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“In The Interest Of The Public”: Barack Obama’s Plan To Save The Internet Is Perfect

This week, President Barack Obama came out in favor of net neutrality, the idea that all content on the internet should flow freely and equally without any intervention from service providers.

Specifically, Obama wants to categorize the internet under something called Title II, which would classify the internet as a utility, just like telephone lines.

This scares the pants off internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, etc. All of these companies have come out in favor of “the open internet,” but their definition of “open” is much different from what net neutrality purists want.

The fear is that unless ISPs are categorized under Title II, there could be a chilling effect on innovation when someone wants to create the next major internet company like Netflix, YouTube, or, say, Business Insider. ISPs could slow down content from the new companies in favor of their own content.

ISPs swear they don’t want to slow down rival content. And they are probably telling the truth. But under one proposal the FCC is considering, ISPs would, rather than slow down traffic, be able to make their web content get to you faster, giving them an advantage. So while ISPs and the FCC say all content on the internet will be equal, the reality is that some content will be more equal than the rest.

Critics say Obama’s proposal will stifle innovation because it will keep service costs low and slow down companies’ ability to invest more in infrastructure.

But the problem with that argument is that investment in building out broadband networks is already slowing, as Matthew Yglesias of Vox pointed out this spring. Telecom companies invested $17.65 billion in broadband between 2005 and 2008. But that investment fell to $12.24 billion between 2009 and 2013. Meanwhile, the cost of internet access continues to increase. Americans also get slower speeds for what they pay compared with other countries, according to the Open Technology Institute.

It’s also worth noting that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is a former telecom lobbyist, representing all the big ISPs. That makes it tough to trust that his proposals are in the interest of the public, not the ISPs.

That’s why Obama is right. ISPs have done nothing to prove that internet access won’t get more expensive over time. They have also done nothing to guarantee they won’t start favoring their services over those of rivals. As the proposals stand, there is still wiggle room for ISPs favor some content over others.

Obama’s Title II proposal is the only approach that guarantees the internet will be a level playing field for everyone. He put it best in his statement Monday:

For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business. That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call, or a packet of data.

In other words, the internet has become as vital to commerce and communications as phone lines were decades ago. Giving companies that have demonstrated only that they want to profit off that communication without investing in improving it and making it more affordable is a dangerous path.

 

By: Steve Kovach, Business Insider, November 12, 2014

November 16, 2014 Posted by | Internet, Net Neutrality | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sad But True”: The Only Way To Save The Open Internet Requires Sucking Up To Corporate Titans

The Internet as we know it will permanently change if new rules proposed this week by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allow Comcast or AT&T to create a “fast lane” on the Web for companies that pay a fee. Content providers who buy off telecoms for faster speeds would simply outmuscle their counterparts, stifling innovation from startups that can’t afford to compete. If my local McDonald’s opened a special lane to their register that was closed to all competing traffic, while reaching the Burger King down the street required hacking through a mile of jungle, I’ll probably just get a Big Mac instead of a Whopper.

The FCC had to act, because of an appellate court ruling in January blocking their previous open Internet rules. But net neutrality advocates wanted the agency to reclassify broadband Internet as a common carrier service, as they do with telephones, preventing discrimination on whatever passes through the pipe. Instead, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, opted for an alternative that will enrich Internet service providers (ISPs) and lead to a permanent digital divide. Wheeler’s justification, that no content would face discrimination, but telecoms can charge for faster service, has been roundly criticized, and with good reason. But will anyone be able to mobilize against the powerful interests pushing through the proposed rules?

There’s a recent precedent for Internet-based mobilization actually bringing down a corporate giveaway that initially looked inevitable. In 2011, Congress appeared close to sneaking through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) just before the Christmas holidays. The bill would have empowered the government to compel ISPs to shut down websites based on subjective audio or video copyright claims. It was a giant wet kiss to the movie and music industries, a bill that would have effectively eliminated user-generated content on the Web (could Facebook be expected to police their entire site minute-by-minute for copyright infringement?) and allowed media conglomerates to take over. You won’t be surprised that the staffers in House Judiciary Committee chair Lamar Smith’s office who wrote the bill left right afterward to become entertainment industry lobbyists.

But the Internet, in a coordinated pushback, beat SOPA, amid virtual silence from broadcast media, whose parent companies supported the bill. Web users of all political stripes bombarded Congress. At one point, Tumblr announced they were generating 3.6 calls per second. On January 18, 2012, hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia, participated in the largest Internet strike in history, redacting their content and posting links to help people register constituent complaints. Lawmakers walked away from the bill in droves; in the end, it never even got a vote.

The net neutrality fight shares some common elements with the SOPA battle. The universe of people affected—everyone who uses the Internet—is sufficiently big to enable a mass coalition. Demand Progress, a group active in the SOPA fight, has already begun to mobilize in conjunction with RootsAction, gathering 26,000 signatures on a petition in a matter of hours.

But the SOPA fight was truly trans-partisan, as conservatives made common cause with progressives against censorship of their websites. That potential doesn’t exist on net neutrality, as Republicans have rejected what they consider government regulation of the Internet. So the fight already begins with a narrower base. In addition, it’s easier to target individual members of Congress over proposed legislation, than rules from independent regulatory agencies (although, considering that the Obama Administration reaffirmed their commitment to net neutrality just two months ago, activists can try to hold them accountable).

Most important, net neutrality advocates likely need buy-in from corporate America. In a recent political science study, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern found that economic elites and organized business interests can have significant impact over public policy, while ordinary citizens just don’t. When the government acts in the interest of citizens at all, it’s often an accidental by-product of public preferences coincidentally matching those of business groups.

Many took this study to mean that the United States now functionally operates as an oligarchy rather than a democracy. It may actually mean that in America, citizens are typically disorganized on most public policy questions, particularly in an age of labor union decline, but can reverse that through mass organizing. Whatever your perspective, the SOPA fight offers a perfect case study. That effort really took off when Google, Reddit, and other major websites decided to join the fight, counterbalancing pressure on the other side from Hollywood. Tech giants knew that their businesses would be damaged by onerous copyright restrictions. The public interest and the interests of at least one set of elites aligned.

It’s not yet clear whether the same coalition will materialize to fight the FCC. The larger incumbent content providers, like Yahoo and Google, may well like paying for a faster Internet pipe, because it narrows competition to those who are already established. Netflix has already started paying for priority speeds, in a deal with Comcast for better back-end transit. In addition, Google is both a content producer and, through Google Fiber, an Internet service provider, and can reap profits by charging tolls for their fast lane. The company has been veering away from net neutrality for quite some time. Notably, the Internet Association, a coalition featuring Google, eBay, Netflix and other tech bigwigs, has said nothing about the FCC’s proposed rules yet, despite nominally supporting net neutrality. Google did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

This transformation by Google and others is common. As formerly upstart companies mature, they suddenly grow comfortable with regulations that favor incumbency—as long as they’re the incumbents. For a movement-based response to the FCC to succeed, activists must peel off companies willing to stay true to their word, and essentially rebuild a new corporate coalition that can engage their user base.

Netflix seems like an obvious choice. Despite their previous dealings, the streaming video giant has lashed out against Comcast for “arbitrary interconnection tolls,” and publicly opposed the merger between Comcast and Time Warner. Surely Netflix executives understand that a telecom industry freed to charge for faster broadband speeds will be able to raise prices over the years, and gouge incumbents. Netflix can go along with the arms race, or help to end it before it begins. Their leadership will attract smaller Internet players that can take more risks, because a pay-to-play Internet really does threaten their survival.

In this case, you can easily recognize the seeds of mass mobilization, which may provide enough political cover for a Netflix or Twitter to act. Tech communities with big audiences have responded to the FCC announcement with outrage. People intuitively know and resist the concentration of power controlling the tools they use every day. Several Democrats have criticized the proposal, from Cory Booker to Bernie Sanders to Nancy Pelosi, who actually urged people to contact the FCC with their criticisms. The ferocity of the backlash may have rocked the FCC back on their heels a bit, but time is short, with a May 15 meeting to move forward on the proposal looming.

But the sad fact of modern political life is that democratic action requires more than mere expressions of dissent, or the expectation that politicians who share our tribal sympathies will work on our behalf. To reach the critical mass necessary to succeed, savvy political organizing in the 21st century now includes convincing the business sector to recognize their interests and when they’re imperiled.

 

By: David Dayen, The New Republic, April 24, 2014

April 26, 2014 Posted by | Cable Companies, Corporations, Net Neutrality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Court Sanctioned Discrimination, Again”: Big Monopolies Are Now Free To Ruin The Internet

Countries like China or Russia, with centuries-long traditions of authoritarian rule, revert to their past practices when confronted with any kind of novelty. The United States, with its tradition of frontier free marketism, reverts to the laissez-faire when confronted with the new. But the result in both cases is the same: the radical constriction of popular democracy and freedom. A case in point is yesterday’s Appeals Court ruling on net neutrality.

The question is this: Can internet providers like Verizon and Comcast allow some web companies to provide better (that is, faster) service to their customers than their competitors by paying a higher price to the providers? Can Amazon knock an upstart by providing better service to its customers by paying off Verizon? Or can the Heritage Foundation’s web site provide better service than, say, that of the Economic Policy Institute by paying higher prices to Verizon? In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that internet providers could not discriminate among web sites in this manner. Yesterday, the Appeals Court ruled that they could. That’s an obvious blow to consumers, who will suffer the usual effects of monopoly; but it could also be a blow to free speech on the internet.

The obvious villain is the Appeals Court, but the damage was actually done earlier. In 2002, the FCC under chairman Michael Powell—the son of Colin Powell and reputedly an extremely decent person, but also a doctrinaire pro-business libertarian in the mold of the Koch brothers—issued a ruling that internet companies were “information services” and not “telecommunications companies.” That seemingly innocuous decision on wording held momentous consequences, because it meant that the internet could not be regulated like the public utility that it is. Phone companies, for instance, can’t by law provide static-free service to callers from a wealthy suburban area (at a price), but barely audible service to callers from the inner city, because they are regulated like a public utility. By the FCC’s ruling, internet providers could discriminate, and in 2005, the Supreme Court affirmed the FCC’s right to make this invidious distinction.

Obama’s first appointee as FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, understood the damage that Powell’s ruling had done, and sought to undo it. In May 2010, Genachowski announced that he was redefining cable as a telecommunications service.  That would have opened the door to re-regulating it. The cable and wireless industry stepped in.  “He felt himself to be in a difficult position,” Susan Crawford, the author of Captive Mind and an expert on communications law, recalled.  She said Genachowski feared that it would “be World War III. And the president didn’t need World War III.”  So in December 2010, Genachowski announced that he would not attempt to counter Powell’s definition. That left any attempt to regulate broadband—including the net neutrality standards that the administration adopted—open to a court challenge. Verizon then proceeded to challenge the FCC’s right to set net neutrality standards, and yesterday it won, and the FCC and the American people lost.

Powell was happy about the ruling. He is now the President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in Washington, the industry’s chief lobbying arm. “It’s ironic that the big winner coming out of the court’s decision could end up being the one person who wasn’t a litigant—the consumer,” Powell declared. It’s unclear whether Genachowski’s successor as FCC chair, former industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler, will challenge the ruling. But if he doesn’t, and the ruling stands, the FCC can kiss goodbye its power to regulate the internet and the protect the rights of citizens and consumers against avaricious monopolies.

 

By: John B. Judis, The New Republic, January 15, 2014

January 16, 2014 Posted by | Monopolies, Net Neutrality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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