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World War Web

The era of an open, egalitarian and transparent Internet could soon come to an end in the United States—unless we fight back

By Melinda Welsh

 

You know the routine. We all do. Monday morning, 6:30 AM: You wake up, shower, make coffee and go online to check e-mail and CNN for gossip and news of the world. You forward a proposal you drafted over the weekend to your work e-mail. Next, since you compulsively sang it in the shower, you play again that YouTube video of the woman from a Bulgarian version of American Idol crooning Mariah Carey’s “Without You” in her own personal version of English: “Ken Lee . . . dulibu dibu douchoo . . . ” (You’ll now be singing this under your breath for the rest of the day.) After skipping around to a few other sites, you dress, breakfast and make the commute to your job, remembering to text message your sister with a reminder about the lunch date.

When you get to the job, the first thing you do, naturally, is go online. No big deal—just an average, wired morning in the first decade of a century where much of our work and personal lives revolve around being digitally connected to each other and everything almost all the time.

If you’re under 25, you barely remember a time when all this hyperconnectedness didn’t exist. But really . . . it didn’t. It was less than a decade and a half ago when the baby boomers among us were buying our first personal computers (remember those flying toasters?) and starting to send each other glacially slow e-mails that seemed to move at light speed. Since then, obviously, the tech has gotten always faster, and constantly cheaper. We are communicating—sending, searching, interacting and creating content—as never before in human history. In the years upcoming, we’re told, this capacity to connect will speed up exponentially as our Internet, TV and telephone use moves to a converged platform operating off a super high-speed connection.

Or not.

These days, you don’t have to be a paranoid techie or consumer-rights policy wonk to see that the era of an open, egalitarian and transparent Internet could soon come to a screeching halt in America. That’s because the nation’s largest cable and telephone companies—the ones that control the wires, towers and switching systems that make up residential broadband in America—seem to be moving with new aggressiveness to figure out ways to establish themselves as Internet gatekeepers. In most U.S. markets there is, at best, a choice between two service providers capable of routing global Internet traffic to our homes and workplaces. As Al Gore ominously puts it in his book The Assault on Reason, these companies “have not been able to capture as much of the increased value of the Internet as they would like.”

“It’s going to be hard to maintain the Internet the way it is today,” says Jesse Drew, acting director of technocultural studies at the University of California at Davis, describing the powerful incentive cable and telephone companies have to profit from the new medium. “They are getting bolder and bolder. This is not a new issue. It’s just coming to culmination now.”

Indeed, many fear that recent moves by AT&T, Comcast and Verizon signal a quickening desire to control who gets what Internet content, and how fast. Last October, Comcast was caught purposefully blocking traffic for users of the file-sharing, peer-to-peer protocol BitTorrent. In September, Verizon Wireless was found to have blocked a pro-choice organization from sending text messages to members. Earlier in the year, AT&T censored comments by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder that were critical of President George W. Bush. Along with all this comes the recent purchase of the last big chunks of available wireless spectrum by AT&T and Verizon. This translates, basically, into less competition than ever for future control of that “last mile” broadband Internet connection.

Adding to the fear of content control and “traffic cops” on the Internet is the specter that cable and telephone company execs may intend to impose “tiers” of access, with nonprofits, community-access sites and independent bloggers relegated to a slow lane. Advocacy groups like Free Press believe we have entered a “policy moment” for the Internet where the market will soon be shaped for this medium as it was for cable in the 1980s, television in the 1950s and radio in the 1930s.

Lined up against the telecommunication firms are public-interest groups and think-tanks a-plenty, including Free Press, Common Cause, Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Importantly, the nonprofits have been joined by some powerful Internet-based companies, like Google, Yahoo, Craigslist, Amazon and eBay. All are pushing for something called “net neutrality,” the concept that the Internet should remain a free and open platform, and that limited government rules may be required to ensure this. All support House Resolution 5353, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which Democrat Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced in Congress a few months ago. It would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to “preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of broadband networks.”

Cyber scholars, public-media-access advocates and techies of all varieties are keeping their eyeballs peeled for developments. “If the people who control the infrastructure of the Internet can control what we hear and see, it’s like the post office deciding what mail it wants to deliver and not deliver,” said UCD’s Drew. “The conglomerates are getting bolder. They want a payoff quicker.”

Ron Cooper, of the community-media organization Access Sacramento, is another firm believer in net neutrality. “People are becoming more aware of what the telecoms want with the Internet,” said Cooper. “After all, these are the same companies who gave away our personal information to the Bush administration.”

But perhaps not all boils down to bad guys vs. good guys in this debate, i.e., traditional communication companies vs. the new, wired ones. Some, like the folks from Google, believe net neutrality is crucial, but hope the debate doesn’t fall into old-style politics and black-and-white thinking.

“It’s not loser-winner with this issue,” insists Google media counsel and net-neutrality guru Rick Whitt, in attempting to express a dynamic way to consider the Internet and its future. “Net neutrality is not something that constrains anybody. The [telecoms] can do fine in this new environment. . . . The Internet is a unique platform. The idea that it’s a single piece of pie that we have to fight over no longer holds.”

A formal government hearing on allegations that the country’s second largest broadband provider was secretly blocking Internet traffic was ready to commence at Harvard Law School in late February—so what the heck was going on with all the sleeping people? One young fellow in a camouflage jacket and day-old beard snoozed boldly near the front row. A chap next to him sprawled on a chair zzzzzz’d out as if he’d just gotten off the late shift. As it turned out, the pair and many dozens of others had been bused in and paid by Comcast to “hold” front row seats for that company’s employees at the standing-room-only Federal Communications Commission hearing. More than 100 people who wanted to attend were turned away. So when video footage of the dormant seat holders got 60,000 views on YouTube, Comcast was accused (with no little irony) of blocking public access to a hearing about complaints that they were, ahem, blocking public access to the Internet.

The FCC investigative hearing was called because users of a file-sharing technology called BitTorrent (a popular peer-to-peer protocol that uses the power of large networks of PCs to “swarm downloads” or share large data files) discovered that Comcast was secretly interfering with their traffic. BitTorrent users—who often employ its applications to transmit TV shows, movies and, yes, pornography—were first told by Comcast that there was no blocking going on. But cybersleuths soon figured out that Comcast had not only blocked traffic, it had masked its interference by making it appear as if BitTorrent streams were being interrupted at the source instead of by Comcast itself. (Though some BitTorrent users are known to distribute pirated files, the technology is used legally by many millions of people.)

Eventually Comcast admitted it had, in fact, interfered with BitTorrent traffic. But the company claimed it was only doing what was necessary to deal with traffic-flow problems that occurred because “bandwidth hogs” (peer-to-peer file- sharing applications are often given this designation) often dominated traffic on its network. Indeed, file-sharing systems do use large amounts of bandwidth, and networks like Comcast’s simply are not designed for it. (In fact, many Americans are not aware that bandwidth in the United States is far more limited than in Europe and Asia; Japan, for example, has Internet connections more than 10 times faster than ours.) Still, choosing particular applications to block or not block—as Comcast did—can be regarded as discriminatory and/or anti-competitive.

Naturally, the blogosphere erupted over the affair, and the public-interest group Free Press and think tank Public Knowledge filed a formal complaint with the FCC, demanding an investigation. A BitTorrent user in San Francisco, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit against Comcast for its action to block BitTorrent. A live telecast debate on neutrality was promoted thusly: “Bring your quatloos and tune your Internet radios . . . to see the ultimate steel cage deathmatch tag-team policy smackdown on network neutrality!”

So it was no surprise last week when Comcast, under increasing pressure from the blogosphere and the FCC, decided to depart this particular field of battle and come to an “agreement” with the company BitTorrent, Inc. The cable company said it would switch to a “protocol agnostic” network-management policy before the close of 2008, if company representatives would agree no further government intervention was necessary. BitTorrent, Inc. agreed.

But not so fast.

Net-neutrality proponents were a long way from being satisfied. They weren’t about to give up the chance to use the incident as a prime example of the danger that loomed if cable and telephone companies were able to act as traffic cops and block access to sites of their choosing. And the Comcast agreement was with the company BitTorrent, Inc., not everyone who uses the BitTorrent protocol. “This doesn’t change the urgent need for the FCC to take action,” read an immediate e-mail sent out by Marvin Ammori, a lawyer for Free Press, after the agreement was penned. “With Comcast’s history of broken promises and record of deception—we can’t just take their word that the Internet is now in safe hands.”

Drew wrote a paper in 1994 titled “Who Owns the Internet?” so, as you can imagine, he’s quick to note that the debate about the future of the Internet is hardly a new one. But he believes the debate will reach a pinnacle in the next few years, and, he says, “the past is not reassuring when it comes to trusting these big firms. If you look at the history, it’s not a good track record.

“Everything goes back to that simplistic metaphor of the information superhighway,” he added. “Is it a freeway or a toll road? Obviously, these companies are interested in building toll roads. . . . Public access can be guaranteed a bit, but overall it’s minuscule, it’s marginalized.”

What exists right now online is a digital commons, explained Christina Gagnier, a net-neutrality expert who organized a recent symposium on the subject at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “Openness, transparency, user choice and control” is what the Internet offers today, she said. But it could all change fast. “In 2006, people said [big cable and telephone companies] might someday interfere,” she said. “It was speculative.

“But in 2007, it’s happening.”

Though the debate now seems to center on issues of content—who controls it and how to manage it—Gagnier predicts the real battle lies ahead, when the focus moves to the matter of “tiers” of access.

“The [Internet service providers] would like to have tiered services where they get more payback for providing a service,” she said. “Now, it’s $19.95 to get Internet, but it could become like cable—you pay for basic access, and you pay more for premium.” In this scenario, she explained, providers could discriminate by controlling what data to prioritize, such as files from media companies they themselves own.

AT&T has acknowledged it is considering taking this route. And recently, Time Warner Cable, with 7.5 million Internet customers (about half of Comcast’s 13 million), announced it was going to be testing a tiered billing method in Texas based on individual customer’s bandwidth usage.

There’s wide agreement that blocking, impairing or degrading Internet traffic is not acceptable, Gagnier furthered. But after that, on the matter of tiers, “there’s a wide swath of different opinions about what’s OK and not.” She’s right. Google’s Whitt, for example, articulates a position that network operators may actually benefit users by “differentiating between categories of traffic” so as to deal with congestion issues. His only concern is that it not be done on a discriminatory basis. On the BitTorrent debate, Whitt said: “We want to give Comcast the benefit of the doubt that it was dealing with congestion.”

At the same time that neutrality supporters duke out their differences in the blogosphere, the anti-neutrality side has, since 2006, been vying for favor in the court of public opinion. Service providers like AT&T (a company that emerged, along with Verizon, after the restructuring of the old Bell telephone companies) helped fund a nonprofit called Hands Off the Internet so as to get their anti-net neutrality message out there. The site and others claim that government regulation of the Internet could indirectly prevent innovation and improvement. A public-relations video (www.dont regulate.org) contains a stylish, hip cartoon video message designed to appeal to young people. It claims, basically, that Internet companies want to fix what’s not broke.

Less than hip, however, was a message from the AT&T brass on the subject that whipped its way around the Internet a few years back. Fed up with controlling the so-called “last mile” of connection into people’s homes and workplaces without enough profit to show for it, AT&T chairman Ed Whitacre sounded off: “[Internet companies] don’t have any fiber out there. They don’t have any wires. . . . They use my lines for free—and that’s bull. . . . For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!”

When Derrick Ashong, a 32-year-old rap-reggae musician from Los Angeles, joined a throng of Barack Obama supporters outside of the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood at the Democratic primary debate at the end of January, he had no idea that he would soon become a one-man symbol of the democratizing power of the Internet. But when a skeptical stranger named “Mike” turned a camera on him at the event, the resulting video proved once more that it no longer takes vast sums of money to reach an audience with a message. In the video, the West African immigrant describes his love of America, his passionate desire to see a universal health-care plan, his intellectual support for Obama. The six-minute video went inexplicably viral on YouTube, and wound up attracting a million views.

The video goes straight to the heart of the debate over net neutrality. If network providers controlled traffic flow or content, room for independent, random views such as those put forth in the Ashong video would basically be snuffed out, say the groups. Neutrality supporters hasten to add: If the Internet weren’t open to all, would Virginia voters have ever seen the “macaca” video-gone-viral that put Republican U.S. Senator George Allen out of a job? Would public opinion have built against U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his politically motivated firing of federal prosecutors?

But neutrality is not just about health-care policies and out-of-work lawyers. “Most people don’t care about the politics of it all,” said Drew. “They do care about hearing the bands they want to hear without it being filtered.” The record industry, he said, “wants to be able to pick the big star, they want to pick the big band, they want to pick who’s going to do the soundtrack to the big film. Industry wants to decide what’s on the menu. But people want to go out and find their own. . . .

“My students get this. If you posit the idea to them that the Internet could become like cable TV, they’re like, ‘No way. We should have access without an intermediary.’ ”

Case in point: At a recent hearing in Washington, D.C., on H.R. 5353, the campy band OK Go spoke in favor of net neutrality by telling the tale, before the House Judiciary Committee, of the amateur video they made of their song “Here It Goes Again.” The video—which depicts the band’s four members strutting, dipping, diving and dancing to their tune on eight moving treadmills—has been watched more than 32 million times on YouTube. The video is a prime example of how an independent band (“We were struggling for every fan”) became a phenomenon without a giant corporate-hits machine behind it. Thus the band and their story became another argument for net neutrality.

To say there are big piles of money lobbying on both sides of Markey’s H.R. 5353 is an understatement. Google and other Internet companies have substantial resources. Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post, the lobbying budget for the so-called telecoms last year was $17 million for AT&T, $14 million for Verizon and $9 million for Comcast.

“Politicians from both parties are highly dependent on the electronic communications industry,” said Drew. As an example of the “both sides of the aisle” thing, many find it strange that Mike McCurry, former spokesman for President Bill Clinton, is a leading proponent of the fight against net neutrality.

And though most agree that the Markey bill doesn’t have much of a chance of getting through Congress this session, neutrality proponents are glad it was at least introduced.

“It’s great that it’s out there,” agreed Whitt. “Its prospects are not good, but it helps move the ball down the road.”

One tech-savvy colleague said he got “goose bumps” driving through the town of Mountain View, Calif., home of the Internet’s most vaunted company, Google, with its “Don’t be evil” company motto and recent market value of $200 billion.

On the matter of net neutrality, Google tends to speak in the first-person plural, with its execs acknowledging that the company owes everything it has become to the free, open and innovative marketplace of the Internet. “Openness is everything to us,” said Whitt.

Responding to a question about whether Google will stay on the side of net neutrality if it stops suiting the company’s business model, Whitt responds: “An open Internet is central to the corporate DNA of this company. It’s fundamental.”

Google’s go-to lawyer guy in D.C. on all things related to net neutrality, Whitt describes the two sides in the debate as, basically, “networks vs. the stuff on networks.” He then poses the complex net-neutrality issue in a 10-word query: “What is the network’s role in regards to the stuff?” According to Whitt, the events of the past year have actually helped the cause of neutrality move forward. “I think right now there’s a good feeling that the cause for an open Internet has gained ground,” said Whitt.

In partial explanation for his optimism, he offered up consideration of “complexity economics,” a theory that suggests that the economy is not a closed system with finite resources, and that economic growth does not emerge from capital or property anymore, but from ideas. The Internet creates an unprecedented platform for innovation, according to Whitt, and his job and Google’s are to ensure net neutrality so as “to make sure [the Internet] can grow organically.

“The net-neutrality issue is not about Google,” he added. “It’s about the next Google.”

Whitt’s words call to mind Wired magazine’s recent, far-reaching cover article by its editor Chris Anderson. Titled “Free,” the piece introduces the theory that the underlying technologies that power the Web represent a new “full-fledged economy of innovation.” Everything the Web touches starts down a path to becoming free, he explains in the story with its countless examples. It’s not just buyers and sellers, but “an eco- system with many parties, only some of which exchange cash.”

If innovation is truly the basis on which a new economy will be built, one can imagine why traditional communication corporations—the ones who have always succeeded by owning the capital, property or, in this case, “the pipes”—might be having a problem segueing into that future. Perhaps, in the debate over net neutrality, we’re seeing some of the transition to this “economy of innovation” play out as well.

Ultimately, the battle for the future of the Internet is just warming up.

A long history of telecommunications companies wresting media control away from the public must be heeded, as Jesse Drew would note, and many skirmishes are still ahead. Also, a new president, cabinet and Congress in Washington will, no doubt, weigh in with significance as the debate moves to the forefront. And make no mistake: The geek economists, citizen groups, free-speech activists, Internet companies and, yes, the network operators, will all have to wrestle with these issues while simultaneously witnessing an ongoing explosion of innovation on the Internet.

Darrick Servis, a Sacramento open-source programmer and musician whose day job is director of operations for Davis Media Access, offered a closing paradox. If network operators had, in the 1990s, gone after the kind of control they now seek, “companies like Google and Craigslist would never have come to be,” he said, and we might never even be having this debate.

But we are having it, he said. And now it’s too late for anybody to stop what’s been set in motion. “People have an expectation of how the Internet works now,” Servis said. “You get what you want for free. That’s it. People have that expectation now and there’s no going back.”

Melinda Welsh is a staff writer for the Sacramento News & Review, where this story first appeared.


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