Saturday, July 26, 2008

Two Voices at the FCC for a Free and Open Internet

It's unusual for federal bureaucrats to achieve rock star status, but two commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission have amassed an enthusiastic fan base among the emerging "Open Internet" movement.

For several years, Democratic Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps have stood up, spoke out and worked all the angles at the cavernous FCC in defense of an Internet that is open, neutral, accessible and affordable to everyone.

These are the bedrock principles of a growing movement of bloggers, media makers, online activists and organizers who are fighting for unfettered access to the Net.

Adelstein on Harp

Adelstein joins the North Mississippi All-Stars at the National Conference for Media Reform

While in the minority, Adelstein and Copps have been joined by a somewhat unlikely ally in Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. The three of them are now poised to deliver a major victory to the little guys against one of the country's biggest and most ruthless media companies.

The Making of the Movement

Adelstein and Copps' crusade on the Internet's behalf hasn't been easy.

Lining up against them in Washington is an army of hired legal guns and lobbyists working for the likes of Comcast, AT&T and Verizon. Every day, they swarm the FCC and Capitol Hill to blast away at any rule that would prevent their clients from becoming the new gatekeepers to the Web.

Who ultimately controls the Internet is a question that has galvanized millions of Internet activists in recent years.

Grassroots groups like, Free Press (my employer), Public Knowledge, ACLU,, Common Cause and Electronic Frontier Foundation see the Internet as the future of all media -at a time when more and more people are taking charge of their TV watching, music listening and other rich media experiences via a high-speed connection.

Using the Internet to Save the Internet

Millions of their supporters have used the tools of the Internet to send Washington a powerful political message: "Don't side with special interests and strip away our online freedoms."

In 2006, Capitol Hill was poised to pass a telco-friendly communications bill opposed by public advocacy groups for lacking basic consumer protections. More than 1.5 million people wrote letters to Congress, attended protest rallies across the country and organized using MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. The bill died on the Senate floor.

In 2007, the FCC was poised to hand over a valuable chunk of spectrum with no strings attached to powerful wireless companies. More than a quarter million people wrote the FCC demanding "open access" to these airwaves. The FCC attached some openness conditions before putting the spectrum out for bid.

Two DC bureaucrats stand up to the powerful phone and cable lobby, and inspire an emerging 'netroots' movement.

When Verizon Wireless censored text messages by NARAL Pro-Choice America in late 2007, they sent tens of thousands of letters to Washington. Under intense public and media scrutiny, Verizon reversed its decision and let the NARAL messages through.

New Media Democracy

"Consumers don't want the Internet to become another version of old media -- dominated by a handful of companies," Adelstein told an enthusiastic audience during a FCC hearing in Pittsburgh earlier this week. "They want choice."

In June, Commissioner Copps asked a crowd at the National Conference for Media Reform: "If you want to blog about local politics, should you really have to pay some huge gatekeeper for every reader you get? Should anyone be telling you what you can read and see and hear on the Internet? Which applications you can run? Which devices you can use?"

He pledged alongside Commissioner Adelstein to "do everything we can" to ensure that the Internet looks like "real media democracy."

Adelstein and Copps' tenure in Washington has come under a Republican-led FCC, which has routinely supported industry efforts to whittle away many of the user freedoms that are fundamental to preserving the Internet's democratic character.

The agency has become embroiled in an issue called "Net Neutrality" -- the fundamental safeguard for users' ability to go where they want, do what they choose and connect with whomever they like every time they boot up the Internet.

Net Neutrality has pitted Internet rights advocates from across the political spectrum against powerful phone and cable companies, which now control broadband access for nearly 99 percent of American users. But Adelstein and Copps have broken with the well-heeled lobbyists to take a principled stand for a people-powered Internet.

Beating Back Comcast

When AT&T announced its plans to merge with BellSouth in 2006, it was the two Democrats who attached Net Neutrality as a two-year condition of the merger and then strong armed Republican members of the commission to sign off on the terms.

Now the FCC faces a new opportunity to establish Net Neutrality as the guiding principle of the Internet.

Earlier this month Chairman Martin announced that he would recommend punishing Comcast Corp. for violating Net Neutrality and blocking subscribers' Internet traffic.

While the final order hasn't come out yet, it's worthwhile to look at how we got here. The Republican Chairman should get a lot of credit for his handling of the Comcast case, including holding public hearings on the issue.

But Adelstein and Copps have walked with the public every step of the way on Net Neutrality.

Now they stand ready to join with Martin against Comcast (Their vote is expected to happen during the August 1 monthly meeting of the five commissioners). This decision would set an historic legal precedent for all those fighting to keep the Internet free of corporate gatekeepers.

"Both commissioners have really shown their mettle on this issue," blogger Matt Stoller of said during last week's Netroots Nation conference in Austin. "Copps has been a visionary and a firebrand for the netroots. Adelstein has shown bravery by breaking with the conventional wisdom of Washington for the good of everyone else."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Beware of Cable Guys Making Promises

Comcast can't seem to get it straight.

On the one hand, the cable giant blocks access to certain Web applications. On the other, Comcast executives extol the virtues of a "free market" to safeguard against any abuse of users' right to choose online.

So which is it?

What the cable giant really wants is to thwart any policies that would stop it from doing whatever it pleases. And at this moment the company wants to play gatekeeper -- "managing" its network in a way that prevents users from gaining access to the Open Internet.

Of course, Comcast's executives will never admit this. But their true intentions lurk in the fine print of statements and filings they have made at the Federal Communications Commission over the years.

These filings reveal a familiar pattern. The company uses free-market rhetoric and pledges of good corporate citizenship to exact favorable rule changes from the federal agency. Once those rulings are in place, it does an about face -- breaking promises and creeping further towards throttling our Web experience and dominating the access market.

As the FCC weighs how to sanction the company for blocking access to applications like BitTorrent, it's worth looking into Comcast's Washington history of bait and switch.

A little digging through FCC's archives tells the tale.

Exhibit A: Open Access

Back in early 2002 Comcast was engaged in the debate over whether cable companies should share “their pipes” with competing Internet service providers. Such "open access" requirements were the law during the age of dial-up Internet, resulting in dozens of competing ISPs delivering services via a single phone line into the home.

Free Market Do Do Birds

Casserly: Friend to Open Access?

Comcast was set against open access rules being extended to cable Internet and deployed legions of lobbyists in Washington to fight the notion. But when they worried their purchase of (the old) AT&T’s broadband service might be derailed, they pledged to offer open access to competing services.

In an "ex parte" letter filed at the Commission in February of that year, Comcast's attorney James L. Casserly touted this promise as:
Concrete evidence of Comcast's intention to afford high-speed Internet customers a choice of ISPs and of the ability of industry participants to make the necessary arrangements through voluntary, commercial negotiations
In a subsequent filing Comcast promised that the merged entity "will have a significant incentive to continue to work with independent ISPs." And in another filing still, the company pledged: "Comcast is committed to negotiating mutually beneficial commercial arrangements with independent ISPs."

Comcast coupled these filings with press releases heralding the company’s partnership with independent ISPs like NetZero, Juno and Earthlink (remember them?) as a sign of their commitment to open access.

Comcast Changes its Tune

So what happened? Based upon Comcast's promises of good behavior, the Commission exempted cable companies from open access rules – opening the door to the court decision and subsequent FCC rulings that put Net Neutrality in jeopardy.


Waz: The Old Bait and Switch

On the heels of the FCC decision against open access, Comcast did a 180. In October 2003, the Washington Post reported that "Comcast officials say they are no longer so keen on the idea" of agreeing to provide access to other services. Joe Waz, a Comcast vice president, added: "If you don't need ISPs for basic connectivity to the Internet, what value do they bring to our customers?"

In other words, as soon as Comcast execs got what they wanted from the FCC, the promises to share their wires at a fair price were forgotten. The press releases touting their deals with competing provider weren’t worth the paper on which they were written.

The end result is that, today, a Comcast customer has no other choice but Comcast for Internet service via their exclusive cable connection. They're stuck with one option, and the "free market" – little more than a chimera in America's high speed Internet world -- had nothing to do with it.

Exhibit B: The Open Internet

Fast forward to 2008. Comcast is now making promises to work with competing video and Internet telephony services and stop blocking popular file-sharing applications. They insist there’s no need for FCC oversight to protect our right to use services of our choice every time we connect to the Web.

Free Market Do Do Birds

Cohen: Free Market Wise Guy

Washington should "rely on the marketplace rather than government regulation to advance the provision of Internet services," wrote Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen in a March filing with the agency. Cohen points to a press release -- issued jointly by BitTorrent, Inc. and Comcast -- as evidence of the "fundamental wisdom of this approach."

In a July filing with the Commission, Vice President Kathryn Zachem pledges Comcast's commitment "to provide network management solutions that benefit consumers and competition."

If past is prologue, why should we expect things to be any different?

Trust the Profit Motive Only

The Comcast message, in case you’ve missed it, sounds like this: "With the free market, we can solve our own problems and deliver to end users the Internet experience that they desire. Trust us."

"A company has a nature," Professor Larry Lessig said earlier this year. "Its nature is to produce economic values and wealth for its shareholders." That one essential truth is about as much trust that we need to extend to corporations, Lessig adds.

Public policy, on the other hand, is designed to make it profitable for corporations to behave in ways that serve the public interest.

With Chairman Martin's latest move to hold the cable company accountable, it seems some at the federal agency have learned this valuable lesson.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Internet Users Stop Comcast, Net Neutrality Win on the Horizon

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is taking action against Comcast for illegally violating Net Neutrality, after a coalition of Net users and activists caught the cable giant blocking open access to the Internet.

Martin told the Associated Press last night that Comcast had "arbitrarily" blocked Internet access and failed to disclose to consumers what it was doing. "We found that Comcast's actions in this instance violated our principles."

Topolski Ignites the Fire

The move is the agency's response to a complaint filed by Free Press and members of, which called for severe action against Comcast for jamming people using popular "file-sharing" applications. But the story goes back further than that.

Organized People Beat Organized Money

Martin's action -- to be voted on by the full FCC in three weeks - would be a major milestone for the growing open Internet movement, marking another defeat of entrenched corporate interests in Washington and a stunning victory for ordinary people who want to control their Internet experience.

If adopted by the FCC, Martin's order could set an historic precedent for protecting the future of the open Internet. Against every ounce of conventional wisdom in Washington, everyday citizens and consumer advocates have taken on a major corporation and won a major victory.

The decision follows nearly a year of organizing and action by a growing alliance of bloggers, Internet innovators, consumer groups, organizations from across the political spectrum, and Net activists from all walks of life.

In that time, tens of thousands of people wrote the FCC in support of Net Neutrality after Free Press filed its complaint against Comcast and asked the agency to levy the largest fine in its history.

Comcast's "Shame"

Hundreds of others packed public hearings to speak out against would-be gatekeepers (even after Comcast notoriously attempted to keep them out by hiring drowsy seat warmers in Boston).

The Power of One

But it all started with one person. When barbershop quartet enthusiast Robb Topolski found Comcast was preventing him from sharing legal music files with other fans, he took to his computer and launched a one-man investigation.

Topolski uncovered conclusive evidence that Comcast was secretly blocking his uploads. His concerns echoed those of hundreds of other Comcast users, who had taken to the blogs and chat rooms to express their dismay.

He posted his findings on a single tech blog. This had a cascading effect, and soon dozens of others were writing about his findings. The Associated Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation conducted their own investigations with similar results. The evidence was indisputable: Comcast was blocking the Internet.

The wheels of government started churning. This time for the better.

The Fight Continues

Martin's move is a major victory. But this fight is far from over. His order has yet to pass, though it seems likely. The cable companies -- and the phone companies, too, even though they're trying to distance themselves from Comcast -- will be back with their money, lawyers and phony grassroots groups to try to take control of the Internet and establish themselves as gatekeepers.

Companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby Washington to gut Net Neutrality and hand over control of the Internet to them. But they so far have failed to overcome widespread and organized public opposition.

Today we can celebrate a huge victory for real people, but we need to continue this fight to send a clear signal to the next Congress and White House that standing with regular people for a free and open Internet is a winning proposition.

America's Next Moon Shot: Internet for Everyone

Almost every great public initiative in America's history, the electrification of rural communities, the creation of the interstate highway system or the 60s-era mission to the moon, started with a powerful vision and the political leadership to get it done.

We need both as we face a challenge to reawaken our democracy and drive economic growth in a world where America's greatest commodity is its people.

This challenge, of course, is delivering high-speed Internet access to everyone.

Internet luminaries speak out for Internet for everyone

And it's no small lift as we have already dug ourselves a hole. Access to broadband today is held in the grip of the cable and phone cartel. This duopoly controls access for more than 98 percent of online American homes. And it's the main reason why American pay far more for much slower speeds than what's available in the rest of the developed world.

Sharing the Broadband Dividend

It has put us at a tremendous disadvantage - one that has been widely documented. But what's alarming is new information about the demographics of access - the so-called "digital divide." According to new analysis by Free Press (my employer), only 35 percent of U.S. homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have a high-speed Internet connection.

And the broadband dividend is not paying out equally. Only 40 percent of racial and ethnic minority households in the United States have access to broadband, while 55 percent of non-Hispanic white households are connected.

"The digital divide is alive and well," Van Jones, the founder of Green For All, said during yesterday's launch of - a new initiative to solve America's gaping broadband access problems. "There's a whole section of people who have not even caught up to where we are now and are in grave danger of being left behind."

According to Jones, this has dire consequences for one's ability to vote, to be a part of the economy and, even, to survive - he mentioned the deaths of migrant farm workers, who didn't receive Web-based emergency notices in time to escape last year's wildfires in California.

Like Hot Water

"Why Internet for all? I think Internet access is required for full participation in society today. Maybe it's not as basic as water, but it's definitely as basic as hot water," Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, said.

According to Chase, Internet access is fundamental to maintaining a high quality of life and for addressing such pressing social problems as America's energy dependency.

Getting Beyond Rhetoric

Returning to the top of international rankings would translate into millions of new jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in increased economic activity for the United States.

For good reason, other developed countries have enacted comprehensive national plans to connect more of their citizens to a fast, affordable and open Internet. The U.S. doesn't have a plan or the leadership to get it done.

We do have national broadband rhetoric, though. In 2004, President Bush pledged "to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007."

As if on cue, last year, Mr. Bush's chief Internet officer, John Kneuer, declared "mission accomplished" -- that all the international surveys were misleading and that the "free market" had ensured that Americans across the country enjoy real choice in high-speed Internet access.

What he and his White House compatriots refuse to acknowledge, though, is that a free market approach for Internet services in the U.S. is a chimera. The only hand in play here belongs to the phone and cable duopoly and a government that's been held in their thrall for too long.

The real solution is a little more nuanced.

Neanderthals and the Three Legged Stool

During the launch of, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein described himself as a "frustrated policymaker" in Washington. "At the FCC I have a stack of proposals on my desk about a national broadband policy," he said. "What we're lacking is the leadership to actually implement those policies."

Adelstein looks at a successful broadband plan as a three-legged stool:

"You have businesses, who will invest and drive deployment, you have the government on all levels hopefully working in concert, and then you have the public both directly involved and through public interest groups like this coalition."

"This is social infrastructure," Professor Larry Lessig said:
"What's bizarre about where we are in the history of building infrastructure is that this is the first time we have tried to undertake the building of fundamental social infrastructure against the background of a Neanderthal philosophy, which is that you don't need government to do anything.

"That Neanderthal philosophy has governed for about the last eight years, and it has allowed us to slide from a leader in this field to an abysmal position. And it's about time when people recognize that of course the private sector has a role, a central role, maybe the most important role, but it's never enough.

Making it Happen is bringing together public interest and for-profit institutions to raise public awareness of the digital divide and spark the political will to address this massive problem.

Closing the broadband digital divide should have been a real national priority for the past eight years. We can't afford NOT to make it a priority for the next eight. While our status as world technology leader went into free fall, Congress sat on the sidelines and the White House ducked and dodged.

There's a reason for that. Getting everyone connected is a political issue at its core. The policy process has been dominated thus far by the broadband incumbents and their well-heeled lobbyists. These companies prefer our lagging Internet status quo to public involvement, choice and real innovation.

And the community that uses the Internet is only now beginning to get organized to guide the debates that will shape its future. We clearly need to do more organizing with the tens of millions of people in communities that can't access the Web.

Getting us back on top will require a national broadband framework that is supported by those beyond the Beltway - who stand to gain the most from a national broadband agenda that promotes access, choice, openness and innovation. And we need bold leadership willing to reject the conventional political wisdom and explore real solutions.