Monday, February 04, 2013

Susan Crawford's Call to Action

The media center at Occupy Wall Street. NYC, 2011.
Photo: Timothy Karr
The Internet is no longer a child. It was conceived by the defense department in the 1960s, nurtured by academics and engineers in the 1970s and adopted by billions of people in the years since.

Susan Crawford's new book, Captive Audience, details a host of challenges for the Internet and its users as this network enters middle age.

Many of its recent growing pains come at the hands of network providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon that sell access to the global network.

While these companies don't own the Internet, they often act like they do, and are pursuing polices to wrest control over Internet content away from its many users.

Crawford's basic argument is this: Internet users can no longer take the network for granted, or stand by as monopoly-minded companies encroach on our rights.

"Truly high-speed wired Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country's competitiveness as electricity was a century ago," Crawford writes, "but a limited number of Americans have access to it, many can't afford it, and the country has handed control of it over to Comcast and a few other companies."

Captive Audience illustrates how federal bureaucrats have allowed phone and cable companies to dictate Internet policy. FCC regulators who roll over for these powerful incumbents are often rewarded at the end of their tenure with plum jobs at these same companies.

The result is a corrupted system that puts profits before the public interest. For proof, just look at the international rankings for broadband access and services, which show the United States falling far behind other developed nations. The failures of American broadband are directly linked to policies that favored a handful of network providers.

The tendency among the many PR operatives who work for the likes of Comcast and AT&T (and who have been especially active this month denouncing Crawford's book on Amazon and in other media) is to fault excessive regulations: If only we unchained the invisible hand of the marketplace, they argue, then the American Internet would be numero uno.

The truth, as Crawford points out, lies somewhere else. Lobbying powerhouses like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have flexed their financial muscle in Washington to ensure that the billion-dollar spoils of the Internet access business are shared among only a few corporations. The policies resulting from this largesse have destroyed a once-competitive marketplace.

Most Americans buying home Internet access today have just two choices: the local monopoly phone company or the local monopoly cable provider. AT&T and Verizon dominate the wireless Internet access market and also control the critical infrastructure that smaller and increasingly irrelevant competitors like Sprint need.

We have no choice but to do business with these dominant companies. If we think they're ripping us off, we can't vote with our feet -- there's nowhere else to go.

This concentration of power among a handful of digital gatekeepers has very real -- and very negative -- consequences for the rest of us.

According to Crawford and other public advocates, including Free Press, cable and telecom giants are concerned only with maximizing their shareholders' profits. As a result Americans pay far more for far less than people in developed countries whose policymakers have promoted competition over dividends. Crawford rightly notes that it's time our leaders in Washington, D.C., did the same.

Market choice drives down prices while increasing options for consumers. The absence of affordable options is the main reason nearly 20 million people in the U.S., mostly in rural and low-income communities, lack access to affordable broadband service.

To remedy this, we need to confront the market power of phone and cable companies and open the way for alternatives, like the municipal broadband networks communities are trying to build across the country.

The good news is that in 2012 Internet users rose up en masse to protect their rights and keep the network open. When the entertainment industry tried to push an Internet-crippling copyright bill, more than 15 million people urged Congress to stop it. When governments used a U.N. telecommunications conference last December to propose new powers to censor the Web, Internet freedom advocates worldwide joined forces to scuttle the plan.

Politicians need to follow the lead of the netroots and people like Crawford -- to stop listening only to corporate lobbyists and start representing Internet users.

Crawford says there will be dire consequences if we continue on the current path: Millions of children will not have the tools they need to succeed in the modern world. Tomorrow's innovative companies will set their roots in foreign soil, in countries whose leaders recognize the importance of public interest-driven Internet policies.

As our Internet grows up, we need to look to the future and figure out ways to make it better. There is a role for activism and advocacy, but also one for our government to promote the public interest by ensuring that every American can participate in a free and fair communications market.

Crawford's book is our call to action.

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