Thursday, January 29, 2009

More Ghosts in the Machine

Cox Communications, the nation's third-largest cable company, on Tuesday unveiled a plan to monitor and slow Internet content it deems unimportant.

With this news, Cox joins the ranks of other Internet providers willing to tempt legal fate by getting between customers and their access to the free-flowing Web.

Comcast -- which the FCC sanctioned last year for just this type of interference – had secretly blocked access to legal file-sharing applications to users the cable giant deemed “bandwidth hogs.”

Undaunted, Comcast reportedly has now joined AT&T in a new effort to filter Web traffic for files deemed inappropriate by movie and recording industry lawyers.

Cable ServiceCox Communications: Your Friend in the Digital Age
Cox has decided that certain Web traffic is “less time-sensitive,” and will be blocked in favor of other “more timely” content during periods of high congestion. They plan to test this system on their lucky customers in Kansas and Arkansas before rolling it out nationwide.

The Rise of the Deemers

Who decides what’s more sensitive and less sensitive on the Internet? Apparently, the deemers do.

And that’s the problem.

The lesson we learned from Comcast’s misadventures in network management is to be skeptical of any practice that comes between users and the Internet – even if it’s deemed appropriate by those standing behind the curtain.

And while Cox has called its gatekeeper intentions sound, its Web site gives little indication about how these practices will affect Internet users. Nor does it indicate that they plan to comply with the FCC's Internet Policy Statement, which helps guarantee that control of your Internet experience ultimately resides with you – the user.

“As a general rule, we're concerned about any cable or phone company picking winners and losers online,” said Ben Scott, Free Press policy director. “These kinds of practices cut against the fundamental neutrality of the open Internet.” Free Press has urged the FCC to subject Cox’s new practice to close scrutiny.

Internet Juju

“One always has to wonder what kind of juju is going on behind closed doors when a plan such as this is announced,” writes Darren Murph of Endgadget, referring to Cox. But Murph’s comment applies just as easily to the magic behind Hollywood’s plan to police the Internet with the aid of these same ISPs.

It’s a “kind of juju” called deep packet inspection, or DPI, which allows network managers to inspect, track and target user messages as they move along the Information Superhighway.

Simply put, DPI is the Internet equivalent of the mailman opening and reading your mail to decide whether or not to deliver it.

Last year, ISPs declared before Congress that they were siding with Internet users and "keeping their distance" from DPI. But we did our own deep packet inspection and found that the network providers' actions often speak louder than their testimony.

Playing God on the Net

DPI forms the cornerstone of plans to profit from policing Web content. Using this filtering technology, companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast would be able to decide whether a user packet is allowed to pass or be routed to a different lane.

It lets them pry open user's trunks, erect new tolls and sell off or bar privileged access based on what they find inside.

“In a time when information is everything, it's not an Internet provider's place to determine what content is worthy of bandwidth and what content isn't,” writes J.R. Raphael of PC World. “Ranking activities and adjusting their speed is no different. Ultimately, that's called playing God -- and sorry to tell ya, Cox, but your power shouldn't be supreme.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Change or Cha-ching?

Change has come to America. Well, sort of. On "K" Street - home to Washington's most powerful corporate lobbyists - it's business as usual.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the scrum of lobbyists gathering around President Obama's economic stimulus package. Hearings started yesterday in the House Appropriations Committee and they're already lining the halls outside chambers.

Without a strong public interest voice at the table, lobbyists could steer billions in taxpayer dollars toward a corporate welfare boondoggle. This lost opportunity would be felt most acutely in our efforts to close America's gaping digital divide.

The Internet Economy

Obama's Kids
Obama has set aside $6 billion for broadband deployment and has been outspoken about the Internet's role in jump starting our "21st century economy," allowing small rural businesses to compete in global markets and giving every child a chance to access fast and open Internet technology.

For Ashea Williams, a special education teacher at Washington D.C.'s Arts and Technology Academy, it's a change that couldn't come soon enough for her young students. "A lot of our students do not have Internet access," she said last week. "So a lot of the activities that we do here at school they cannot expand upon at home. So the learning ends here."

If done right - by building an open and affordable network with plentiful service options -- Obama's economic stimulus plan could close the digital divide for many of Williams' students, and also for those living in rural America.

Business as Usual

But don't tell that to the many lobbyists and "analysts" plying their trade in Washington.

In their ears, "economic stimulus" means an opportunity to cash in on lucrative deals shilling for corporate interests.

One of them, Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, has been busy convincing the Beltway that this taxpayer money should be handed over to broadband incumbents like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon -- with few to no strings attached.

"We have got to focus on what this is all about," he said recently at a forum on Internet and the economic stimulus package. "This is not about broadband reform -- this is about stimulus... Stimulus has to have one goal, and that is to get as much investment in as fast a time as possible."

Change, Not 'Cha-ching'

Get out your DC decoder rings to descramble this message. What Atkinson really means is that change isn't needed for America's Internet - not even at a time when our country has slid to 22nd in the world in high-speed Internet adoption.

In Atkinson's view, we merely need to funnel taxpayer dollars to the same phone and cable companies that got us into this problem. They'll pocket the cash and continue to:
  1. Exert their near complete control over America's broadband market;
  2. Stifle new innovation and market entrants; and
  3. Charge users higher prices for slower speeds than what's available to people in other developed nations.
When Atkinson says: "This is not about broadband reform" he really means it's about business as usual.

And he's not alone. Legions of lobbyists are taking a stand with the phone and cable companies to fight conditions like non-discrimination and open access that would guarantee that this public money actually serves the public good.

Stimulus for Whom?

The stimulus bill as it's drafted sets a different tone. It states that companies receiving broadband grants must allow consumers to access the Internet with no controls placed on their Web traffic or choice of content. Another provision calls for "open access" rules - which guarantee more competition -- to guide this stimulus.

Nowhere does it say that taxpayers should prop up a powerful duopoly that has served us poorly in the past. But this could change if the lobbyists get the ear of Congress and strike these conditions from the bill.

Stimulus is critical and the Internet has an important part to play in spreading economic opportunity. But simply enriching AT&T is not the answer.

We need to preserve these built-in guarantees so that our public money will build a better, more open and affordable system.

But Congress is moving so quickly, and big phone and cable are lobbying so ferociously, that we risk watching this chance turn into yet another corporate handout - one that enriches the phone and cable companies instead of investing in the change that Ashea Williams and her students need.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Back to Business as Usual

A quote caught my attention on this first full day of the Obama Administration. It’s from a story on America’s economic stimulus package.

Our new president plans to set aside $6 billion to connect more Americans to the Internet. And his broadband plan is now on a fast track through Congress. (A House hearing is scheduled for today).

If done right, the plan could help close the digital divide, spread economic opportunity and ensure an open Internet for everyone.

But don’t tell that to the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington think tank that’s a part of Washington’s own economic stimulus racket. Robert Atkinson supports taxpayer money for broadband but prefers it be delivered with no strings attached.

Here’s what Atkinson had to say:
"We have got to focus on what this is all about. This is not about broadband reform -- this is about stimulus... Stimulus has to have one goal, and that is to get as much investment in as fast a time as possible.”
Get out your DC decoder rings folks. What Atkinson really means by this is change ain’t needed – not even at a time when America has slid to 22nd in the world in high-speed Internet adoption.We merely need to funnel taxpayer dollars to the same phone and cable companies that got us into this problem. They’ll pocket the change and continue to:
  1. exert their near complete control over America’s broadband market,
  2. stifle new innovation and market entrants, and
  3. charge users higher prices for slower speeds than what’s available to people in other developed nations.
When Atkinson says: “This is not about broadband reform” he really means it’s about business as usual.

And he’s telegraphing to companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast that he will stand with them to fight conditions like non-discrimination and open access that would guarantee that public money for broadband actually serves the public good.

Obama’s own tech platform sets a different tone:
"Deploy Next-Generation Broadband: Work towards true broadband in every community in America through a combination of reform of the Universal Service Fund, better use of the nation's wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives."
Nowhere does it say that taxpayers should prop up a powerful market duopoly that has served us poorly in the past.

Obama also lists Net Neutrality and “the full and free exchange of information through an open Internet” as his top technology priority as president.

Stimulus is critical. And the Internet has an important part to play in spreading economic opportunity. But simply enriching AT&T is not the answer. We need built-in guarantees that our public money will build a better, more open and affordable system.

What you’re witnessing in Atkinson’s comments is his own audition for an economic bailout. ITIF appears to be one in a long list of coin-operated think tanks that strike lucrative deals with industry. The game goes something like this: “You support my little group financially and we’ll churn out ‘analysis’ that you can cite as evidence while you lobby Congress for corporate handouts.”

Despite our new president this still seems to be the real business of Washington, and, sadly, Atkinson is playing his part.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Strong Neutrality Advocate to Lead FCC

President-elect Barack Obama is due to tap Net Neutrality supporter Julius Genachowski to become chair of the Federal Communications Commission.

Genachowski is one of the principal architects of Obama’s pro-Neutrality tech and media platform, which was partially unveiled during a November 2007 event, at which Obama pledged to "ensure a free and full exchange of information" and "take a backseat to no one in my commitment to Network Neutrality."


Genachowski in the front seat

Genachowski is well regarded in the technology community, both as the former chief counsel for Reed Hundt, an FCC chairman under President Bill Clinton, and as a private-sector entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

Expect Genachowski to turn his attention to bringing more choice to a broadband market controlled by a cartel of phone and cable companies.

He’s also expected to pry open valuable spectrum to broadband innovation and access, something his predecessor, the current FCC Chair Kevin Martin, said was a part of his own legacy at the agency. Indeed, more still needs to be done.

Net Neutrality is also a prominent feature in Obama’s plan for his FCC chief.

In October 2007 Obama pledged during a YouTube/MTV interview to reinstate Net Neutrality as the law of the land during his first year in office and to appoint as FCC chair someone who shares this view.

Obama's goals for the FCC
“I am a strong supporter of Net Neutrality,” Obama said. “So as president I’m going to make sure that that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward.”

Genachowski influence on Obama has already yielded forward-looking policies as part of the technology and media platform that’s been posted by Obama’s transition team. According to the site, an Obama administration will hold to its campaign promises and “protect the openness of the Internet.”

“A key reason the Internet has been such a success is because it is the most open network in history. It needs to stay that way,” Obama’s policy team states. “Barack Obama strongly supports the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet.”

Friday, January 09, 2009

Obama's Democracy Stimulus

President-elect Barack Obama this morning delivered his first major speech of the new year, pledging to "put the American Dream within reach of the American people."

A core component of Obama's economic recovery plan is "expanding broadband lines across America" to give everyone the chance to get online.

Historically, presidents have turned to public works projects to jolt new life into flagging economies: Lincoln promoted the railroads; Roosevelt erected dams and strung power lines; Eisenhower built the Interstate highways.

The construction alone put thousands to work. And better infrastructure pumped new energy into the private sector, creating many more jobs and countless long-term economic benefits.

Internet is the infrastructure of our time, so it makes sense for Obama to turn special attention to improving this essential technology.

According to a 2007 study by the Brookings Institution, boosting U.S. broadband adoption by 20 percent -- putting America on par with a country like Denmark -- would create 3 million new jobs. But it doesn't end there.

Building better broadband is not a bailout. It's a buildout for better democracy.

Connecting to the Dream
Economic crisis or not, connecting everyone to a fast, open and affordable Internet will better our democracy as a whole. It's something we should have done well before mortgage bankers drove our economy off a cliff, well before the country fell from fourth to 15th in the world in broadband adoption. And it's something we should continue to prioritize well after this crisis is over.

Millions of people trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide are being deprived of a better education, good jobs and full participation in our democracy.

Obama's "American Dream" is a matter not only of enrichment but of engagement.

Last year, millions of people joined social networks, e-mail lists, online fundraisers and forums to support their favorite candidates and topple politics as usual in Washington. Even if you didn't vote for Obama, the Internet organizing that paved his way to the White House has transformed 21st-century politics.

This Internet movement doesn't end for Obama at the doorstep of the White House. As president, Obama needs to roll up his sleeves and work with all of us to ensure that every American has access to a fast, open and affordable Internet.

My colleague S. Derek Turner has created a detailed plan to use $44 billion in broadband stimulus spending that will help us get there. That's the "how." The "why" is really what's most important about this work.

In 2008, the Internet opened the door to a new kind of political power, one that's more diverse, grassroots and decentralized. In 2009, it's time we put that power in the hands of every American.