by Jeff Chester
February 3 2006
The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming
set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory
Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a
fee for virtually everything we do online.
Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications
giants are developing strategies that would track and store information on
our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system,
the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency.
According to white papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and
telecommunications industries, those with the deepest pockets--corporations,
special-interest groups and major advertisers--would get preferred
Content from these providers would have first
priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as
undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a
slow lane or simply shut out.
Under the plans they are considering, all of us--from content providers to
individual users--would pay more to surf online, stream videos or even send
e-mail. Industry planners are mulling new subscription plans that would
further limit the online experience, establishing "platinum," "gold" and
"silver" levels of Internet access that would set limits on the number of
downloads, media streams or even e-mail messages that could be sent or
To make this pay-to-play vision a reality, phone and cable lobbyists are now
engaged in a political campaign to further weaken the nation's
communications policy laws. They want the federal government to permit them
to operate Internet and other digital communications services as private
networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. Indeed, both
the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
are considering proposals that will have far-reaching impact on the
Ten years after passage of the ill-advised
Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone and cable companies are using the
same political snake oil to convince compromised or clueless lawmakers to
subvert the Internet into a turbo-charged digital retail machine.
The telephone industry has been somewhat more candid than the cable industry
about its strategy for the Internet's future. Senior phone executives have
publicly discussed plans to begin imposing a new scheme for the delivery of
Internet content, especially from major Internet content companies.
As Ed Whitacre, chairman and CEO of AT&T,
told Business Week in November,
"Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable
companies have made an investment, and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage
or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"
The phone industry has marshaled its political
allies to help win the freedom to impose this new broadband business model.
At a recent conference held by the Progress
and Freedom Foundation, a think tank funded by Comcast, Verizon, AT&T
and other media companies, there was much discussion of a plan for phone
companies to impose fees on a sliding scale, charging content providers
different levels of service.
"Price discrimination," noted PFF's resident
media expert Adam Thierer, "drives the market-based capitalist economy."
To ward off the prospect of virtual toll booths on the information highway,
some new media companies and public-interest groups are calling for new
federal policies requiring "network neutrality" on the Internet.
Common Cause, Amazon, Google, Free Press, Media
Access Project and Consumers Union, among others, have proposed that
broadband providers would be prohibited from discriminating against all
forms of digital content. For example, phone or cable companies would not be
allowed to slow down competing or undesirable content.
Without proactive intervention, the values and issues that we care
about--civil rights, economic justice, the environment and fair
elections--will be further threatened by this push for corporate control.
Imagine how the next presidential election would unfold if major political
advertisers could make strategic payments to Comcast so that ads from
Democratic and Republican candidates were more visible and user-friendly
than ads of third-party candidates with less funds.
Consider what would happen if an online
advertisement promoting nuclear power prominently popped up on a cable
broadband page, while a competing message from an environmental group was
relegated to the margins. It is possible that all forms of civic and
noncommercial online programming would be pushed to the end of a commercial
But such "neutrality" safeguards are inadequate to address more fundamental
changes the Bells and cable monopolies are seeking in their quest to
monetize the Internet. If we permit the Internet to become a medium designed
primarily to serve the interests of marketing and personal consumption,
rather than global civic-related communications, we will face the political
consequences for decades to come. Unless we push back, the "brandwashing" of
America will permeate not only our information infrastructure but global
society and culture as well.
Why are the Bells and cable companies aggressively advancing such plans?
With the arrival of the long-awaited
"convergence" of communications, our media system is undergoing a major
transformation. Telephone and cable giants envision a potential lucrative
"triple play," as they impose near-monopoly control over the residential
broadband services that send video, voice and data communications flowing
into our televisions, home computers, cell phones and iPods. All of these
many billions of bits will be delivered over the telephone and cable lines.
Video programming is of foremost interest to both the phone and cable
companies. The telephone industry, like its cable rival, is now in the TV
and media business, offering customers television channels, on-demand videos
Online advertising is increasingly integrating
multimedia (such as animation and full-motion video) in its pitches. Since
video-driven material requires a great deal of Internet bandwidth as it
travels online, phone and cable companies want to make sure their television
"applications" receive preferential treatment on the networks they operate.
And their overall influence over the stream of
information coming into your home (or mobile device) gives them the leverage
to determine how the broadband business evolves.
Mining Your Data
At the core of the new power held by phone and cable companies are tools
delivering what is known as "deep packet inspection." With these tools, AT&T
and others can readily know the packets of information you are receiving
online - from e-mail, to websites, to sharing of music, video and software
These "deep packet inspection" technologies are
partly designed to make sure that the Internet pipeline doesn't become so
congested it chokes off the delivery of timely communications. Such products
have already been sold to universities and large businesses that want to
more economically manage their Internet services. They are also being used
to limit some peer-to-peer downloading, especially for music.
But these tools are also being promoted as ways that companies, such as
Comcast and Bell South, can simply grab greater control over the Internet.
For example, in a series of recent white papers, Internet technology giant
Cisco urges these companies to "meter individual subscriber usage by
application," as individuals' online travels are "tracked" and "integrated
with billing systems."
Such tracking and billing is made possible
because they will know "the identity and profile of the individual
subscriber," "what the subscriber is doing" and "where the subscriber
Will Google, Amazon and the other companies
successfully fight the plans of the Bells and cable companies? Ultimately,
they are likely to cut a deal because they, too, are interested in
monetizing our online activities. After all, as Cisco notes, content
companies and network providers will need to "cooperate with each other to
leverage their value proposition."
They will be drawn by the ability of cable and
phone companies to track,
"content usage...by subscriber," and where
their online services can be "protected from piracy, metered, and
Our Digital Destiny
It was former FCC chairman Michael Powell, with the support of
then-commissioner and current chair Kevin Martin, who permitted phone
and cable giants to have greater control over broadband. Powell and his GOP
majority eliminated longstanding regulatory safeguards requiring phone
companies to operate as nondiscriminatory networks (technically known as
He refused to require that cable companies, when
providing Internet access, also operate in a similar nondiscriminatory
manner. As Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig has long
noted, it is government regulation of the phone lines that helped make the
Internet today's vibrant, diverse and democratic medium.
But now, the phone companies are lobbying Washington to kill off what's left
of "common carrier" policy. They wish to operate their Internet services as
fully "private" networks. Phone and cable companies claim that the
government shouldn't play a role in broadband regulation: Instead of the
free and open network that offers equal access to all, they want to reduce
the Internet to a series of business decisions between consumers and
Besides their business interests, telephone and cable companies also have a
larger political agenda. Both industries oppose giving local communities the
right to create their own local Internet wireless or wi-fi networks.
They also want to eliminate the last vestige of
local oversight from electronic media - the ability of city or county
government, for example, to require telecommunications companies to serve
the public interest with, for example, public-access TV channels. The Bells
also want to further reduce the ability of the FCC to oversee communications
They hope that both the FCC and Congress - via a
new Communications Act - will back these proposals.
The future of the online media in the United States will ultimately depend
on whether the Bells and cable companies are allowed to determine the
country's "digital destiny." So before there are any policy decisions, a
national debate should begin about how the Internet should serve the public.
We must insure that phone and cable companies operate their Internet
services in the public interest - as stewards for a vital medium for free
If Americans are to succeed in designing an equitable digital destiny for
themselves, they must mount an intensive opposition similar to the
successful challenges to the FCC's media ownership rules in 2003.
Without such a public outcry to rein in the
GOP's corporate-driven agenda, it is likely that even many of the Democrats
who rallied against further consolidation will be "tamed" by the well-funded
lobbying campaigns of the powerful phone and cable industry.