Friday, December 21, 2007

Ten Worst Telco Moments of 2007

A few years ago, President Bush pledged that every corner of America would have high-speed Internet by 2007. Well, the year is drawing to a close, and millions of Americans still do not have access. The United States has dropped from fourth to 15th in the world in broadband penetration in the past five years -- a result of a telco stranglehold on both broadband markets and broadband policy that puts their profits before innovation and the public good.

But that's not all. Even when Americans can get online, an open and neutral Internet is not guaranteed. In the past year, phone and cable companies have been throttling the free flow of information on the Internet and cell phones -- giving us a harrowing glimpse of a world without Net Neutrality.

A review of the 10 Worst Telco Moments of 2007 (in no particular order):

1. White House Declares 'Mission Accomplished' for the Internet

"We have the most effective multiplatform broadband in the world," the Bush administration's top technologist, John Kneuer, told skeptical Web experts and the media in June, despite several international surveys that place the United States far behind countries in Asia and Europe.

Kneuer says the real problem is not bad policy, but faulty data in the surveys. While the Bush White House seemed over eager to declare broadband success, America's failing report card told a story of a larger systems breakdown. "Previous generations put a toaster in every home and a car in every driveway as signs of economic progress," Sen. John Kerry wrote in September. "To stay competitive, we should strive to do the same with nationwide broadband." Let's hope our next president understands that ubiquitous broadband access needs to be more than a mirage

2. Telcos Spy on Millions of Americans

For several years now, the nation's largest telecommunications companies have been spying on their own customers without a warrant. In the process, they delivered to the federal government the private records of millions of Americans. Their excuse -- national security in the face of a known terrorist threat -- holds little weight when one considers that they've been spying on us with the NSA well in advance of the September 11 attacks.

Now, they are pushing a bill -- "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" -- that would grant complicit phone companies retroactive amnesty from prosecution for violations of our civil liberties. While a few, brave senators have stood in the way of the bill and refused to let the telcos off the hook, the legislation still stands a good chance of getting through.

3. Comcast is Busted for Blocking BitTorrent

In October, an Associated Press investigation revealed that Comcast - technically a cableco - was secretly blocking peer-to-peer file sharing programs like BitTorrent and Gnutella. Comcast's blocking is a glaring violation of Net Neutrality.

BitTorrent is rapidly emerging as one of the most successful online platforms for the sharing of large files. Comcast has a natural incentive to keep customers watching movies and television shows through their system, not the Internet.. Despite the evidence, Comcast's David Cohen told Ars Technica that Comcast does not block access to file sharing applications and that their practice is just "content shaping." In response, members filed a petition urging the FCC to stop Comcast from blocking Internet traffic and fine them for their violations.

And what can you do if you find out that you've been blocked by Comcast? Switch to AT&T or Verizon and suffer with slow DSL speeds and their own draconian terms of service. Free Press has sifted through the agreements of several Internet and cell phone providers and found similar language that reserves their right to cut off users on a whim.

4. AT&T and Verizon Censor Free Speech

In September, Verizon Wireless blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America's efforts to send mobile text messages to its members. After a New York Times expose, the phone company reversed its policy, claiming it was a glitch.

A month earlier, during the 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. AT&T launched its own bungled PR response after a flurry of criticism. But both companies refused to change internal policies which allowed them to censor in the future.

Their apologies aren't cutting it anymore. Censorship by AT&T and Verizon is further proof that these corporate giants simply cannot be left at the controls of Internet content. These same providers handed customer phone records over to the NSA without a subpoena and are now strong-arming Congress for retroactive immunity (see No. 2). And they want us to trust them with the Internet?

5. Caught Red-Handed, Telcos Change Their Tune

For some time, phone and cable companies and their shills and lobbyists had been spinning Net Neutrality as a "solution in search of a problem." But 2007 brought us a series of violations of Internet freedom which brought the "problem" into vivid relief for millions.

Undaunted, the shills quickly changed their tune, admitting that indeed some mistakes were made, but the telcos were merely implementing "reasonable network management" (aka content discrimination) to bring us the Internet that we all love and cherish. The moral of this story: Follow what the telcos do, not just what they say.

6. Media Insiders Suffer Telco-Vision

Don't always believe the purveyors of conventional wisdom in Washington media. Some of these pundits are so steeped in their own "knowledge" that they get stuck spinning in place when faced with evidence to the contrary. This was the case for a chosen few who in 2007 hunkered down behind their laptops to write commentaries to convince the world that Net Neutrality was dead and gone. The issue is a "fading memory," one crowed. It "barely raises a yawn" said another.

Their view of the world, however, rarely extends beyond the Potomac, where the Net Neutrality issue was leading the news and being vigorously debated along the campaign trail. Indeed, Net Neutrality emerged as the No. 1 issue that thousands of visitors to TechPresident selected to be answered by all the presidential candidates. So the next time an insider tells you that Net Neutrality is dead, I advise you to check his pulse instead. Then point out the more than 1.5 million Americans who are taking action to protect the free and open Internet.

7. The iPhone Gets Shackled

The introduction of the iPhone over the summer highlighted both the promise and the problems of America's wireless marketplace. On the one hand, it demonstrated the promises of a truly mobile Internet. On the other hand, the iPhone raised serious questions about the fact that most every mobile phone consumer is locked into a long-term contracts, using a phone that has been "crippled" by carriers, with significant penalties for switching to a new provider.

The iPhone was shackled to AT&T. The reason? We have allowed carriers to exert almost complete gatekeeper control over all devices, services and content in the wireless sector -- a move that has left U.S. innovation generations behind other nations. Reviewing the state of the wireless market in America, New York Times blogger David Pogue called American carriers "calcified, conservative and way behind their European and Asian counterparts." Despite recent efforts to open devices, the lockdown of cell phones remains the dominant characteristic of most every user agreement in the country.

8. Bush's Justice Dept. Files Against Net Neutrality

In September, departing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales filed a brief with the Federal Communications Commission, urging the agency to oppose Net Neutrality. 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 move once again proved the point: Powerful corporate and government gatekeepers are working together to dismantle Internet freedoms and impose their will upon the Web. By moving against Net Neutrality, Gonzales was merely pulling last-minute favors for friends in high places. Soon thereafter, Free Press submitted a FOIA request to shed light on the DOJ's recent hit job against Net Neutrality and uncover whether industry lobbyists or White House politics had a hand in this unusual action. We're still waiting for a response.

9. FCC's Rosy Broadband Report Wilts Under Scrutiny

In February, the FCC released its biannual report on the U.S. broadband market. On the surface, the numbers sounded good. High-speed Internet lines increased by 26 percent during the first half of 2006, and broadband was reportedly available in 99 percent of all U.S. ZIP codes. But the broadband reality is much darker. According to Free Press Research Director Derek Turner, the FCC used an "absurd standard" to measure broadband -- 200 kilobits per second. "That was barely fast enough to surf in 1999, but is far below what's needed to enjoy streaming video, VoIP, flash animation or other common Internet applications."

Indeed, speeds are much slower than what's available in the rest of the world. Half of all U.S. broadband connections are slower than 2.5 megabits per second -- yet in countries like Japan and South Korea, they're rolling out 100 megabit services. And there's no real competition. 98 percent of high-speed residential lines in America are provided by incumbent cable or telecom companies. Using ZIP codes alone vastly overstates the availability and competition for broadband services. While the FCC's data has been widely debunked, the telco lobby crowed that the FCC had proven beyond a doubt that the American broadband marketplace was a haven of free-market competition -- which leads us to our final "worst moment."

10. More Astroturf Sprouts Up, Speads Lies

Washington policymaking has spawned a cottage industry of phony front groups put in place by phone and cable companies eager to spread misinformation about anything that threatens their control over the network. Nowhere is this more evident than in their campaign to defeat open Internet initiatives.

Throughout the year, companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have funneled millions of dollars toward "Astroturf" front groups such as the disingenuously named, Hands Off the Internet and The Future Faster. For example, Hands Off the Internet -- which sounds like a citizens group to protect the Internet from gatekeepers -- is actually a telco-backed lobbying group that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on video PSAs and "grassrootsy" Web campaigns aimed at eliminating efforts to restore Net Neutrality protections and spread open access.

True to form, these front groups spent much of 2007 cranking out phony PR, mouthing telco taking points and casting doubt against any effort to ensure that the Internet is open, neutral and free of interference by gatekeepers. And these groups aren't going away soon. Expect to see them on our worst moments list at the end of 2008.

-- Co-authored by Lynn Erskine

[Tune in next week for the Ten Best Open Internet Moments of 2007]