Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Comcast's 'Bill of Rights,' Wrong for an Open Internet

Comcast can't seem to get it straight.

On the one hand they're snubbing a debate over openness and the Internet -- refusing to take part in yesterday's FCC public hearing. On the other, they've announced plans to open an industry-wide conversation to craft a "bill of rights" for ISPs, Internet companies and users.

The latter, a Comcast collaboration with Internet traffic managing company Pando Networks, received mixed reviews earlier this week when the cable company rolled it before the media.

I trashed it. And now my initial concerns seem justified.

The Right to Special Treatment

For just as the public hearings were getting underway in Stanford, Robert Levitan, Pando chief executive, told the New York Times that "he hoped Comcast might program its network to give preference to applications like the one his company makes."

Levitan's admission exposes the true motives behind industry efforts to craft a "bill of rights:" to lay the ground for an Internet rife with discriminatory deals and preferential treatment.

"The company appears to want to use the network management issues raised by Comcast to seek a deal that provides them preferential distribution over the Internet," Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, said in a statement.

"It is exactly why technology companies, innovators, and millions of consumers have argued that the marketplace is not working properly and have asked the FCC provide basic rules of the road to protect against such behavior."

The Right to Ignore the Rules

The industry's carefully orchestrated announcements of initiatives to self-regulate are not the magic of the free market at work, Free Press policy director Ben Scott testified yesterday. "It is the threat of regulatory intervention."

Without that threat -- and an agency willing to act on behalf of the public interest -- we'd have already sacrificed several basic Internet freedoms to the whims of Pando and Comcast.

"Comcast actions to date have shown that they can't be trusted to 'self regulate,'" L. Peter Deutsch, a pioneering Xerox Palo Alto Research Center computer scientist, told the FCC. "Allowing the big carriers rather than consumers and public interest advocates, to take the lead in codifying a 'bill of rights' for Internet users would be like letting King George's cabinet take the lead in writing the U.S. Constitution."

Comcast had hoped that we would all interpret the "bill of rights" as a genuine -- to conclude that public hearings and FCC oversight were not needed to keep the Internet open for everyone.

The Right to Undermine the Internet

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

"A tiger has a nature, and that nature is not one you trust with your child," Professor Larry Lessig said during yesterday's Stanford hearing. "A company has a nature. It's nature is to produce economic values and wealth for its share holders."

According to Lessig, that one essential truth is about as much trust that the public needs to extend to public corporations. It's understood that they will behave in this way, and nothing is wrong with that.

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

According to Lessig: "We set public policy to create the incentives for them to pick the right business models."

In a perfect scenario we also set public policy to foster more a productive and economically beneficial marketplace for all involved. Net Neutrality is such a policy.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stanford Hearing an Internet Wake-Up Call

Get ready for Round Two in the Internet's Battle Royale of 2008. At stake is whether we should allow a handful of giant corporations to close the Web for their own gain, or whether we should put in place baseline protections that will leave our Internet open to the millions of people who use it.

Round One occurred late February at a public event in Boston, where Comcast deployed paid seat-fillers to bar others from entering an official hearing of the Federal Communications Commission.

It's a shame so many people missed the event. While Comcast seat-warmers snoozed, a collection of Harvard and MIT 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. Despite recent overtures to certain file sharing companies, its executive vice president, David Cohen, continues to insist to the FCC and the world that "Comcast does not block any Web site, application or Web protocol including peer-to-peer services."

The FCC in Silicon Valley

We'll no doubt hear more industry spin during the second FCC hearing, scheduled to occur on the Stanford campus, April 17. Barring any new tricks from Comcast, the public should be able to attend. The venue hold's more than 700 people. And we'll be sure to be on guard for anyone who plans to bus in paid sleeper cells.

Stanford is the perfect place and time to take to the next level the public conversation about an Internet free of corporate gatekeepers. It's the crossroads of Web innovation, research and investment. And the FCC has allowed at least two hours for public testimony. (The SavtheInternet.com Coalition is working with allies and partners on the ground to be sure everyone who wants to testify has a turn at the microphone.)

This is a important opportunity. It is rare for all five members of the Federal Communications Commission to leave Washington, D.C. together. It's rarer still to have them together accepting public input in the Bay Area.

An Alarming Trend

And there's no better time to hear from us. Comcast has been caught blocking BitTorrent, Verizon has been caught blocking text messages, AT&T wants to inspect and filter Web traffic.

In 2005 and 2006, the phone and cable companies told us they planned to block and 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.

In 2007, they showed us they meant business. 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 plans to filter and inspect all Web traffic for perceived copyright infringements.

With so much at stake at Stanford, it's encouraging that the FCC's first move is to quickly seek public feedback and expert counsel about the future of the Internet.

Show Up and Speak Out

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.
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1. Separate Fact From Fiction -- Net Neutrality Myths and Realities.

2. Download Talking Points -- 4 Things You Need to Know.

3. Why Internet Freedom is a Civil Rights Issue.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Heat is on an Open Internet

For an excellent perspective on Net Neutrality, read Saturday's New York Times op-ed by OK Go guitarist Damian Kulash.

OK Go Goes to Washington

Kulash, who recently spent time on the Hill with bandmate Andy Ross, explains the central conflict over an open or closed Internet.

"At root there’s a pretty simple question," he writes. "How much control should network operators be allowed to have over the information on their lines?"

More than Censorship

Kulash points to recent events where operators have crossed the line into gatekeeping.

In addition to Comcast's assault on file-sharing applications, Verizon has blocked text messages sent by NARAL Pro-Choice America to its members, and AT&T, which has censored Pearl Jam concert Webcasts, is now hatching plans to filter and inspect all Web traffic for perceived copyright infringements.

"When the network operators pull these stunts, there is generally widespread outrage," Kulash writes. "But outright censorship and obstruction of access are only one part of the issue, and they represent the lesser threat, in the long run. What we should worry about more is not what’s kept from us today, but what will be built (or not built) in the years to come."

To allow these companies to slowly build a system of gatekeepers into the network is the real and present threat, he writes.

"Exactly," Internet guru David Isenberg said in response to Kulash's comment. "Outright censorship is way too visible for them to get away with. Creeping proactive censorship built into a new infrastructure is a much harder story to tell. And a much bigger danger."

Boiling the Frog

It's analogous to "boiling the frog," according to Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge.

The frog metaphor goes something like this: "If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog in warm water, and gradually raise the temperature, it will become acclimated, until it becomes cooked."

Through endless lobbying and their own meddling with the pipes, phone and cable companies have been slowly shifting the way the Internet operates, bringing it into line with their profit plans.

Over time, these incremental shifts in policy and perception amount to radical and harmful changes to an Internet that has fostered free speech, economic innovation and opened governments to public scrutiny.

The Heat is On

We have now arrived at the boiling point for the modern Internet. It's time Americans became more involved with communications policy decisions being made in their name, but not necessarily with their consent.

Congress is considering a bill -- the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" -- and the Federal Communications Commission weighing new rules on network gatekeeping at this very moment. Both of these processes are open to public input.

As Kulash put it today:
The telephone company doesn’t get to decide what we discuss over our phone lines. It would be absurd to let the handful of companies who connect us to the Internet determine what we can do online. Congress needs to establish basic ground rules for an open Internet, just as common carriage laws did for the phone system.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

America's Internet Future Looking Like Its Past

So much for a cheaper, faster and more open Internet?

With news that AT&T and Verizon have just won the most significant chunks of available wireless spectrum, Americans face a future of more of the same: slower Internet speeds for prices that are far higher than what many people pay in Europe and Asia.

VerizonThe Home of the Internet?
And without action to restore Net Neutrality protections, the Web we get may be blinkered by phone and cable companies' ability to restrict the content and applications we may want to use.

Earlier this year, Verizon and AT&T plunked down a combined $16.3 billion for the largest blocks of licenses to use the public spectrum up for sale on the "700 band."

When Congress authorized this auction, their stated intention was to pry open our cell phone and broadband markets to consumer choice and new competition. But having Verizon and AT&T control the most significant chunks of the spectrum -- including the so-called national C Block -- means more of the same for Internet users.

At the moment, U.S. Internet users face a broadband duopoly where nearly 99 percent of all residential connections are provided by incumbent cable or phone companies. The wireless spectrum that went up for bid represented a new way to get high-speed Internet services to millions of Americans.

And it couldn't come at a more crucial time. The cost of broadband in other countries continues to drop dramatically while speeds have increased. But U.S. consumers still pay more -- 10 to 25 times more on a price per megabit basis than broadband users in Japan -- and get less.

Verizon and AT&T are already among the most dominant providers of "wired" broadband access in the U.S. Their victories over the bulk of 700 MHz licenses leave slim prospects for genuine Internet competition via a wireless "third pipe."

The Mobile Web on Hold

The popularity of the iPhone gave us a limited glimpse of the democratic potential of a mobile Internet. Imagine a time when people are able to connect to the high-speed Internet wherever they are and without any restrictions to the content they chose to pull off and push onto the Web.

The technology is already available -- and so are the airwaves that could connect people on the go. But the giant incumbents would rather erect more toll booths and roadblocks than let us have a truly open Internet in our pockets. Sadly, our bureaucrats and elected officials seem content to let them have their way.

With the auction news, we just lost an opportunity to take the mobile Web to the next level and do something really innovative with our last, best spectrum.

Verizon's stance against Net Neutrality -- combined with its censoring of cell phone text messages "for any reason or no reason" -- means the newly won C Block will likely not become the haven for free speech and openness that many had hoped to see.

And don't expect either Verizon or AT&T to do anything in the wireless space that threatens their status quo of control over the wired broadband market. Why would they build cheaper and more open mobile networks that could cannibalize their legacy land-line businesses?

What's Next

In response to public pressure, the Federal Communications Commission will require Verizon to allow any device or software application on its network.

This is a positive first step toward new wireless innovation and openness. And the billions brought into the Treasury by this auction – double congressional estimates -- prove wrong the industry Cassandras and shills who claimed that open spectrum protections would dampen demand, drive down the price and scare away bidders.

But Verizon and AT&T likely paid so much for this spectrum for other reasons. They didn't do so to bring to the market new and open innovations at low prices; they did it to protect their market power from a new ideas and competitive threats.

To keep pressure on the incumbents we need to continue to press for openness and innovation -- not just via this new spectrum but over all of our wireless networks.

Last year, the Internet phone company Skype filed a petition at the FCC today asking that the agency ensure that any users of mobile devices has the freedom to communicate over all wireless networks.

This petition has important ramifications for all of us who want to carry the Internet in our pockets via hand-held devices that connect us to broadband in the same way we do via our home computers -- without the interference of wireless gatekeepers who can unilaterally determine what devices and applications can function on available wireless networks.

This is a revolutionary idea. But without public and political pressure, I expect very little change to the closed and predatory approach taken by the likes of Verizon and AT&T.

Moreover, these deep-pocketed incumbents will always win access to our public airwaves under these sorts of auctions.

We need to rethink the ways we dole out licenses in ways that will allow upstarts and innovators to enter the marketplace and break up the slow-moving broadband cartel. It's time we unlocked our spectrum so users can enjoy the future of the Internet today.