Friday, February 29, 2008

In Boston: A Shot Heard 'Round the Internet

Something may have been lost in this week's brief media frenzy over "seat-gate" -- the much discussed incident where Comcast hired people off the street to keep out the public from this Monday's FCC hearing in Boston.

ComcastSleepersComcast's Sleeper Cell
But while Comcast's seat-warmers slept, a collection of Cambridge scholars, Internet advocates, industry leaders, engineers and policymakers nearly all agreed that Internet blocking has serious consequences for each and every one of us.

I say "nearly" because Comcast remains defiant; its executive vice president, David Cohen, continues to insist that "Comcast does not block any Web site, application or Web protocol including peer-to-peer services."

Cohen sets a high bar with that denial, especially since extensive testing has shown exactly the opposite to be true.

"There a single fact here that [Comcast] cannot deny," explained Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu. "Users of the Internet, sought to use an application in a certain way, and they were blocked."

This view was supported later by David Reed of MIT's Media Lab, who had also experimented with popular file-sharing applications and found that Comcast was duping users with forged network transmissions that cut off user connections. "Comcast's secretive attempt to apply non-standard management practices creates serious problems," he said.

No Problem?

Comcast's Cohen said that this was probably just a minor issue at the engineering level and then declared that his engineers just ran a test of BiTorrent and found there to be no blocking, "no problem."

Sound familiar?

For several years now, big phone and cable have claimed that Net Neutrality was "a solution in search of a problem."

But the problem is clear. The phone and cable companies are telling us they're going to discriminate.

The top executives of major telecom companies have stated clearly in the pages of BusinessWeek, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post that they would like to favor certain content over others.

And they're already doing it. In just the past few months, in addition to Comcast's assault on competing file-sharing applications, Verizon has blocked text messages sent by NARAL Pro-Choice America to its own members, and AT&T is hatching launched plans to filter and inspect all Web traffic for perceived copyright infringements.

Against this backdrop, the Boston hearing will be seen as a call to arms in the struggle over the freedom of the Internet.

Getting Gatekeepers Out of Our Way

It's what my colleague Ben Scott often calls a "clash of civilizations." At stake is whether the Internet will be open, neutral and accessible to all -- or a closed network controlled by a handful of gatekeepers with dreams of monopoly power.

In Boston it became clear to everyone that companies like Comcast seek ultimate control over this most democratic of media and the new economies it will foster.

"Let's bear in mind that the Internet is the communications network that is quickly becoming the backbone for all the other communications networks that Americans use," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in Boston. "In other words, how all of this turns out is a very, very big deal for each and every one of us."

Put into those terms it's probably easier to understand why Net Neutrality is so critical. People need to control their ability to speak out, innovate and spread new ideas without the fear that a company like Comcast, Verizon or AT&T will yank the chord.

In Boston Harvard Law professor and network guru Yochai Benkler put it best: "Once you stop looking through the blinders of people trained in 20th Century business models, the Internet is about people connecting to each other, to chat about the silly and the profound, to create together and to organize, to transact and to tell each other stories about who we are, and how are lives might become."

Professor Benkler added that ISPs must understand that this open, user-driven model is the future of the Internet, "or else get out of the way."

We're the Deciders

That the Boston hearing was marred by Comcast's efforts to stack the crowd in its favor -- leaving concerned citizens out in the cold -- demonstrates again why we can't trust these types of companies with an Internet that is vital to our democracy and prosperity.

Those who should ultimately decide the Internet's future are people like you and me -- everyone who uses the Internet every day and in every way. That's why every citizen needs to get involved right now.

On Capitol Hill, Congressmen Ed Markey and Chip Pickering have introduced the bipartisan "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" (HR 5353) that would establish Net Neutrality protections for the next generation of Internet networks. Supporting this bill is a good place to start.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Your Internet: Open or Closed?

During a Friday briefing in the chambers of the House Commerce Committee Tim Wu, Ben Scott, Marvin Ammori, Jef Pearlman and Markham Erickson laid out the central struggle in our campaign to save a free-flowing Internet.

At stake is whether the Internet will be open, neutral and accessible to all or a closed network -- controlled by a handful of gatekeepers with monopoly tendencies.

Neutrality v. Monopoly

The speakers laid out this conflict in clear, concise and often chilling terms. Their comments are drawn into relief against a backdrop of abuses by network giants Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.

The stage was also set by Reps. Ed Markey and Chip Pickering, who earlier in the week introduced the "Internet Freedom and Preservation Act" a forward-thinking piece of legislation that would write baseline Net Neutrality protections into the Communications Act, and give the FCC the teeth to stop incidents of discriminatory blocking and censorship over the Internet.

(And let's not forget efforts by many of these same actors to gain immunity from prosecution for unwarranted spying on Americans.)

Why Now?

The Clash of Civilizations

Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, often calls this conflict a "clash of civilizations."

It's a time in our immediate history when traditional media powers are facing off against a new form of communications -- that is more grassroots and decentralized -- and attempting to re-assert their control as they did in the past when the "disruptive technologies" of the broadcast era were being adopted by mass audiences.

"Behind every great and abusive monopoly almost always lies a network ... a network that has been co-opted, which has been turned into a discriminatory network, and which has been then used to carry out and further the power of the monopoly." Said Wu.

Monopoly, Investment and the Public Interest

"So when we are talking about these complicated issues of Comcast blocking and what's going on with NARAL what we are really talking about is whether we will allow these networks to become the seeds of a new generation of dangerous and abusive monopolies."

A Moment in History

Scott asked why we are engaged in this fight over an open verses closed Internet right now.

Through a combination of forces -- including remarkable innovations in technology, surging consumer demand, industry consolidation and policy mistakes -- the U.S. Internet has arrived at a volatile moment.

Comcast's Control Fantasy

Decisions we make about our right to communicate right now will have an impact on our economic and civic life and social health for generations to come.

In the videos embedded here, Wu, Scott, Ammori, Pearlman and Erickson help set the stage for this struggle.

With their legislation this week, Markey and Pickering give us hope that we can send a strong and clear message that heavy-handed telco and cable control will no longer be tolerated.