Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Internet Villains and Heroes

If the history of Internet policy were a movie, it would feature the public tied to the tracks before an onrushing train of corporate lobbyists.

The villain, however, is not just the powerful phone and cable companies these lobbyists represent, but the politicians who tightened the knots and then stood smugly by as our interests were crushed.

So how do we change this unhappy ending to one where the power of the Internet remains in the hands of the people who use it?

One politician at a time.

Our policymakers have a civic duty to keep the Internet free and open, tech activist Cory Doctorow writes in Tuesday's Guardian. Internet freedom is essential to our economic recovery, national competitiveness, public health and civic engagement.

"But politicians around the world seem willing to sacrifice their national interest to keep a few powerful phone and telcoms companies happy."

The List of Particulars

By fiddling with the wired Internet -- and walling off content and blocking competing services on wireless networks -- phone and cable companies "are pulling the rug out from under the nations that have sustained them with generous subsidies and regulation," Doctorow said.

The list of particulars isn't pretty.

Comcast was caught red-handed secretly blocking access to popular file-sharing programs. Time Warner Cable is working to impose a metering regime that would impose unfair penalties against those of us who go online for more than simple e-mail and Web surfing.

AT&T is in negotiations with the recording and motion picture industry to sift and filter all Web traffic in search of users they deem inappropriate. This is like letting the post office tear open your mail to determine whether or not it's going to be delivered, or worse, whether to turn you over to the authorities. AT&T's wireless network is crippling innovative new applications that compete with their legacy networks, making the iPhone not quite all it's advertised to be.

All of these network providers reserve the right - via legalese buried deep in their terms of agreement -- to cut off our connections for "any or no reason."

Revolution Limbo

At several points over the past two decades, policymakers have been smack in the middle of decisions to grow the information revolution and safeguard our online rights. But too often, they've stepped aside and allowed good public policy to be undermined by telecommunications giants bent on gaining a stronger hand over the free-flowing Web.

It wasn't meant to be this way.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton made history by signing the Telecommunications Act, which he described as "truly revolutionary" legislation that would "protect consumers against monopolies" and "provide open access for all citizens to the Information Superhighway."

The History of Internet Policy
by Derek Turner
But today, over a dozen years later, "Americans are still waiting on the promise of this digital revolution," Derek S. Turner said last week during the Free Press; Changing Media summit in Washington, D.C.
"But before the ink was even dry on the 1996 Act, the powerful telecommunications giants and their army of lobbyists went straight to work obstructing and undermining the competition the new law was intended to create," Turner said.

In his report Dismantling Digital Deregulation: Toward a National Broadband Strategy, Turner details the failed policies at the root of America's broadband woes.

The blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Federal Communications Commission, which over the last decade ignored the Telecommunications Act's blueprint for a better Internet. Instead, it pushed a regime of deregulation that consistently favored short-term industry interests over the long-term goals of universal broadband, market competition and Internet openness.

As a result, ISPs have stuck consumers with higher prices and slower speeds, while repeatedly threatening to throttle the free and open Internet. And our elected and appointed officials have let this happen.

We're Owed Net Neutrality

Doctorow argues that Net Neutrality -- the principle that protects users' freedom of choice online -- is not only crucial for the future of the Internet, but it is what these network providers owe the public.

"If the phone companies had to negotiate for every pole, every sewer, every punch-down, every junction box, every road they get to tear up, they'd go broke," Doctorow wrote in the Guardian. "All the money in the world couldn't pay for the access they get for free every day."

"Governments and regulators are in a position to demand that these recipients of public subsidy adhere to a minimum standard of public interest," Doctorow concludes. "If they don't like it, let them get into another line of work."

That's a change we can all get behind. But the sad reality of our new policy landscape is that it's much the same as the old.

While President Barack Obama has publicly declared his support for universal and open access to the Internet, his ability to turn support into real reform is constrained by the tremendous influence of money over American policymaking.

One thing is clear: To save the Internet from the lobbyists and their bosses, leaders in Washington must be emboldened by broad-based public support.

Special interests should not be allowed to set Internet policy. Congress and the FCC must protect the Internet's democratic nature. And people who care about their online freedom must let their elected officials know about it.

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