July's Lowdown

July 2010, Volume 12, Number 7

Edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer


The fight for net neutrality

Big biz wants to own the information superhighway while We the People bump along the backroads

In the 1970s, Lily Tomlin developed an iconic comic character she named Ernestine--a telephone clerk who took perverse pleasure from hectoring customers. Her character was a perfect portrayal of the arrogance of AT&T, the monopolistic telephone giant of that day. In one skit on on the TV show, Laugh-In, Tomlin had Ernestine delivering a TV pitch for the corporation:

"A gracious hello," she cheerfully began, speaking directly into the camera. "Here at the Phone Company, we handle 84 billion calls a year. So, we realize that every so often, you can't get an operator, or for no apparent reason your phone goes out of order, or perhaps you get charged for a call you didn't make. We don't care!"

Gesturing at the whirring equipment around her, Ernestine continued: "You see, this phone system consists of a multi-billion-dollar matrix of space-age technology that is so sophisticated even we can't handle it. But that's your problem, isn't it? So, the next time you complain about your phone service, why don't you try using two Dixie cups with a string? We don't care. We don't have to. We're the Phone Company."

Three decades later, the spirit of 'Ernestine' still lives, this time not merely as a symbol of the phone company, but for a much larger, bullying, arrogant cabal of telecom conglomerates. Unfortunately, their self-serving, "we don't care" attitude is not just directed at consumers, but more broadly at America's democratic values.

These telecom outfits are the ones that connect our homes, businesses, schools, (etc...) to what is fast becoming our country's most vital source of communication and information: the internet. Unbeknownst to most people, the conglomerates are making an outrageous power play in Washington to make themselves the arbiters of internet content. Using their role as "service" connectors, they are effectively trying to squeeze non-corporate, non-wealthy voices off of the worldwide web.

The whole idea of the internet is that it's a wide-open, wildly-democratic place where anyone and everyone can "meet" to exchange viewpoints, ideas, facts, ideologies, theories, videos, opinions, stories, visions--and, yes, propaganda, nonsense, ugliness, and outright lies. The internet's beauty is in its free-flowing, uncensored, uncontrolled nature. No one should be allowed to control the flow of legal content that makes up this rich public discourse--not governments, not media barons, not special interests, nor any other intermediary. Instead, ordinary people get a full range of information from the internet and decide for themselves what is "true" and valuable. That's democracy in action.

However, to participate, you must first plug into this worldwide digital network. Hooking us up is a rather mundane mechanical task--but it has become the point at which the spark of internet democracy is confronting the stifling power of corporate autocracy. In the US, the plugging-in process has been entrusted to private, for-profit "internet service providers" (ISP's), an industry now in the firm grasp of just four telephone and cable giants: AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. This cabal of special interests controls 94 percent of the national ISP market, and the monopolistic group is now asserting its market dominance and political muscle in an autocratic effort to impose corporate censorship over what information the public will be allowed to get via the internet.

Digital democracy

The word of the day is "net neutrality." Okay, that's two words, but they express a concept that's vital to all of us, whether we're personally connected online or not--so let's say them out loud together: "net neutrality."

Yes, it sounds technical and boring, but please read on, for this concept goes to the core of what America is... and will be. Forget the technology, net neutrality is about democracy itself--the latest battleground in our nation's historic struggle for freedom of speech, a free press, and the free flow of information that We the People must have if, in fact, we are to be self-governing.

Today, 40 million Americans are using the internet as their primary source of news and information, with more joining daily. On the net, you get access to any and every website on an equal basis. A behemoth like Time Warner puts its content there for you to view, but so does a myriad of voices with names like Tiny Warbler. At present, anyone who puts up a web page (including us here at the Lowdown) is treated equally in the system, allowing millions of people around the globe to have their say. This freedom exists because the internet is a neutral mechanism, making no judgment about whose content is superior or deserving of special treatment.

In fact, today's internet is the most democratic of all media. The free press, as journalist A.J. Liebling famously put it, "is guaranteed only to those who own one." Likewise, a radio or television license generally goes to those with deep pockets. But anyone who hooks their computer up to the internet can find an audience ranging in size from just their brother-in-law to billions, depending on the appeal of the content they put up.

But now come the telecom powers, mounting a furious, multi-million-dollar lobbying and PR campaign to destroy the neutrality of the internet by enthroning themselves as the gatekeepers of content. Their motivation is--prepare to be shocked!--to channel more money into their corporate coffers. Lots more money. They already get paid every time they hook up another user, and we also pay a monthly subscriber fee to them for keeping our computers hooked to their wires. Fine. That's a service they provide.

(Bear in mind that these Brobdingnagian corporations, which like to proclaim that they made the investment to wire America for the internet, actually received whopping federal subsidies to do that job. The 1996 Telecommunications Act awarded taxpayer money to the big telecom companies in exchange for their promise to extend fiber optic lines into every home. They took the money and ran--46 percent of American homes still have no high-speed internet connections, a rate of hook-ups that leaves the USA--the country that invented the internet--ranking fifteenth in the world.)

With their monthly subscriber fees and public subsidies, the telecoms are hugely profitable. But it has lately dawned on these behemoths that they could bilk billions more from the internet simply by charging fees for information that the various users post. Plus, they've hit upon the idea of giving privileged treatment to users that'll pay a premium for it.

The intention of the Big Four ISP's is to impose an arbitrary, tiered system of fees that the millions of websites in our country would have to pay to have their content go out on the net. Those websites able and willing to shell out the most--i.e., the big, slick, corporate sites--would be given special access by the ISP's. They would get their content delivered ahead of all others and on the speediest paths through the internet. The smaller, poorer, non-establishment communities on the web are to be shunted off to the slow lane, or not even allowed on the system at all.

To achieve this control, the four giants first have to discredit and eliminate the democratic essence of net neutrality, which is that everyone is equal. Their pay-to-play game requires a new ethic and system of outright class discrimination erected by and for an oligarchy of ISP's. Again, the internet has become a vital piece of our national (and international) infrastructure, and it is fast becoming the chief channel for democratic dialogue. This makes it more than just another consumer product--the net is now a key public asset, serving us in much the same way as community bulletin boards served those who posted and read broadsheets at the time of the American Revolution. It would've been intolerable back then for the British East India Trading Company to claim ownership of the bulletin boards, impose fees for posting information and restrict who could say what--and it is just as intolerable for AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon to put a regressive corporate tax on today's internet bulletin board.

Defending democracy

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is probably the most important inventor you never heard of. A British computer scientist, he's the man who, in 1989, created the worldwide web, allowing anyone anywhere to set up an internet address (www.whatever) that anyone else with internet access anywhere in the world can find and connect with directly. In other words, Sir Tim is the web's daddy.

Having created it as an open, non-discriminatory, democratic communications medium, Berners-Lee is still battling the profiteers to retain that essential ideal.

In 2007, after AT&T declared its intention to convert the internet into its own private toll road, he issued this clarion call to action:

"When I invented the web, I didn't have to ask anyone's permission. Now hundreds of millions of people are using it freely. I am worried that that is going to end in the USA....

"Control of information is hugely powerful. In the US, the threat is that companies control what I can access for [their own] commercial reasons....

"The internet is increasingly becoming the dominant medium binding us. The neutral communications medium is essential to our society.... It is the basis of democracy....

"Let us protect the neutrality of the net."

A determined army of internet democracy defenders is answering his call. A very broad-based, bipartisan group called the Savetheinternet.com Coalition includes such odd bedfellows as the American Library Association, Gun Owners of America, the ACLU, and the Christian Coalition. The Christian group says that it supports net neutrality for a simple reason: "We believe that organizations such as [ours] should be able to continue to use the internet to communicate with our members and with a worldwide audience without a phone or cable company snooping in on our communications and deciding whether to allow a particular communication to proceed, slow it down, or offer to speed it up if the author pays extra to be in the 'fast lane.'"

This diverse coalition--along with many internet experts, a host of web-based companies (ranging from Amazon to Yahoo), and the activist computer geek community known as the netroots--are now backing efforts in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission to stop the crass corporatization of this organic communications medium. The principle of net neutrality--free and open, with equal access for all--is the key to preserving America's basic democratic value of free speech for the digital future.

This would seem obvious, but apparently nothing is too obvious that it can't be perverted and subverted by corporations eager to turn our "free" speech into their profits. Not only are the Big Four going all out to defeat the neutrality principle, but they've also enlisted a cadre of extremist, corporate-funded front groups, Republican political operatives, and talk-show yakkers to distort and demonize the principle itself.

Predatory plutocrats

Once again, we find the Koch brothers in action, swinging their interlocked network of extremist laissez-faire groups behind big telecom's current coup attempt. Charles and David, the multi-billionaire brothers who have quietly founded and richly funded dozens of far-right-wing organizations to advance their vision of corporate-run America [Lowdown, February 2010], would naturally despise a rebellious, populist-spirited, grassroots information/communication network with the reach and power of today's internet. Better to put this bucking beast under a tight corporate bridle as soon as possible.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), created by David in 1984, has long been the billionaire boys' chief political attack machine, specializing in doublespeak, distortions, manipulations, histrionics, stunts and tricks, deceit, huffery and puffery, and lies. Recently, AFP has been the main corporate front group for creating the howling teabag rallies, ridiculing climate change realities, and spreading falsifications about all-things-Obama. And, now, net neutrality is getting the AFP treatment:

n The first step by these professional dissemblers is to "rebrand" the issue. In this case, they went straight to Orwellian doublespeak--AFP's monkeywrenchers simply ignore the fact that this fight is about a corporate power grab, instead wailing that big government is seeking "sweeping" regulations that will lead to a "nationalized internet." Also, net neutrality is a benign term, so longtime AFP associate Dick Armey (the former GOP House majority leader) twisted it into something nasty: "net brutality," conjuring up jack-booted government agents harassing innocent ISP corporations and bursting into our homes to pull our internet plugs (hey, subtlety is not AFP's game).

  • An organization calling itself the Internet Freedom Coalition (IFC) was created to give an aura of grassroots support behind the telecoms. But it's just another astroturf front group made up of 28 corporate-backed organizations, including AFP and several other Koch-financed outfits. Indeed, IFC's chairman is the policy director at AFP. The coalition's main contribution to the net neutrality debate has been to warn ominously about "the United Nations' control of the internet."
  • In May, AFP took to the air with a $1.4 million ad campaign warning about the "looming threat" of "a Washington takeover of the internet." It featured the old gimmick of falling dominoes, each one representing another bit of web freedom knocked over by big, bad government. AFP even trotted out Grover Norquist for a cameo appearance. The government-loathing political hack and corporate shill warned darkly that net neutrality equates to China's merciless government censorship, involving "policemen on every corner, on the street or on the internet." Never mind that the neutrality principle is the exact opposite of censorship--it demands an open system, free from corporate or government censors.
  • AFP has even put Glenn Beck into play. For weeks, the boo-hooing Fox TV ranter has been mouthing the group's talking points, adding his usual nuanced touch by assailing net neutrality proponents as marxists and socialists.

Money muscle

By unleashing the full menagerie of right-wing attack forces, internet corporatizers intend to stir up another frenzy of teabag fear about intrusive government, thus creating such a political cacophony that craven congress critters will be afraid to stand up for internet democracy. This is not, however, the corporatizers' only ploy. They are also rolling out the heavy artillery they deploy for any big Washington offensive: money and lobbying.

These are huge corporations with practically bottomless resources. Time Warner Cable's income was $17.9 billion last year, Comcast's was $35.8 billion, Verizon's was $49 billion, and AT&T's was $123 billion. Their profits totaled $20.8 billion. The total assets of the Big Four telecom powers topped half-a-trillion dollars.

As the Supreme Court has decreed (Lowdown, March 2010), corporations are free to apply any portion of this immense treasure trove to defeating members of Congress who oppose their internet lockdown. Not counting the vaults of corporate money that the four will pour into their own independent campaigns for this fall's congressional elections, they have already contributed $67 million directly to particular candidates. This does not include $27 million that telecoms have funneled to candidates so far this year through their trade groups.

This barrage of corporate political cash no longer amounts to "influence" money--it is intimidation money. In corporate speak, it says, "Support us, or we'll crush you."

Then come the lobbyists tramp-tramp-tramping up Capitol Hill. So far, in the 2009-10 session of Congress, the Big Four have laid out nearly $70 million on hired guns (including ex-lawmakers) to convince Congress to kill net neutrality. At present, AT&T has 84 of these influence peddlers on its payroll, Comcast has 93, Time Warner has 87, and Verizon has 118.

To carry their water, the corporatizers have called on an old, reliable asset: Sen. John McCain. He's the number-one recipient of telecom campaign donations (taking nearly a million bucks in the past two years alone, including loving largesse from AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon). John "The Maverick" McCain has long used his senate power to craft internet rules to benefit his benefactors.

Last October, he stepped up one more time, introducing "The Internet Freedom Act," banning the FCC from enacting rules to preserve net neutrality. Incredibly, McCain rationalized his bill by parroting the paranoid nuttiness of the telecom-AFP-Beckian clique, squawking that "the government is coming! the government is coming!" The FCC's "onerous" plot, he declared would stifle job growth and innovation in America's crucial high-tech sector. While the rest of our economy was crashing in 2008, John explained, such creative companies as Google and Yahoo were making profits and jobs. Free the ISP's to restrict and slow internet content according to ability to pay, he cried, or you'll cripple the wealth-creating genius of the Googles and Yahoos.

Great theatrics, Senator! Except for one small detail: Google and Yahoo are major backers of net neutrality and ardent opponents of McCain's bill to let the telecoms censor and control content.

You don't need a computer to know what the score is. The effort by AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and their front men to "keep the internet free from government control and regulations" (McCain's hyperbolic phrase) is nothing but a shameful ploy to allow corporate control and regulation of the internet. This is a classic clash between populism and plutocracy--a structural fight over whether public policy will favor the many... or the privileged few. As the groundbreaking blogsite Boing-Boing, a leading advocate of a populist internet put it, "Telecoms... want freedom all right. They want [the freedom] to charge us more money."

The geeks who have created, nurtured, and extended the internet are modern-day Thomas Paines who have democracy in mind and in their hearts. You can side with them... or with telecom oligarchs. I go with the geeks.



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DISCUSS THIS ARTICLE


Corporate Cancer

Corporations are amoral, soul-less, immortal synthetic entities whose only function is to grow ceaselessly and absorb everything than can be acquired legally or otherwise.

They are CANCEROUS entities that must be controlled, and limited in their growth and size, to remain functional and operate with human interests first.

Nature has deemed an optimal size for every living thing and organism, in which it may function to the best of its ability and in harmony with the natural world. Nature also has internalized the life span of each organism, to allow new entities to organize and reproduce.

Corporations have violated every one of these natural boundaries, and now operate as a death-defying living cancer/virus on the planet. Multinationals have grown to the size where democracy is inoperable.

We must re-institute a DEATH POLICY and LIFE TERM LIMIT for these synthetic entities before our planet succumbs to their self-destructive nature. More than antitrust law, corporations MUST be limited in their size and scope to allow enough growth for innovation, competition, and new forms of enterprise to flourish.

There must be a separation of Corporations and Government and public monies are just one way to do this to finance elections. The creation of new leaders who may operate outside the Corporate $$ Vortex is critical. I fear it may be too late for the US of A, but then, I am an optimist.

-- posted by MHERMANN at 12:45pm, August 19, 2010
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1984

Expecting our U.S. "representatives" to regulate the corporations is like hoping the snow won't melt in spring. Waste of time/energy. If you don't want them to have the "filthy greenback", then don't give it to them. The way I see it, the best weapon we have, short of guerrilla warfare, is the boycott. Do we have enough commitment to deny ourselves in order to 'break' them? Organize. Barter. Do things by hand or use local small businesses. Grow your own food or support local farmers. Support the big businesses that still make fairly-priced products or offer fairly-priced services and pay their employees fair wages. Live a genuine life. And...beware the 'grinning hyena' who tells you to 'go shopping'.

-- posted by BoomerBoomer at 11:43am, July 13, 2010
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Mike Hayne I am so glad I

Mike Hayne I am so glad I became aware of Jim Hightower when I happened upon Moyers last show. I had never even watched that show, probably due to when it was on or whatever channel it was on.

Hightower is focused on a topic I recently understood. The television sit coms are very dangerous to the human condition, and I have avoided such shows for 35 years. However, History Channel does a good job. While watching History Channel, I began to notice that one of my old theories needed updating.

I had recognized that the United States system had failed almost immediately. I had often envisioned Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin in their old age saying, "well, it is failing. We tried. there is already numerous local kings snapping up land and one manufacturer in new england has a million dollars." Or as the Who said, "Meet the new boss, the same as the old boss."

However, when I went to school in the 1960s, the schools still functioned and they taught us about two interesting events in US history. Manifest Destiny and the Industrial Revolution. Each event acted like a valve to allow the United States system to work even when evil lords were attempting to steal the bounty and enslave everyone. So the country continued to prosper and grow.

I realized that Hollywood itself had been the third valve. Show business had lasted for several decades as a place where a person could develop themselves regardless of family background or riches to begin with. A person could better himself and become a star and be appreciated by the country. Then, that valve failed. Now, Hollywood allows no more upward mobility for a peasant than going to a new location (manifest destiny) Springsteen, 1974: everybody is out tonight but there is no place left to run. also, no corporation allowed upward mobility in recent years for honest workers. Therefore, the internet was the new valve. It was the thing that would keep democracy going.

In 1984, a metaphor about media control of the people by royal rulers, a crucial, initial part of the plot is when Winston Smith finds a cubbyhole out of sight of the TV. A mistake had been made when his apartment was constructed, so Winston was able to avoid the Tv (Sopranos, Friends, Two and a Half Men, Full House, Cosby, MASH, and every other show). Free from TV, Winston Smith began to develop himself until the authorities caught him, tortured him, and put him back out among the public (at Walmart, except it was not yet invented). As a friend of humanity, you will always find me among the poor people at Walmart spending our freshly printed dollars that harm the hoarded amounts of the bourgeoisie.

Hightower is right on the case. Whew, Prince just said the internet was over. That did not take long. Will there be any other pressure valve to allow the peasants to be free or is that it?

-- posted by Mike Hayne at 10:43am, July 13, 2010
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MORE THAN JUST PROFITS

Corporations aren't just after money, they're after power and control. By limiting or eliminating access to the internet they take away the last real source of the facts we need to know to be an informed public, feeding us only what they want us to think. Without the facts, we become an impotent force to defend our own constitutionally-guaranteed rights that have already been eroded under various guises like "homeland security". It's ironic that the neo-cons have labeled Obama as a Nazi and Fascist, because corporate fascism is exactly what they're after, controlling our money, our government, and our lives. This attack on our freedoms crosses both sides of the "isle", with this "left/right", "liberal/conservative" game show presented to us as merely a diversion to distract us from the real struggle between their daily thefts and lies and the few good representatives of America that are still trying to keep us free. As the previous poster Kristenzehner said, contact not only your senators and representatives, but as many as you can even from other states and let them know we will not let this happen to us without a fight. Are they for a free America or not?

-- posted by lastshoe at 5:51pm, July 12, 2010
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Mike Hayne I agree with

Mike Hayne I agree with you. Also, we should identify exactly what it is about corporations we do not like. I think the corporations give us jobs, keep the food flowing, and put shirts on our backs. If any industry needs to be denigrated, it is real estate. That is the truly evil system in the country.

No, it is not the corporation, we all want and need a job. It is any person in the corporation who views it not as a life giving enterprise to be kept going so we have food and clothes. Any person who views the corporation as a place to grab at money and serve himself is the culprit. Any noble steward of the bounty is alright.

This boils down to the pathetic "animal theories" that are being spread at universities, by tv shows, and even Beck mentions these theories consistantly. These depraved theories state that people are animals like moose, apes, or even insects like ants. Ridiculous. We are human beings with the ability to quell our passions and evil motives. We can think. We can develop ourselves. The people who steal bounty away from the country are often heard saying, "Well, I'm just an animal. I can't help myself."

-- posted by Mike Hayne at 10:56am, July 13, 2010
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Economics under other categories of fascism

Central planning by corporations with no public accountability was the fascist game plan for the German economy during the 30's and 40's. They merely required protection from troublemakers by the springtime in Germany government and in return the government would provide them with efficient, well-behaved, low cost labor.

-- posted by psalc1 at 11:59pm, July 12, 2010
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More corporate BS

I'm fed up with corporate control of everything in this country--they are raping us citizens for the filthy greenback. I urge everyone to contact your federal senators and reps--tell them we must maintain net neutrality if this republic is to remain standing.

-- posted by KRISTENZEHNER at 4:19pm, July 12, 2010
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