Buzzflash.com, July 18, 2005
Title: “Web of Deceit: How Internet Freedom Got the Federal Ax, and Why Corporate News Censored the Story”
Author: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Lauren Powell, Brett Forest, and Zoe Huffman
Faculty Evaluator: Andrew Roth, Ph.D.
Throughout 2005 and 2006, a large underground debate raged regarding the future of the Internet. More recently referred to as “network neutrality,” the issue has become a tug of war with cable companies on the one hand and consumers and Internet service providers on the other. Yet despite important legislative proposals and Supreme Court decisions throughout 2005, the issue was almost completely ignored in the headlines until 2006.1 And, except for occasional coverage on CNBC’s Kudlow & Kramer, mainstream television remains hands-off to this day (June 2006).2
Most coverage of the issue framed it as an argument over regulation—but the term “regulation” in this case is somewhat misleading. Groups advocating for “net neutrality” are not promoting regulation of internet content. What they want is a legal mandate forcing cable companies to allow internet service providers (ISPs) free access to their cable lines (called a “common carriage” agreement). This was the model used for dial-up internet, and it is the way content providers want to keep it. They also want to make sure that cable companies cannot screen or interrupt internet content without a court order.
Those in favor of net neutrality say that lack of government regulation simply means that cable lines will be regulated by the cable companies themselves. ISPs will have to pay a hefty service fee for the right to use cable lines (making internet services more expensive). Those who could pay more would get better access; those who could not pay would be left behind. Cable companies could also decide to filter Internet content at will.
On the other side, cable company supporters say that a great deal of time and money was spent laying cable lines and expanding their speed and quality.3 They claim that allowing ISPs free access would deny cable companies the ability to recoup their investments, and maintain that cable providers should be allowed to charge. Not doing so, they predict, would discourage competition and innovation within the cable industry.
Cable supporters like the AT&T-sponsored Hands Off the Internet website assert that common carriage legislation would lead to higher prices and months of legal wrangling. They maintain that such legislation fixes a problem that doesn’t exist and scoff at concerns that phone and cable companies will use their position to limit access based on fees as groundless. Though cable companies deny plans to block content providers without cause, there are a number of examples of cable-initiated discrimination.
In March 2005, the FCC settled a case against a North Carolina-based telephone company that was blocking the ability of its customers to use voice-over-Internet calling services instead of (the more expensive) phone lines.4 In August 2005, a Canadian cable company blocked access to a site that supported the cable union in a labor dispute.5 In February 2006, Cox Communications denied customers access to the Craig’s List website. Though Cox claims that it was simply a security error, it was discovered that Cox ran a classified service that competes with Craig’s List.6
In June of 1999, the Ninth District Court ruled that AT&T would have to open its cable network to ISPs (AT&T v. City of Portland). The court said that Internet transmissions, interactive, two-way exchanges, were telecommunication offerings, not a cable information service (like CNN) that sends data one way. This decision was overturned on appeal a year later.
Recent court decisions have extended the cable company agenda further. On June 27, 2005, The United States Supreme Court ruled that cable corporations like Comcast and Verizon were not required to share their lines with rival ISPs (National Cable & Telecommunications Association vs. Brand X Internet Services).7 Cable companies would not have to offer common carriage agreements for cable lines the way that telephone companies have for phone lines.
According to Dr. Elliot Cohen, the decision accepted the FCC assertion that cable modem service is not a two-way telecommunications offering, but a one-way information service, completely overturning the 1999 ruling. Meanwhile, telephone companies charge that such a decision gives an unfair advantage to cable companies and are requesting that they be released from their common carriage requirement as well.
On June 8, the House rejected legislation (HR 5273) that would have prevented phone and cable companies from selling preferential treatment on their networks for delivery of video and other data-heavy applications. It also passed the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act (HR 5252), which supporters said would encourage innovation and the construction of more high-speed Internet lines. Internet neutrality advocates say it will allow phone and cable companies to cherry-pick customers in wealthy neighborhoods while eliminating the current requirement demanded by most local governments that cable TV companies serve low-income and minority areas as well. 8
Comment: As of June 2006, the COPE Act is in the Senate. Supporters say the bill supports innovation and freedom of choice. Interet neutrality advocates say that its passage would forever compromise the Internet. Giant cable companies would attain a monopoly on high-speed, cable Internet. They would prevent poorer citizens from broadband access, while monitoring and controlling the content of information that can be accessed.
1. “Keeping a Democratic Web,” The New York Times, May 2, 2006.
2. Jim Goldman, Larry Kudlow, and Phil Lebeau, “Panelists Michael Powell, Mike Holland, Neil Weinberg, John Augustine and Pablo Perez-Fernandez discuss markets,” Kudlow & Company CNBC, March 6, 2006.
4. Michael Geist, “Telus breaks Net Providers’ cardinal rule: Telecom company blocks access to site supporting union in labour dispute,” Ottawa Citizen, August 4, 2005.
5. Jonathan Krim, “Renewed Warning of Bandwidth Hoarding,” The Washington Post, November 24, 2005.
6. David A. Utter, “Craigslist Blocked By Cox Interactive,” http://www.Webpronews.com, June 7, 2006.
7. Yuki Noguchi, “Cable Firms Don’t Have to Share Networks, Court Rules,” Washington Post, June 28, 2005.
8. “Last week in Congress / How our representatives voted,” Buffalo News (New York), June 11, 2006.
UPDATE BY ELLIOT D. COHEN, PH.D.
Despite the fact that the Court’s decision in Brand X marks the beginning of the end for a robust, democratic Internet, there has been a virtual MSM blackout in covering it. As a result of this decision, the legal stage has been set for further corporate control. Currently pending in Congress is the “Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006”(HR 5252), fueled by strong telecom corporative lobbies and introduced by Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX). This Act, which fails to adequately protect an open and neutral Internet, includes a “Title II—Enforcement of Broadband Policy Statement” that gives the FCC “exclusive authority to adjudicate any complaint alleging a violation of the broadband policy statement or the principles incorporated therein.” With the passage of this provision, courts will have scant authority to challenge and overturn FCC decisions regarding broadband. Since under current FCC Chair Kevin Martin, the FCC is moving toward still further deregulation of telecom and media companies, the likely consequence is the thickening of the plot to increase corporate control of the Internet. In particular, behemoth telecom corporations like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T want to set up toll booths on the Internet. If these companies get their way, content providers with deep pockets will be afforded optimum bandwidth while the rest of us will be left spinning in cyberspace. No longer will everyone enjoy an equal voice in the freest and most comprehensive democratic forum ever devised by humankind.
As might be expected, none of these new developments are being addressed by the MSM. Among media activist organizations attempting to stop the gutting of the free Internet is The Free Press (http://www.freepress.net/), which now has an aggressive “Save the Internet” campaign.