The internet – traditionally a forum for the unfettered
exchange of information – has begun to respond to constricting
commercial pressures. Karen Charman summarizes
the debate, which has recently fallen under the scrutiny of the
Recasting the Web
Information commons to cash cow
By Karen Charman
If the Bush administration lets large media
conglomerates and local telephone companies have their way, the Internet
as we know it – that free-flowing, democratic, uncensored information
superhighway – could soon be a thing of the past.
The Internet itself is not going away. Rather,
technological advancements, changes to the rules governing its use and
the continued consolidation of media empires are combining to turn it
into a conduit of commerce, booby-trapped with barriers and incentives
designed to keep users where dollars can be wrung from them. As a
result, a lot of freely accessible information and websites may become
difficult or impossible to connect to – hindering the efforts of those
posting that information to reach others.
At a time when a handful of large media corporations
produce most of the news people get, the television and movies they
watch, the books they read and the music they listen to, the Internet
offers a refreshing oasis of uncontrolled information and innovation.
This network of networks, as Stanford University law professor Lawrence
Lessig describes it, is an information commons, a place where anybody
with a computer, modem and connection to a telephone line can log on and
receive information from any of the more than roughly 3 billion (and
growing) web pages posted worldwide. Internet users can also create
their own websites, giving them the potential to communicate to millions
of individuals around the world. (According to the Internet research
firm Jupiter Media Metrix, an average of 80 million people use the Net
on any given day.)
The Net's open platform has spawned a wide range of
innovation. People have started email lists and online chat rooms on
just about any topic imaginable. Individuals have created new ways to
distribute books, music and other products online. Independent online
journals and news services offer hard-hitting alternatives to corporate
media. Many independent radio stations now webcast, extending their
range to anybody around the world who logs onto the station's website.
This unprecedented ability of ordinary citizens and
nonprofit groups to communicate with so many others has given them voice
and power they otherwise would not have. Take, for example, the Organic
Consumers Association, a citizen activist group that focuses on food
safety and environmental issues. OCA executive director Ronnie Cummins
says 85,000 people receive the association's action alerts and
newsletter, BioDemocracy News, via e-mail; about 4,000 people a day
visit its website and download an average of 10 pages of material.
"A lot of our activist clout is being able to
communicate cheaply to people," Cummins says. "If we had to revert back
to telephones, faxes, the mail and leafleting, it would reduce our
campaign power considerably." OCA is not unique in its use of the
Internet. A wide variety of nonprofit groups make savvy use of
cyberspace to get their message out and spur ordinary citizens to take
Open and neutral
When the Internet was first developed, its designers had
no idea how it would evolve, Lessig wrote in his book The Future of
Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. Nor did this
community of communications researchers, computer engineers and
programmers – many of whose efforts were voluntary – want to control it.
They were fiercely committed to keeping the Net open and neutral,
specifically so that innovation could flourish.
Initially, the Internet used phone lines, which
government regulation subjects to "common carrier" rules. This means the
telephone network operator must open its lines to all comers, and cannot
interfere with the message or who sends or receives it. Most Internet
users still access the Net through conventional phone lines. But as
cyberspace becomes more populated with users, and as new multimedia
applications require more bandwidth, these lines are increasingly too
slow and inadequate to handle the traffic.
The Net is in the early days of migrating to another
platform – broadband – which is much faster and has potentially
limitless capacity for data transmission. Besides dramatically expanding
the Internet's functions, broadband's additional capacity also allows
different media to converge: The same wire or wireless technology will
be able to deliver television, phone, radio, the Internet and other
kinds of multimedia applications to homes and businesses. With the
Federal Communications Commission's further relaxing of media ownership
limits, we will see greater consolidation of media, so that even fewer
large media conglomerates offer these services.
Broadband – also referred to as "fat pipe" – is
currently available through cable modems provided by cable television
companies. Local telephone companies offer broadband through digital
subscriber lines (DSL), a range of data-carrying frequencies split off
from conventional phone lines. Broadband will also be available from
satellite and other wireless technologies. Currently about 80 percent of
U.S. households and businesses have access to broadband via cable or DSL,
though only about 10 percent of Internet users have switched to these
generally more expensive services.
FCC chair Michael Powell has declared "the great digital
broadband migration" as the agency's top priority. The information
technology revolution "will have enormous consequences for our world and
the manner in which business is conducted and how economies flourish,"
Powell told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at its Broadband Technology
Summit in Washington, D.C. at the end of April. "Those nations that
harness its power and the opportunities it presents will stand tall as
great powers, and those that do not will shrink in every aspect of
civilization – commerce, politics, philosophy, art, education and war.
If we hope to take our place on the medal podium of the Information Age,
as we did in the Agricultural and Industrial Ages, we must make every
effort to embrace and advance the tools necessary to build information
prowess among our citizens and institutions."
Using the rationale of attracting private investment to
build and expand broadband networks, the FCC is moving aggressively to
lift requirements for open access. To the great delight of the cable
industry, in a 3-1 vote in February, the FCC issued a far-reaching
declaratory ruling classifying cable modems as an "information service"
rather than a "telecommunications service" or a "cable service." Neither
cable nor information services are subject to common carrier rules. The
agency has also declared its intent to deregulate DSL, which currently
operates under common carrier rules, and has embarked on a series of
decisions designed to "build the foundation for a comprehensive and
consistent national broadband policy." These decisions are expected to
be finalized sometime this fall.
Action is heating up in Congress, too. A bill that would
remove open access requirements from DSL, Tauzin-Dingell, has already
passed in the House of Representatives. Citing concerns over continued
media concentration and consumer protection, Senate Commerce Committee
chair Fritz Hollings (D.=S.C.) has vowed to defeat this legislation.
However, a version of it was recently introduced in the Senate by John
Breaux (D.=La.). Hollings has introduced his own broadband legislation
that would preserve open access for DSL. And more recently John McCain
(R.=Az.) introduced a bill intended to break the stalemate between the
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for
Digital Democracy, sees the exemption of broadband Internet platforms
from open access requirements as a government giveaway of valuable
public resources to powerful corporations – one that strikes at the very
heart of our political culture. "We're talking about public policy for
media and telecommunications – critical aspects of our democracy that
help encourage the free flow of information and contribute to the
institutions of journalism," he says.
Without public policies mandating open access, both
Chester and Lawrence Lessig predict that our newfound information
commons will become little more than an extraordinarily persuasive
marketing tool. "The promise of many-to-many communication that defined
the early Internet will be replaced by a reality of many, many ways to
buy things," Lessig wrote. "What gets offered will be just what fits
within the current model of the concentrated systems of distribution:
cable television on speed, addicting a much more manageable, malleable
and sellable public." One glimpse of what this might look like comes
from England, where Sky TV's movie channels contain a picture-on-picture
facility of interactive menues that link the content on screen with
products that viewers can buy while they are watching TV.
The public's loss, however, is the industry's gain. Both
the cable industry and the large, regional local phone
companies – Verizon, SBC Communications, BellSouth and Qwest – lobbied
long and hard to prevent nondiscriminatory open access rules on
broadband. Blair Levin, a telecommunications industry analyst with Legg
Mason who was chief of staff to Clinton's FCC chair Reed Hundt, says
it's a question of pure economics. "If you own the pipe, you can make a
certain amount of money," he says. "If you own the pipe and the content,
you can make more money."
Cable companies currently have monopoly control over
their channels. But if they have to open up their systems to competing
Internet service providers (ISPs), they fear losing out on the revenue
they would collect from additional services like pay-per-view movies.
"It's a question of who owns the customer – who gets the customer dollar
and how it's divided up between the different content providers: cable,
digital, movie studios and the recording industry," Levin said.
Those who advocate corporate dominion over broadband
services dismiss the notion that consumer choice will be curtailed. Marc
O. Smith, spokesperson for the National Cable Television Association,
says cable companies have begun to offer multiple ISPs and are finding
it good for their bottom lines: "We think that's enough of an incentive
for it to happen, as opposed to the government telling us how and when
to do it." He insists that mandating nondiscriminatory open access "is a
prescription for unintended consequences," giving competitors grounds to
manipulate the marketplace by mounting costly content discrimination
Smith adds that restricting where Internet users can go
on the Net doesn't make economic sense for the companies, because it
would alienate their customers. "That's like saying AOL/Time Warner
Cable will only allow you to watch AOL/Time Warner channels," he says.
"But they also let you watch ESPN, which is owned by Disney, and MTV,
which is owned by Viacom." There is, however, a big difference between
handpicking the channels that appear on a cable service and opening up
broadband lines to all comers.
Chester suggests that the open platform of the internet
is being transformed into a landscape of "walled gardens," content with
various barriers meant to keep people within their confines. He worries
that those who don't make deals with the companies controlling the
broadband pipe – particularly citizen and community groups – will find
themselves walled out, facing exorbitant charges for carriage.
The only game in town
Garry Betty, CEO of Earthlink, the nation's third
largest ISP, suggests a certain amount of hypocrisy among cable
companies that reject open access as regulation. "Stop for a moment and
consider what's being regulated," he said in testimony before the Senate
Judiciary Committee on the AT&T Comcast merger on April 23 this year.
"Throughout the country, cable companies have had exclusive local
franchises to operate the cable system in any given area. These
franchises were created by government regulations. Actions that seek to
limit cable monopoly power created by these regulations, and to give
consumers increased choices in broadband services are, by definition,
By comparison, Betty pointed out, the more than 6,000
ISPs across the country show that Internet access has always been
competitive. In 96 percent of the country, he said, Internet users in
even the smallest towns and rural areas can select from at least four
ISPs, while city dwellers can choose among hundreds. "Compare this to
cable, where over 96 percent of customers throughout the country have no
choice in who their cable company is."
Betty, who has negotiated deals for Earthlink to offer
broadband service on AT&T Broadband, the nation's largest cable
operator, dismissed the argument that competition from DSL would negate
the need for open access. That's because DSL service is essentially
unavailable for people more than three miles from a telephone central
office. Therefore, he said, for more than a third of the country, cable
will offer the only option for broadband Internet access over the next
Like many new industries, broadband is experiencing some
growing pains as it develops, works the kinks out of the system and
figures out how to deal with Wall Street's impatient expectations. A
recent survey by Jupiter Media Metrix indicates that three-quarters of
Internet users are, for now, content to stick with their dial-up access.
But Sue Ashdown, president of the American ISP
Association, which represents thousands of mostly very small independent
ISPs across the country, doesn't believe people will remain satisfied
with slow dial-up connections. She says the regional phone companies
have been very belligerent with ISPs who have attempted to offer DSL.
And she worries about FCC plans to revisit regulations that give
companies like MCI, Cavalier and AT&T, who competitively supply bulk
voice lines to ISPs, access to the phone lines. Ashdown considers that a
direct threat to ISPs continued ability to provide even dial-up access.
The Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester urges
the public, especially those in the progressive community, to become
engaged in this issue: "The infrastructure and rules for the next media
system are being established now. We may not see the ultimate outcome of
these decisions for 10 or more years," he says. "But if we want to
ensure that we have as open a system as possible with progressive voices
playing a prominent role, we have to shape that system now."
Karen Charman is a New York-based investigative
reporter. This article first appeared in the August 2002 issue of
Extra!, the magazine of the media watch group FAIR.
No Competition: How monopoly control of the
broadband internet threatens free speech
An ACLU White Paper
[The entire document is available at
The Internet as we have known it is going to change –
the only question is how. There’s a fight going on over that question,
and at stake is nothing less than the Internet’s potential as a medium
for free expression, civic involvement and economic innovation.
Driving the change is the ongoing conversion by
consumers from a dial- up Internet (based on slow modem connections over
phone lines) to far faster “broadband” connections (mostly using cable
modems). With dialup, Internet access is provided over a medium that
provides open, equal access to all: the telephone system. But with the
shift to cable, Internet access must be adapted to a medium that has
been far more subject to centralized control.
The danger is that the Internet will come under private
control. Core American liberties such as freedom of speech are of no
value if the forums where such rights are commonly exercised are not
CTC’s report shows that a company providing Internet
access over a cable system has many opportunities for interfering with
online activities, often in ways that are invisible to their customers.
In fact, much like the administrator of an office LAN, they have the
potential for an all-seeing, all-controlling power over the activities
of customers on their network. Cable providers are under no obligation
to remain a neutral pipe for content over an end-to-end Internet – and
have many incentives for interfering with that pipe….
The preferred check on corporate power in America is
free- market competition. But as we have seen, cable is not competitive
because it has not been subject to regulations requiring open access to
the network by competitive ISPs.…
In late February 2002, the Internet Freedom and
Broadband Deployment Act (the Tauzin-Dingell bill) passed the House of
Representatives. This legislation would eliminate open access
requirements on the Baby Bells that require them to allow competing ISPs
to use their DSL networks. Several similar bills have been introduced in
the Senate; it remains to be seen if they will receive support. Also in
February, the FCC tentatively concluded that broadband services
delivered over DSL are “information services,” opening the door to
similar deregulation of DSL access requirements. (See Federal
Communications Commission, In the Matter of Appropriate Framework for
Broadband Access to the Internet over Wireline Facilities, CC Docket
No. 02-33, February 15, 2002) These events highlight a worrisome trend
towards establishing the unregulated cable model as a universal
regulatory policy for broadband that would extend across technologies.
The hard fact is that the Internet is shifting from the
open phone system to the closed cable network. If the government remains
passive, it will be transformed in the process into a place where not
all thoughts, expressions, publications, and other content is treated
equally. The ever-more-exclusive club of cable operators must be
counterbalanced by competition, which in this case can only be assured
by open-access regulations….