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2006-04-14

Part II: The End of the Internet? Net Neutrality Threatened by Cable, Telecom Interests

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Both Congress and the FCC are currently considering a number of proposals that will have far-reaching implications on the way the Internet works and the vital concept of net neutrality–universal and non-discriminatory to the Internet–is at risk. We speak with Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. [includes rush transcript]

We continue with Part II of our look at the future of the Internet. Both Congress and the FCC are currently considering a number of proposals that will have far-reaching implications on the way the Internet works.

The vital issue at stake is something called "net neutrality"–it is the concept that that everyone, everywhere, should have free, universal and non-discriminatory access to all the Internet has to offer.

But last week the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications rejected an amendment to a telecommunications overhaul bill that would have strengthened provisions for net neutrality. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 28 to 8. The six Democrats who voted against it were Eliot Engel, Bart Stupak, Ed Towns, Al Wynn, Charlie Gonzales and Bobby Rush.

The principle of net neutrality has come under attack from cable and telephone companies which provide over 90 percent of all high-speed Internet service in the United States.

Phone and cable lobbyists are calling on the federal government to permit them to operate Internet and other digital communications services as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. They have poured millions of dollars into ad campaigns to promote their cause. Here’s one example:

  • Advertisement by the United States Telecom Association.

With these so-called "updated" laws, broadband providers are looking to use new networking technologies to charge fees for almost every online transaction. Some companies have already announced plans to to impose fees on a sliding scale,

For example, America Online is adopting a new system called "CertifiedEmail," where giant emailers could pay AOL a fee for preferential service, effectively creating a two-tiered Internet . This so-called "email-tax" would guarantee that messages from affluent customers would bypass spam filters and go directly to AOL members" inboxes. Those who did not pay the fee could increasingly be left behind with unreliable service.

The effects of preferential control over the Internet may already be coming to bear. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, America Online has blocked delivery to its customers of all emails that include a link to a website called DearAOL.com, which is critical of its CertifiedEmail system.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Phone and cable lobbyists are calling on the federal government to permit them to operate internet and other digital communication services as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. They’ve poured millions of dollars into ad campaigns to promote their cause. Here’s one example:

ACTOR 1: Squire, deliver this urgent message to the queen.

ACTOR 2: Doesn’t he know it’s 2005?

ACTOR 1: Yes!

ACTOR 3: My lord?

NARRATOR: Why are telecom laws still stuck in the past? The old ways are gone. So it’s time Congress updated the laws to give consumers new choices for entertainment and information.

ACTOR 1: Where is that young man?

ACTOR 4: Wanna text him?

NARRATOR: Updated telecom laws.

ACTOR 5: Yeah, it’s hoof-to-hoof out here.

NARRATOR: Now, that’s the future, faster.

AMY GOODMAN: An ad from U.S. Telecom. With these so-called updated laws, broadband providers are looking to use new networking technologies to charge fees for almost every online transaction. Some companies have already announced plans to impose fees on a sliding scale. For example, America Online’s adopting a new system called "CertifiedEmail" where giant emailers could pay A.O.L. a fee for preferential service, effectively creating a two-tier internet. This so-called "email tax" would guarantee messages from affluent customers, would bypass spam filters and go directly to A.O.L. members’ inboxes. Those who did not pay the fee could increasingly be left behind with unreliable service.

The effects of preferential control over the internet may already be coming to bear. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, America Online has blocked delivery to its customers of all emails that include a link to a website called "DearAOL.com", which is critical of its CertifiedEmail system. For more on the latest, we turn to Part Two of our conversation with Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Co-host Juan Gonzalez and I asked Jeff Chester yesterday about the issue of net neutrality.

JEFFREY CHESTER: Well, if we had network neutrality safeguards, then there would be a right for other content providers, such as Democracy Now! or other alternative providers, to be treated in the same way that the phone and cable companies treat their own content or the content coming from deep-pocketed media companies. Network neutrality would prohibit the phone and cable companies, which are now providing more than 90% of the U.S. public with broadband and will continue to be the principal providers. A network neutrality safeguard simply would not allow the phone and cable companies to discriminate against competing content, and in that sense it would create a more level playing field.

The phone and cable companies want to impose a kind of pay-as-you-go toll-road on the whole digital distribution system. I mean, the system is likely to be highly commercialized, regardless of whether we have network neutrality. But unless we have safeguards that ensure that competing alternative content has a chance to reach viewers and listeners in a fair way, then those voices, including, for example, the programming you produce, could be pushed further to the margins.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, for instance, are you talking about how the airlines run their operations with first class, business class and coach?

JEFFREY CHESTER: That’s a great analogy, Juan, because the way the broadband internet is going to work is this: the phone and cable companies now have the technology to know exactly what’s coming into your P.C., to your personal computer, or eventually your interactive television or your mobile device. They know what kind of content, what you’re getting. And they can make decisions to slow certain content up, and speed certain content — speed or slow certain content up. And that will depend ultimately on whether or not you pay them, unless we have these network neutrality safeguards. So they can do all kinds of things to, as they term it, "monetize" the internet unless we have some rules that keep the pipeline as open and fair as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, can you talk about who’s making these decisions in Congress, and one of the chief decision makers, Congressmember Joe Barton of Texas, and where their money is coming from?

JEFFREY CHESTER: Well, the phone and cable industry have given, you know, millions of dollars, and are spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying. What’s happening now, many of your listeners and viewers know that in 1996, Congress passed the infamous Telecommunications Act that was a huge giveaway back then. Well, the same —

AMY GOODMAN: And this was under Clinton and Gore.

JEFFREY CHESTER: It was under Clinton and Gore, and ultimately they supported that legislation. It’s happening again. Each industry is jockeying for favorable position, and they’re spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby the U.S. Congress, because at stake — and why we, the public, and your listeners and viewers in particular really have to speak out now, because decisions made today will affect the future of television and the internet, our entire digital landscape in the United States.

I mean, we have a chance now with the internet to have a more open, diverse system, to redress what we don’t have with today’s media, such as more news programs like Democracy Now! and investigative programs, more content owned by persons of color and women. If we don’t have some rules put in place now, some safeguards, we’re likely to see the people in charge of today’s media system in the United States be in charge of tomorrow’s system, with the phone and cable companies being everyone’s not-so-silent partner.

So they’ve given a lot of money. They’ve given about $3 million dollars, the phone and cable industry, to members of the Senate and House Commerce Committee over the last two or three years, although that’s a drop in the bucket. They have the Republicans on their side. Unfortunately, they have many Democrats. A majority of the Democrats in the House Telecommunications Subcommittee last week voted against network neutrality safeguards. So the phone and cable lobby is very formidable. They’re spending a lot of money. They have the backing of the Bush administration and the G.O.P. congressional leadership, and it’s likely this legislation will go through the House and the Senate without any kind of safeguards for the future of the internet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the coverage of this issue by the mainstream media or the corporate media? Is it a replay of the battle over the F.C.C.’s ownership changes?

JEFFREY CHESTER: I think, well, it’s a little bit different. You know, media that don’t have direct internet interests such as — even though —that’s not true. The New York Times has internet interest, but the New York Times has editorialized recently, as the Los Angeles Times has, and that’s owned by Tribune and they also have internet interests, they’ve editorialized for network neutrality, and NBC Evening News did some coverage.

But, by and large, there’s not this kind of coverage. They claim it’s because it’s a technical issue, but, in fact, all the big media companies are involved one way or another in this decision. And companies like Disney, ABC and CBS, for example, are negotiating with the phone and cable industry. They have a stake, in a sense, in a closed internet, because their content will be placed in a preferential manner. So it’s not getting the kind of coverage it deserves.

And right now, I understand, Congress is not hearing from the public that they are concerned about open internet, which we have to use the term network neutrality for now. So I hope that your listeners and viewers will call their members of Congress and say, "We want legislation on network neutrality." Look, it’s not going to be the answer for all the problems we’re going to have, but at least it will prevent for now the phone and cable companies from having a tight grip over the way the broadband digital media evolves in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.

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