July's Lowdown

July 2010, Volume 12, Number 7

Written by Jim Hightower


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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