepers were dragged from beneath a rock for all to see. During a live Lollapalooza webcast of a Pearl Jam concert, AT&T muted lead singer Eddie Vedder just as he launched into a lyric criticizing President Bush. Later, Verizon Wireless blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America's efforts to send mobile text messages to its members. Then Comcast was found secretly blocking peer-to-peer file sharing programs like BitTorrent and Gnutella.

While these violations made our list of the "Ten Worst Telco Moments of 2007," they demonstrate a pressing need for basic Internet protections. Net Neutrality is not "a solution in search of a problem," as the telcos liked to say. Their actions made it patently clear that the problem is very real.

5. Congress Wakes Up, Holds Hearings, Pledges Action in '08

In 2007 the new Congress treated the Internet as more than just a "series of tubes" holding hearings in both chambers on a range of critical issues -- from better data collection to cell phone freedom and Universal Service Fund reforms -- designed to rescue America from its second-class broadband status. This was a sea change from the previous Congress, which tended to believe that the future of the "Internets" was best left to the whims of the phone and cable lobbyists. All told, there were nearly a dozen hearings in 2007, including rigorous debate on how public policy could foster free-market innovation, universal access and global competitiveness.

In the House, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) championed calls for true open access. Across the hall, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N. Dakota), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) led the charge for Net Neutrality. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois experimented with legislation 2.0 when he opened the lines to public feedback to help him draft a much needed national broadband plan. As the United States continues to fall in international broadband rankings, policymakers trying to reverse the slide are a welcome change.

6. White Spaces Facts Beat Lobbyist Fictions

Last year, the FCC finally came to recognize the value of unlicensed spectrum, but it was not without a fight. The battle lines were drawn over the use of "white spaces" -- vast tracts of unused airwaves that sit between television channels. New technologies will allow us to use these idle frequencies to connect millions of Americans to high-speed Internet services, especially people living in rural areas.

The only hurdle is to convince the FCC to unshackle white spaces. A number of new technology providers have lined up to offer mobile devices that could deliver high-speed internet services over these airwaves. But, true to form, Big Media companies and their lobbyists at the National Association of Broadcasters erected a façade of misinformation to stifle innovation and prevent Americans from using our airwaves for our own good. In press release after press release the NAB claimed that these new technologies were interfering with adjacent channels, despite mounting evidence that showed their claims to be untrue.

2008 will bring decisive action on white spaces. It's increasingly hopeful that the truth will prevail over industry spin, and we will see this new technology emerge as an innovative alternative to phone and cable's broadband cartel.

7. Strange Bedfellows Join Against Net Censorship

Verizon's blocking of a NARAL Pro-Choice America text message sent to the group's members sparked an unusual alliance with the Christian Coalition of America. Seeing a greater threat to free speech, these traditional foes co-wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, calling on Congress to address censorship by phone companies and "guarantee the free flow of information."

The détente recalled 2006 when the Gun Owners of America joined with MoveOn.org to support Net Neutrality. "Without statutory Net Neutrality, there is nothing to prevent big telecom companies from injecting political bias into modern communications," the Gun Owners' Craig Fields said during a press conference with MoveOn.org. "If the telecoms believe they can frame opposition to their power grab as a liberal or anti-free-market attack, they are sadly mistaken."

Indeed, the fight for an open Internet involves supporters from every quarter with one glaring exception. Those opposing a neutral and accessible Internet seem limited to telco and cableco lobbyists and their paid allies. That open Internet protections are still disputed in Washington is a sad reflection of the degree to which these special interests dictate public policy in America.

8. Beyond the Beltway, Growing Grassroots Support

For too long spectrum and Internet policy has been the byproduct of backroom meetings between powerful industry lobbyists and government officials. In 2007, however, people discovered that Washington alone couldn't be relied upon alone to protect their online freedom. Whenever members of Congress returned to their districts, there was a good chance they were met by constituents speaking out for an open Internet.

All told last year, the SavetheInternet.com Coalition convened 70 meetings between citizens and their elected representatives. In June, more than a quarter-million people wrote Washington in support of open access to wireless spectrum. A public outcry overwhelmed the FCC in July when tens of thousands told the agency why Net Neutrality mattered to them. (Well over 95 percent of the comments received by the agency called for Net Neutrality protections.)

We saw user revolts on social networking sites after people discovered that their privacy was under attack. After a carefully orchestrated member protest, Facebook's CEO was forced to publicly apologize for Beacon, a company "service" that let others in on what users were buying online.

9. Public and Private Sector Unite Behind an Open Internet

The public and private sector realized that working together we could get Washington to take notice. Modeled after the SavetheInternet.com and Open Internet Coalitions of 2006, public advocates and businesses interests forged new alliances such as the Wireless Innovation Alliance (which is fighting for unlicensed use of "White Spaces"), the Wireless Founders Coalition (opening access to the airwaves), and the Open Handset Alliance (greater openness in the "mobile ecosystem").

As these and other coalitions focus on 2008, the unity of the public and private interests shows that openness is not only good for users but a boon for business.

10. The Dawning of Participatory Politics

While "Internet 2.0" jargon may have grown tired in 2007, a truly decentralized and participatory Internet became more real. Users took to available tools (and created some widgets of their own) on social networks -- such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube and others -- to organize others and make the Web experience their own.

More than a million Internet users fought the telcos to a stand still over Net Neutrality; campaigns rallied the youth vote and raised money on Facebook; bloggers were no longer treated as a political sideshow but helped shape many of the year's main events; people formed online social networks and fan sites around political causes, sharing potent YouTube videos, music and games that had the potential to be seen, heard or played by millions.

The tools needed to organize and act on our beliefs are becoming more accessible online. With them, we can have a public conversation about what the future of the Internet and our country should look like -- and finally gain an upper hand against the special interests that have dominated our democracy for generations.