Saturday, August 29, 2009

NYT: Time to Make Net Neutrality the Law

The New York Times gets Net Neutrality right again, and again, and again. In their fourth editorial in support of Net Neutrality the newspaper’s editors write:
"A good bill that would guarantee so-called net neutrality has been introduced in the House. Congress should pass it, and the Obama administration should use its considerable power to make net neutrality the law. "
Why? According to the Times, we can't let Internet service providers prioritize certain content over others.

Allowing these companies to become the Internet's gatekeepers would undermine the democratic nature of the Web, which has made it such a great engine for free speech and economic growth.

"[I]t would be bad for everyone but the service providers," the Times editors write. "Businesses could slow down or block their competitors’ Web content. A cable company whose leaders disapprove of a particular political or social cause could block sites supporting that cause."

The Web was invented using open, decentralized architecture in a way that allows anyone with a computer and a connection to begin receiving and sending information. This opened up the world to a new concept, "innovation without permission," whereby every idea had an equal chance to be heard, and to rise to the top free of gatekeepers or corporate and government discrimination.

Net Neutrality is the principle that keeps the Internet's great marketplace of ideas churning.

Saturday’s editorial echoes earlier efforts by the Times. In 2006, the paper wrote:
"[The] democratic Internet would be in danger if the companies that deliver Internet service changed the rules so that Web sites that pay them money would be easily accessible, while little-guy sites would be harder to access, and slower to navigate. Providers could also block access to sites they do not like."
Later in the same year the Times’ Adam Cohen wrote that the phone and cable companies fighting Net Neutrality have been waging a "misleading campaign" using slogans like "hands off the Internet" and phony spokespeople like Mike McCurry and Scott Cleland to pose as genuine grassroots and private-sector voices against Net Neutrality.

(To expose the depth of telco Astroturfing, visit

"What they actually favor is stopping the government from protecting the Internet, so they can get their own hands on it," Cohen wrote.

On Saturday, the Times' editors wrote that the fate of Net Neutrality may lie with the Obama administration, which has been outspoken in its support of the principle:
"A good bill that would guarantee so-called net neutrality has been introduced in the House. Congress should pass it, and the Obama administration should use its considerable power to make net neutrality the law."
The article also calls on Julius Genachowski, Obama’s new chair at the FCC, to adopt stronger rules that could also have the force of law.

The Times is not alone among major US dailies in support of Net Neutrality. The list of supporters includes the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg Times and the Houston Chronicle.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Unmasking Astroturf

If you haven't been paying attention to the rise of Astroturf in Washington, in the media and at your local town hall meeting, now's the time to tune in.

Astroturf front groups have been everywhere this summer -- spreading misinformation about health care reform, carbon emission caps and financial regulation.

Astroturf shills, notably FreedomWorks' Dick Armey and Americans for Prosperity's Tim Phillips, surface wherever and whenever reform policies threaten the corporate or political status quo.

Armey Spins for Supper
Next on their hit list is Net Neutrality, the principle that prevents big phone and cable companies from deciding what you can and cannot do online.

They're already painting new Net Neutrality legislation as an attempt to "socialize the Internet."

They dismiss as "extremists" the more than 1.5 million who support a free-flowing Web. The national coalition that supports Net Neutrality includes such "far-left elements" as the Christian Coalition, The Gun Owners of America and the American Library Association.

Astroturf red-baiting has only just begun.

The Boy Who Cried Socialism

Cleland Sees Red
All Net Neutrality really does is protect market competition, consumer choice and online innovation. But don't tell that to the astroturfer-in-chief, Scott Cleland of His group is funded by phone and cable companies to attack legitimate consumer organizations and to confuse the public about Net Neutrality.

In testimonies before Congress, Cleland supported Net Neutrality before being paid by AT&T to oppose it. And oppose it he has: "Just like the Soviet socialists, the Net Neutrality movement blatantly misrepresents the facts," Cleland once said.

Take that, librarians!

Behind their Cold War rhetoric is a dirty little secret: Astroturf groups are paid by corporations to erect Potemkin Villages of public support for any given issue, to sway politicians with PR and junk science, and to fool members of the media into putting them on the air.

Phillips Earns His Keep
Typically, these groups won't reveal their sources of funding, and with very few exceptions, the media forget to ask about it.

That's why Armey and Phillips squirmed under the lights when Rachel Maddow broke with the mainstream this month and pressed them about the money propping up their operations.

And it's why Free Press just released "Astroturf: Exposing the Fake Grassroots," an interactive online tool that makes it easy to view the seedy underbelly of the Astroturf groups bankrolled by big phone and cable.

The tool tracks the huge amounts of money moving from companies like AT&T and Comcast to lobbyists and political campaigns, and links it to the deceptive activities of coin-operated groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Heartland Institute.

$incerity vs. Sincerity

Bast: Hiding Behind Transparency?
The Heartland Institute, in particular, is a poster child for deception. This coin-operated "think tank" specializes in aping industry talking points to downplay global warming, oppose health care reform and attack Net Neutrality. Its Fortune 500 clients include Philip Morris USA, the ExxonMobil Corporation and major telecommunications companies.

When asked to report the sources of its funding, Heartland President Joseph L Bast said Heartland "now keeps confidential the identities of all our donors" because revealing it would give fodder to those who want to "abuse a sincere effort at transparency."

Like the others, the Heartland Institute seems to think a lack of transparency gives more credence to their arguments, when in fact, it simply demonstrates what more people are coming to realize: Astroturf has no place in politics.

A healthy 21st-century democracy doesn't need phony front groups. We need openness, accountability and real debate. And we need to know whom we're talking to -- and who's talking to us.

The crucial policy decisions being made right now must be based on independent research, reliable data and honest brokers.

Powerful special interests must stop distorting the issues and hiding behind Astroturf.

-- Timothy Karr is the campaign director of Free Press, the national, not-for-profit media reform group. Free Press accepts no money from industry, industry groups, political parties or government.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No Love Lost for the Mobile Phone Networks

"U.S. carriers are some of the most backward, unscrupulous and anti-customer companies in the nation," writes Mike Elgan of IDG News Service. And he tells us why in a list of the 10 best reasons to hate your mobile network provider.

While Elgan’s reasons for hating the telcos may come as little surprise to visitors of FreeMyPhone, many are worth repeating here:

1. Carriers overcharge shamelessly.

The OECD reports that U.S. consumers pay much more than people in developed countries across Asia and Europe for the privilege of calling and texting on the go. While the industry has attempted to debunk the OECD numbers, there’s no denying that they’ve more than doubled prices for texting in just two years -- for a service that costs virtually nothing to provide.

The phone companies also tack on extra fees in myriad and opaque ways. Who among us understands the many separate charges we see on our monthly bill? "Carriers employ experts to examine all the angles," Elgan writes. "It's not about charging more money for better service. It's about charging more money for the same service."

2. Handset exclusivity "deals" are a shell game.

The carriers justify the shackling of phones to specific networks as a special deal for the consumer, whereby the cost of the device is subsidized in exchange for customer loyalty.

Don’t be fooled. "When you get a ‘discount’ on your cell phone, YOU pay the difference, not the carrier, not the handset maker," Elgan writes. "Sure, they'll bury the costs in a muddled monthly bill. But believe me, you're the one paying." To top it off, they lock you into contracts that levy high penalties against anyone who opts to leave for a better network -- if one exists.

3. Carriers oppose Net Neutrality.

The phone lobby has spent tens of millions of dollars on hundreds of Washington lobbyists to fight efforts to open up wired and wireless markets to more consumer choice, connectivity and innovation.

The carriers’ No. 1 enemy is Net Neutrality, the founding Internet principle that ensures that everyone can connect online without discrimination or blocking by the network owners. Their fight against Neutrality has put the carriers in an untenable position: promising customers open Internet access via their latest crop of smart phones, while strong-arming Washington to allow them to deliver much less -- an Internet where you only get to go where they want you to go.

4. Remember who owns the airwaves.

"Companies that are granted licenses to use the publicly owned airwaves should be required by our government to meet certain standards of fairness, equal access and competitiveness," Elgan writes.

The FCC of old had taken a backseat on spectrum policy, acting more like a passenger than a steward of this great public asset. It’s been this way for decades and the foxes have nearly cleaned out the coop. Fortunately, there's a new boss at the agency: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seems intent upon ending the carriers' run. Late last month, he launched an official inquiry into the blocking of Google's free voice application, Google Voice, by Apple (seemingly in collusion with AT&T).

It's time we returned control of the airwaves to their rightful owner -- us. The new FCC action shows some promise that a better wireless future may be at hand.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Seven Reasons: Why We Need Net Neutrality Now

On Friday, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) marched across Independence Avenue and up the steps of the Capitol Building to introduce a bill that could stand as the First Amendment of the Internet age.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009 establishes the basic rules of the road for an open Internet. And its arrival couldn't be more timely.

We are amid the greatest technological transition in our media since the invention of the printing press. An open Internet is driving this change. It's a communications tool that, while still in its infancy, is already storming the gates of media's old guard. But they're not letting us in without a fight.

Traditional media fear a system that is more decentralized, participatory and personal. While their outlets still dominate, mainstream media are threatened by a generation of users who have embraced the Internet to control their information experience.

Net Neutrality's Moment
These users no longer passively consume the news; we actively participate in it. We no longer limit our civic involvement to watching television ads and reading editorial pages. We Google candidates to learn more, create our own political networks on Facebook, and use Twitter to stay on top of the issues we care about most.

As the Internet breaks down old political, economic and social barriers, it raises new concerns about free speech, control, opportunity and equality.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act will safeguard the basic rights of our emerging media democracy. It makes Net Neutrality the standard, locking in the network's greatest strength: its ability to give everyone a chance to be heard - whether a little-known blogger, local environmental group or giant multinational corporation.

Without Net Neutrality, this democratic Internet could fall prey to the companies that deliver Internet services. For them our new found media freedom is a threat that needs to be controlled for commercial gain.

We must act now to pass this bill. Here are seven reasons why:

1. Economic Recovery and Prosperity

"The Internet has thrived and revolutionized business and the economy precisely because it started as an open technology," Eshoo said in a statement on Friday. The Internet is so closely tied to U.S. economic recovery that President Obama and Congress earmarked more than $7 billion to help build out more high-speed connections at a time when our economy needs it most.

Obama and Congress also recognized that the economy cannot benefit by building a closed Internet. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act requires that all federally funded networks be services that meet "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations" -- that abide by Net Neutrality.

"The Internet is an essential infrastructure," declares Markey and Eshoo's bill. "The national economy would be severely harmed if the ability of Internet content, service, and application providers to reach consumers was frustrated by interference from broadband telecommunications network operators."

2. Free Speech

Freedom of the press extends only to those who own one -- or so the saying goes. It once rang true in a world ruled by newspaper chains, radio and television broadcasters, and cable networks. But the Internet has changed all that, delivering the press -- and in theory its freedoms -- to any person with a good idea and a connection to the Web.

This extraordinary twist to "mass media" has catapulted many an everyday YouTube auteur to celebrity-status, while turning ideas born in a garage or dorm room into Fortune 500 companies. It is the reason so many Americans are now passionate about protecting their free speech rights on the Internet.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act would stop would-be gatekeepers from re-routing the free-flowing Web. "To meet other national priorities, and to our right to free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States," the bill says, "the United States should adopt a clear policy preserving the open nature of Internet communications."

3. Civic Participation

New media are more participatory and personal than ever before and have opened up new avenues for people to become involved with local, state and national politics. We saw it during the 2008 presidential election when tens of millions expressed their support for Obama and McCain via interactive Facebook, Twitter and e-mail forums. We are seeing it in 2009 from the streets of Tehran to the work of organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics, which use the Internet as the means to open governments to public scrutiny and accountability.

This wave of digital empowerment is the gathering force for a healthier democracy, and it all depends upon a more open, affordable and accessible Internet for everyone. Expanding Internet access alone doesn't erase concerns over what kind of information people will find when they get online. Net Neutrality guarantees that we all have an equal opportunity to play a part.

4. The Marketplace of Ideas

The Internet was the great surprise of the 20th century. Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the standard that opened the World Wide Web to everyone with an idea and a connection. At that time, few could imagine that this open architecture would fuel such a powerful eruption of economic, social and political creativity.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act "will protect consumers and content providers because it will restore the guarantee that one does not have to ask permission to innovate," Rep. Markey said when he introduced the bill.

This is true regardless of your age, social status or location. Net Neutrality safeguards everyone's fundamental right to an open Internet, making it possible for one person's good idea to blossom into the next big business or, even, a movement of millions.

5. Social Justice

Broadband in America today is not equally accessible: Users are predominantly middle- or upper-class and live in urban or suburban areas. Poorer communities and communities of color, as well as communities in rural areas, have been largely left off the grid.

Imagine what it would mean, then, to provide a connection to disadvantaged areas without also extending to them Net Neutrality's guarantee of openness. Dominant ISPs have argued for this exception, saying Net Neutrality prevents them from connecting more people. But it's a false choice and far too high a cost to give network owners the power to shunt ideas percolating up from these communities to a digital backwater.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act guarantees equal and unbridled access to the Internet's engine of opportunity, leveling the playing field so that we all have a chance to be heard.

6. The Rise of the Gatekeepers

A high-speed connection is useful only if you can connect to everyone else online. Net Neutrality leaves control over your Internet experience with you, the user. Yet network operators are considering charging extra money depending on where you want to go and what you want to do online. Some are deploying technology that would sift through and filter the content that you share with others online. Such discrimination endangers the open and level playing field that has made the Internet so democratic.

As more of us rely upon a high-speed connection to do all things media -- watch and make video, follow the news, listen to music, Tweet, email and call our friends -- legacy media are too tempted to get in our way, steering us back via old channels where they make all decisions for us. But there's no going back to the analog oligarchy. The Internet Freedom Preservation Act keeps the gatekeepers at bay.

7. The Obama Opportunity

Forces are coming into alignment for Net Neutrality. We have a president who is an outspoken supporter, congressional leadership willing to fight for an open Internet, and a pro-Neutrality chairman newly ensconced at the Federal Communications Commission.

Since the fight for Net Neutrality began more than three years ago, 1.6 million Americans have picked up the phone, signed petitions, spoken out publicly and written letters to urge their members of Congress to get behind Net Neutrality.

The tides have shifted. Still, giant phone and cable companies aren't going away. They think they can squash our movement -- and over the past six months alone, they have hired 500 lobbyists in Washington to try to stop this bill.

This is our best chance to beat them back once and for all.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Is AT&T Secretly Controlling Your iPhone? The FCC Wants to Know (And So Should You)

The Federal Communications Commission's plan to investigate the blocking of Google Voice over the iPhone signals the agency's new resolve to address public concerns about carrier control over an exploding mobile phone marketplace.

And the move couldn't have come soon enough. As millions of users are opting to upgrade to Internet-enabled "smart phones," carriers have begun blocking access to applications and the free-flowing Web by controlling what these phones can and can't do.

The agency's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau on Friday sent letters to Apple, AT&T and Google seeking answers to a series of questions about the blocking of the new Google application.

The FCC Steps Up

It's just the latest in an unfolding agency investigation into wireless practices.

Earlier Apple and AT&T decided to block Skype and Sling Media in the App Store, programs which compete directly with AT&T services. The carriers continue to maintain that the blocking of services and applications over the wireless Internet doesn't violate the established FCC standard for openness.

The FCC's New Enforcer: Chairman Genachowski
After less than a month in office, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is not buying it, and is taking a serious look at the lack of competition, consumer choice and openness in the wireless Internet sector.

The FCC announced in June that it would investigate exclusivity agreements that lock particular phones to carriers, while soaking consumers with high termination costs should they decide to go elsewhere.

But Friday's move takes the issue one step further, indicating the FCC's new "proactive approach to getting the facts and data necessary to make the best policy decisions," according to Chairman Genachowski.

The data on market concentration are pretty damning for carriers: Four wireless service providers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) account for 90 percent of the U.S. market. Across the board these carriers seek to have ultimate say over the phones and applications that can run on their networks.

They also limit Internet access to certain services, and keep subscribers locked down via predatory mobile phone contracts that levy massive fines against those who seek a better deal with a competitor.

AT&T Doublespeak

The FCC hopes to determine whether Apple and AT&T are working in collaboration to block certain wireless applications in favor of others. AT&T maintains that Apple makes all decisions on applications. But Apple seems to consistently block applications including Google Voice, Skype and Sling Media that threaten AT&T's bottom line.

This spring, Free Press urged the FCC to confirm that wireless networks must adhere to the Internet Policy Statement, which protects consumers' right to access any online content and services on any device of their choosing.

Surprisingly AT&T has in the past voiced public support for this position when its lead lobbyist Jim Cicconi was quoted in the Washington Post: "The same principals [sic] should apply across the board. As people migrate to the use of wireless devices to access the Internet, they...certainly expect that we treat these services the same way."

But while AT&T has acknowledged that open Internet principles should apply to the industry, it's acting to do the opposite: deciding what iPhone customers can and cannot do.

An Open Internet by Any Means

The FCC investigation is encouraging. At a time when carriers seek to become gatekeepers to the next generation of Internet access, the agency must re-assert our right to an open Internet -- whether accessed by desktop computer, laptop or mobile phone.

The right solution is to allow access to all applications and services without discrimination via any Internet connection.

If wireless carriers continue down the path of anti-competitive blocking and favoritism, Congress and the FCC should step in to set a better course.