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Access Denied

The death of network neutrality could mark the end of the Internet’s First Amendment.

By Marc Madow

The Internet is true democracy in action, giving everyone with access a voice. But what would happen if giant telecommunication companies were to act as cyberspace gatekeepers? What if Big Business decided which Web sites load quickly and which ones load slowly? What if your Internet service provider (ISP), in cahoots with Big Business, picked the search engine you use? What would happen if bribed politicians and free-market advocates were to do away with network neutrality—the controversial first principle of the Internet that keeps everything equal?

Here’s what would happen: The corrupt powers-that-be would have ultimate control over what gets online, thereby affecting the information you receive.

Nobody will feel this global change more than the journalists of the world. In today’s climate of fear, print and TV reporters critical of the Bush Administration have become targets of a witch hunt. As a consequence, most have fallen silent. Bloggers—which include online news observers and pontificators—have become the new guerrilla warriors against tyranny. At a time when we most need accurate reporting, the real news is often ignored, consistently underplayed, sometimes disappearing altogether.

Why? Because the global corporate media ignore news that their corporate bosses and/or the Administration deem “un-American.” Respected mainstream journalists have been reduced to whispering leaks to alternative news outlets and online opinion-shapers, who then do the real reporting. With net neutrality heading over a cliff, Web-based muckrakers could also be silenced.

Whether you like it or not, much of the job of exposing corruption has come down to Internet pioneers like independent investigator Dave Lindorff, who called public attention to the TIPS home-grown spy program in 2002 and who also exposed the notorious “no-fly lists.” If you’ve heard about the glitch-ridden voting machines being used in this country’s elections, you likely got your info from blogs like BradBlog.com.

In fact, online student activists using anonymous Web portals were some of the first to expose how rotten things were with Diebold, one of the major makers of electronic voting machines. But unfettered campaigns like this may soon be a thing of the past if the telecoms get their way.

Ever hear the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? The telecoms could benefit from that advice. In the first 30-odd years of the Internet’s existence, ISPs acted as trucks (carrying your packets of information), and all traffic was the same. The Web was like a highway with a single speed limit regardless of whose cargo it was carrying, where it was headed or what was being shipped. All users and sites were equal.

The Internet’s First Amendment was working perfectly. But unlike the Constitution’s First Amendment, net neutrality was an unwritten law—the easiest kind to repeal—so lawmakers recommended legislation be put into effect. Just as America’s founders insisted on having the Bill of Rights written into the Constitution, net neutrality advocates wanted a few “Thou Shalt Not” regulations spelled out in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Advocates of regulation include the liberal media and many large Internet companies like Google. They claim that telecom providers are making a power grab to unfairly profit from investments, in turn violating antitrust laws and discriminating against users. Opponents of regulation include large telecom carriers, network parts manufacturers and free-market advocacy groups like the Cato Institute. They argue that net neutrality laws are unnecessary and counterproductive. Whom do you believe?

As evidence of the skullduggery involved here, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin spent the year 2006 making speeches at industry trade shows, as well as at his reconfirmation hearing, assuring us that we don’t need rules to guarantee net neutrality. His antineutrality case is based on the laughable proposition that self-regulation will be enough to curb corporate greed. Martin would have us believe that only one case of abuse has occurred so far, which is highly arguable. Rather than take preventative measures, he prefers to wait until another major abuse happens, which the FCC—with its notoriously unenforceable rules—will then handle in its flabby, halfhearted way.

Actually, the FCC had already done a number on the net neutrality principle with its August 2005 policy statement (FCC 05-151), which defined the Internet not as a common carrier accommodating all traffic, but as a passive, one-way medium like cable TV. Just as a cable company chooses the programming it offers, the way was cleared for broadband providers to pick the Web content they would carry. The Supreme Court followed up with a ruling in National Cable & Telecommunications Assoc. v. Brand X Internet Services, saying net neutrality enforcement would violate the First Amendment rights of ISPs. A year-long moratorium was introduced, holding up further legislation until the spring of 2006, and the concept of regulated network neutrality was left dangling precariously.

How will your life be affected if net neutrality regulations are defeated? Your favorite search engines might work slower. Your ISP will offer varying qualities of service, allowing the search engine that’s paid them off to run faster. You may be told you can’t have more than two computers on your home network. E-mail will arrive late, sometimes not at all. Web sites with helpful information will vanish. You will be turned away from familiar music download sites and steered to higher-priced venues. AOL might allow surcharge-paying junk mail to override your spam filter.

In the spring of 2006, things began to heat up with the introduction of the Communications Opportunity Promotion and Enhancement Act. As usual, the legislation’s title proclaimed good intentions, but its real purpose was sinister. It actually wanted to create tiers of access to the Internet. With the approval of an Internet caste system, Congress has opened the way for hierarchical and abusive business practices. Telecoms will favor their own content and services over those of their competitors.

Net neutrality’s biggest, baddest opponents are AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, who all seek to solidify the symbiotic relationship between business, government and the military. To further their agenda, the telecoms have set up “astroturf” groups—bogus grassroots organizations in populist masks. Groups like Hands Off the Internet, DontRegulate.org and TV4US are merely cool-sounding phonies that have even fooled pro-net-neutrality sites into giving them screen real estate. These tools of the enemy claim that the Internet should be free from all regulation, which sounds good.

What these groups actually want is government deregulation of the corporations that will control the content for everybody else. While corporations reward their cronies with perks like faster transmission speeds and prominent portal placement, users will pay more money for worsening service. Internet providers want to carve up the information superhighway and turn it into a series of toll roads so they can be the gatekeepers. “Pay up,” they demand, “or be banished to the slow lane…the shoulder…the ditch.”

The telecoms sell the idea that net neutrality is a liberal plot to let the government take over the Internet and control content and prices. But this is exactly what the telecoms want to do! They claim a First Amendment right to not promote speech they disagree with—but free speech rights are for citizens, not corporations.

Not everyone likes government regulation, but in this case, legislation is inevitable. Since the original COPE Act failed to be that legislation, a number of bills, counterbills and amendments have wended their way through various Congressional committees. Each time, it becomes more likely that there won’t be one big, all-inclusive decision on net neutrality. Instead, the most likely scenario is an ongoing series of challenges. The telecoms will be allowed free rein until one of them goes too far, at which time FCC Chairman Martin’s “case-by-case” solution will kick in. But even if the corporate giants lose the first round, we can be sure they will be back for another try.

The Save the Internet coalition demands an outcome that is meaningful, enforceable, democratic and cooperative. It calls for unhampered communication and commerce—a level playing field. There is a way to make the telecoms act in the public interest, and it begins on Capitol Hill. As the Democrats take over Congress, we need to be vigilant in promoting laws that grant equal treatment to data, users, applications and services. It is a new era of communication, and markets need to be supported, not distorted, by the global network.

Millions of Americans get their news from the Internet daily. In cyberspace the telecoms wield their power undetected. We need all the safeguards we can get.

Based in Southern California, Marc Madow first experienced free speech activism when discharged by the Navy for criticizing the Vietnam War. He wrote Pikes Peak Race to the Clouds, was American correspondent for the German magazine Auto Motor und Sport and made the documentary film The Rhythm of Venice Beach. Currently, Madow is Content Producer for the alternative news and opinion Web site Earthblog.net.

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