Friday, September 30, 2011

High Noon for Internet Freedom

As democracy movements worldwide struggle to speak out via the Internet, many here in the U.S. may have overlooked an effort in Congress to undermine this basic freedom.

It takes the form of an arcane "resolution of disapproval" now wending its way through the Senate. If it passes, the resolution would void a recent Federal Communications Commission rule that seeks to preserve long-held Internet standards that protect users against blocking and censorship.

The resolution would remove these protections. It was put forth by industry-funded members of Congress who don't mind letting the few corporations who sell Internet access in America decide what we get to see, hear and read on the Internet.

These senators are also hoping the resolution will appease the most paranoid among the Tea Party faithful, who equate any consumer safeguard put in place during the Obama era with myriad and shadowy government plots.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who pushed a similar measure through the House earlier this year, stoked these fears when she said, "the FCC is in essence building an Internet Iron Curtain that will restrict more of our freedom."

Blackburn's rhetoric puts her and other supporters of the resolution far outside of the mainstream of Americans, who believe that neither the government nor corporations should be able to censor lawful content online.

If Congress succeeds in passing this measure, it will go well beyond deciding whether the FCC's recent rules are appropriate. The resolution will prohibit the agency from engaging in any effort to protect Internet freedom. The move opens the path for corporations eager to take a wrecking ball to the open architecture that has made the Internet a great equalizer for all users.

Lobbyists and lawyers working for the likes of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have argued that these companies need to take control of your clicks to more efficiently — and profitably — manage the abundance of user-driven innovations online. They promise to be good stewards of this unruly medium if only regulators will take away the one network protection that ensures everyone's right to connect with everyone else on the Internet.

That's not what the Internet's founders intended. They built the network to be free of gatekeepers, giving each user equal access to all the legal content and applications online.

These engineers couldn't have envisioned that this open design would, in a relatively short time, evolve to make the network a potent political tool for freedom movements and democratic organizing worldwide.

But it has. Think of the explosion of Internet organizing and political expression that has swept the world in 2011, from Tunisia to Tehran to Beijing, and is now being embraced in America by protesters determined to Occupy Wall Street.

Americans cherish freedom of speech as much as people across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. An open Internet allows all sides of contentious issues to be heard by anyone who chooses to listen. It opens up a global pipeline for protest movements, a window for millions to witness injustices and a platform on which to organize for a better future.

So ask yourself this: Do you want Congress to surrender your right to choose online to a company whose sole motive is to generate as much profit as possible? Do you want to wipe away the only protection that prevents any entity — be it corporate or government — from blocking our right to connect with one another?

The hardliners in Congress who support this resolution have joined in a pact with powerful Internet providers and free-market extremists to kill off your most fundamental online right.

It's now up to us users to use the open Internet to reclaim it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Welcome to Your Hungarian Internet

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the U.S. has sunk to 25th in a global ranking of Internet speeds, just behind Romania.

Why? Because our nation's regulators abandoned an earlier commitment to foster competition in the marketplace for Internet access providers.

In the years that followed the signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, lobbyists working for powerful providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon pressured a compliant FCC to tear down all of the important safeguards established by Congress.

Under the Bush administration, the FCC tossed out competitive broadband safeguards such as open-access requirements, which opened lines to other providers. In 2002 the agency declared that high-speed cable Internet access would no longer be considered a telecommunications service that opened the network to competitors, but rather an “information service” that did not. Following a 2005 court decision, the FCC also reclassified broadband delivered by the phone companies as an “information service.”

These were radical policy shifts that went against the long-held assumption that open communications in competitive markets were essential to economic growth and innovation.

While the U.S. blindly followed a path of "deregulation," other nations in Europe and Asia beefed up their pro-competitive policies. The results are evident in our free fall from the top of almost every global measure of Internet services, availability and speed.

About this my Free Press colleague Derek Turner writes:
"By turning its back on the 1996 Act, the FCC ordered up a future of digital mediocrity and stuck American consumers with the bill. Americans pay more per month for broadband than consumers in all but seven of the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ... When price and speed are considered together as a measure of value, we see that Americans pay more per megabit per second than consumers in many other countries. The value of U.S. connections is some four times less than that of countries like France, and is only slightly better than the value of connections in Hungary, a country with a per capita GDP nearly two-and-a-half times lower than the United States."
The lack of competition has turned America into a broadband backwater. In the aftermath of the FCC’s decisions, powerful phone and cable companies legislated and lobbied their way to controlling 97 percent of the fixed-line residential broadband market — leaving the vast majority of consumers with two or fewer choices of land-based providers in any given market.

The absence of true consumer choice has driven prices up and services down. Wednesday's New York Times reports that in some parts of the country the situation has had a direct impact on economic growth, education and public safety.

"This is about our overall competitiveness," Jonathan Adelstein of the Rural Utilities Service told the Times. "Without broadband, especially in rural areas, kids might not reach their full potential. And we can’t expect to be competitive in a global economy."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vast Wasteland Revisited

On Monday, the top thinkers in new and old media gathered at Harvard to discuss the state of the media, 50 years after FCC Chairman Newton Minow slammed the nation’s broadcasters for creating a “Vast Wasteland” across the television dial.

Though I did not attend the event, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman did an excellent job of reporting out via Twitter and his blog.

What’s remarkable in Ethan’s summary is the sense that, while the technology and players have shifted, the problem of U.S. media remains the same: A failure to foster the sort of public interest, independent and noncommercial media system to serve as an antidote to the dreck of commercial news and information that infects America's political discourse.

I could go on about that, and will at a later date. For now I want to put a placeholder in the important comments that were made in Cambridge (Again, as reported by Ethan).

Fifty years on and Minow still seems to have kept a Gimlet eye on the state of our media. He told participants at yesterday's event: "Politicians need massive amounts of money to buy radio and television ads. They raise money from the public to gain access to something the public owns: the airwaves."

This is because the U.S. is one of a few developed democracies that has not offered candidates free access to our airwaves. Why? Because the powerful broadcast lobby makes too much money selling ad space to them -- a number estimated to soar near $3 billion in the 2012 cycle -- and have blocked every political attempt to introduce free time.

Meanwhile their reporting on political candidates and campaigns has devolved into horse race coverage and gotcha moments, devoid of discussions of the issues that Americans say matter most in an election.


Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter noted that today's news business is "largely dysfunctional." Much of the political news we get isn't news at all, he says, but "people like me babbling on MSNBC or Fox," rather than the sort of expensive newsgathering required to report facts on the ground.

These are common complaints made by media reformers such as myself, my colleagues at Free Press, and across the larger movement.

What's less common is the direction the discussion then takes, towards the shifting political power dynamic of social and mobile media.

Yochai Benkler, one of the world's leading thinkers on new networks, helps make the transition:

"Because we all now carry sound, video and text generating and disseminating tools – phones – we’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to close the gap between what costs a great deal of money and what we all need as citizens."

Benkler alludes to something that we've been saying at Free Press for some time now: "Your phone is political." We recognize that our right to connect via mobile devices is vital to the future health of our or any other democracy.

Broken Promises

Mass media once promised to engage millions in democracy, making information available to people who were previously excluded from the political process. But the age of television seems to have done the opposite.

A survey of voter turnout in the age of television elections (1960 through 2008) shows a national average of 55 percent. In the presidential elections that occurred from 1860 through 1956, voter turnout reached an average 67 percent.

"The political conversation involves a maximum of 10 to 15 million people," Alter says, "but 130 million vote in Presidential elections."

Moreover, a survey published late last year by CTIA counts more than 300 million mobile accounts in the U.S. -- or some 95 percent of the population.

What Mobile Movement?

The link transforming mobile phone users to political speakers and participants remains tenuous, but the potential for inserting new voices in the political process is immense, as is the importance of protecting their freedom to connect.

Susan Crawford says that control over this freedom now rests in the hands of new players, not the broadcasters of old but the distributors of new. She includes massively and vertically integrated companies like Comcast among a rogues gallery of the few cable and telecommunications colossi that control both our wired and wireless worlds.

Ethan adds that "In this new world, the FCC may not be the prime mover -- the real power is located in intermediaries like Google, and if we were to push for the public interest, that’s where we’d apply leverage."

Indeed, if only we had a broader movement to do just that.