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April 25, 2006

Congress about to give away the Internet

Phone companies must treat all calls equally, regardless of where they come from, where they're going, or what the callers are saying. Historically, the same non-discrimination policy also covered Internet communications.

Now, a handful of giant telecom companies and their allies in Congress are on the verge of abolishing net neutrality for broadband internet. (Video)

Art Brodsky explains:

The telephone companies, which carried all of the Web traffic until relatively recently, had to treat all of their calls alike without giving any Web site or service favored treatment over another.

The result was today’s Internet, which developed as a result of billions of dollars of investments, from the largest Internet company that spent millions on software and networking, to the one person with a blog who spent a few hundred dollars on a laptop. The Internet grew into a universal public resource because the telephone and cable companies simply transported the bits.

Last fall, however, the Federal Communications Commission, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, decided that the high-speed Internet services offered by the cable and telephone companies didn’t fall under that law, the Communications Act. Out the window went the law that treated everyone equally. Now, with broadband, we are in a new game without rules. [TPMCafe]

Why should you be concerned about the threat to net neutrality? Short answer: We don't want telecom giants controlling where we can surf or what we can publish online. These companies have a long history of consumer-hostile machinations. As Matt Stoller explains, telecom companies have already blocked competing services, censored emails, and prevented customers from reading political sites. Yesterday, I blogged about how the Canadian telecom company Telus blocked a pro-union website during a labor dispute. Can you imagine the uproar if Telus had cut phone service to union leaders? The same principle is at stake with broadband internet access. Of course, AT&T is already helping the NSA to spy on its customers illegally, probably in the hopes of advancing its monopolistic ambitions through quid pro quo. (See linked podcast for more details.)

If we lose net neutrality, the telecom companies will unleash gouging on an epic scale. Net neutrality means that your service provider can't blackmail you into paying for upgraded service in order to download podcasts or make purchases online. Under the new rules, the companies would be able to force ordinary users to the back of the line unless they pay stiff "upgrade" fees to buy back the capacity that used to be guaranteed to all subscribers.

A handful broadband providers have monopolies or near-monopolies in most regions. Consumers can't expect to choose freely between providers with different rules. More importantly, creating second-class citizens on the internet hurts the entire system, even those who can afford to pay extra for enhanced features. The value of the Internet is that the barriers to entry are low so that people who couldn't otherwise afford to communicate to a large audience can air their views on a national scale. If we lose net neutrality, those voices could be lost, and we'd all be worse off.

If we lose net neutrality, we open the door to massive conflicts of interest. Suppose your ISP wants to start its own search engine or its own web-based phone service. Without net neutrality, they could selectively degrade your Google access or your iChat bandwidth until the in-house alternative started to seem like a good idea.

My further question is whether post net-neutrality telecom companies would have any obligation to disclose what they were doing to their customers' access. For example, would AT&T be able to reserve the fiddle with any subscriber's data transfer rates for any reason, without informing them of the changes?

Matt Stoller runs down the players in the fight for net neutrality. To help save net neutrality you can: write your Representative, Sign MoveOn's net neutrality petition, check out the Save the Internet Community on Myspace.


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There was a similar article on Metafilter on July 26th, 2005.

"New FCC head seeks to quietly gut independent DSL carriers. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has circulated a proposal that would eliminate the requirement of phone companies to lease their phone lines to competitors, effectively cutting the throat of independent DSL carriers such as Covad, and their customers, such as EarthLink, AT&T, Concentric, AOL, and Sprint. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave Baby Bells the right to sell long distance service in exchange for opening up their networks to the public. Now the Bush administration are poised to undo this, killing a multibillion dollar industry, and giving monopoly control back to the Baby Bells, who aren't quite so small anymore, thanks to corporate mergers. If you like having all the broadband choices you currently have, you may want to contact the FCC commissioners, toot sweet."


I was going to write a long and insightful commentary regarding this issue, but can I just skip to the end and call them all motherfuckers right now?

Restraint of competition in broadcast television led to a high price in mass communications, making politicians dependent on large corporation donations in order to campaign for office. With corporations controlling the mass media, and what people see and hear, they control what people think and say, and how they vote. Now comes the internet, and the corporations aren't going to go down without a fight. So, they're essentially going to try to forcefit the broadcast model onto the internet, essentially treating content providers as broadcasters. You have to remember, the choke point is in the last mile of internet connectivity. With respect to long haul capacity, 85% of long haul fiber is darkened, not in use. Around 2003, the copper loop, the "last mile" of internet access was remonopolized, so that there is now a cozy duopoly between cable and telcom. Prior to 2003, competive local exchance carriers (CLEC) was access to unbundled copper loop. Now CLECs resell copper loop at a price set by the Bells. If there wasn't this duopoly on the last mile of internet connectivity, there would be no talk about ending net neutrality. So, I think the approach is to demand a disclosure of what, if anything was offered to the telecom industry in exchange for participating in NSA spying. Was the end of competiton in internet connectivity the quid pro quo? They would like to keep the NSA spying issue confined to the constitutional issues, because they have a "national security" rebuke to that avenue of inquiry. Since the telecoms have a fidiciary duty to their shareholders, and for example, AT&T is currently being sued by EFF for $11,000/subscriber, what was the considerations that caused telecom management to belive that they were not violating their fiduciary duties when they participated in the NSA spying. Me thinks if this issue is blown open, the enabler for ending net neutrality will be blown open.

Ok, I take back my ignorance in seeing this only as a fight against monopoly...but it is ALSO a fight agains monopoly and if that, rather than suppression of free speech by making it expensive, is a distinct legal avenue in which to fight the bastards, we should not neglect the option.

BTW, Crooked timber [who link to Majickthise] point to four good posts by Ed Felten, should anyone want to round out their grasp of the technical side of this fight.

Bye bye y'all, it was great fun but it was just "one of those things."

Fun while it lasted.

Thats not funny, Mudkitty. I wish it were, but since it is exactly the prospect we face, no, not funny.

BTW, Lindsay, 3Quarks is linking to this post.

Well, I see on Kos today that the subcommittee vote didn't go our way. The problem here is that probably all of these congressmen financed the mass communications for their campaigns through corporate donations, and now are voting so that their corporate masters will reestablish control over mass communications. We see the mass media decry the blogs, even as they set up blogs of their own. The name of the game is mind control, and the facilitator was reestablishing the monopoly on the "last mile" copper loop, built by captive subscribers during the monopoly era. A democracy works with an informed electorite, the antithesis to corporate mind control. We've seen with television, restricted licensing, consolidation of ownership to a few corporations, and as a result, they were controlling the news, until the internet took off. So now, they want to stick the internet genie back in the bottle by forcefitting the televison broadcast economic model onto the internet.

I enjoyed reading this article and comments. DSL internet service providers offer the best of high speed internet.

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