SIXTH COLUMN

"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Proposed rule changes for the Web


Are we about to kiss open access on the WWW goodbye? Congress wants to change the internet. They don't say why, but my guess is that too many people have been able to find out too much, and regulation of the internet will allow control of what is known; or perhaps is has to do with collecting revenue as the internet has been taxed and innumerable schemes for raising funds could be waiting in the wings.

Congress wants to change the Internet.

This is news to most people because the major news media have not actively pursued the story. Yet both the House and Senate commerce committees are promoting new rules governing the manner by which most Americans receive the Web. Congressional passage of new rules is widely anticipated, as is President Bush's signature. Once this happens, the Internet will change before your eyes.

The proposed House legislation, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE), offers no protections for "network neutrality."

Currently, your Internet provider does not voluntarily censor the Web as it enters your home. This levels the playing field between the tiniest blog and the most popular Web site.

Yet the big telecom companies want to alter this dynamic. AT&T and Verizon have publicly discussed their plans to divide the information superhighway into separate fast and slow lanes. Web sites and services willing to pay a toll will be channeled through the fast lane, while all others will be bottled up in the slower lanes. COPE, and similar telecom legislation offered in the Senate, does nothing to protect the consumer from this transformation of the Internet.

The telecoms are frustrated that commercial Web sites reap unlimited profits while those providing entry to your home for these companies are prevented from fully cashing in. If the new telecom regulations pass without safeguarding net neutrality, the big telecom companies will be able to prioritize the Web for you. They will be free to decide which Web sites get to your computer faster and which ones may take longer - or may not even show up at all.

By giving the telecoms the ability to harness your Web surfing, the government will empower them to shake down the most profitable Web companies. These companies will sell access to you, to Amazon.com, Travelocity.com and even BaltimoreSun.com, etc. What if these companies elect not to pay? Then, when you type in "amazon.com," you might be redirected to barnesandnoble.com, or your lightning-quick DSL Internet service might suddenly move at horse-and-buggy speed.

It might appear that the direct ramifications of this bill are somewhat obscure. Why should you care, if your Internet fee isn't altered? Or if your Web surfing will (possibly) be only minimally disrupted? (The telecoms understand that completely barring access to certain sites - especially the most popular ones - would be counterproductive.)
You should care because any corporate restriction on information gathering directly counters the original purpose of the World Wide Web.

"Universality is essential to the Web," says its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. "It loses its power if there are certain types of things to which you can't link."

If calling up the Web site of your favorite political commentator takes far longer than surfing to a commercial site, the new laws will have a direct impact on the Web's democratic utility. The proposed laws also facilitate future steps toward corporate censorship. Do you think that the telecoms, under the proposed regulations, would make it easy to visit the Web sites of their disgruntled - or possibly striking - employees?

The proposed new rules have received surprisingly sparse media coverage. The new laws have economic, political and social ramifications. There are several explanations for the silence.
The most probable is simply that because the laws have strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, they do not appear particularly newsworthy. COPE has been promoted vigorously in the House by both Texas Republican Joe L. Barton and Illinois Democrat Bobby L. Rush. While a few legislators are attempting to preserve net neutrality - most notably Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine - they are clearly outnumbered.

The history of American telecommunications regulation does not offer a promising model for the future of net neutrality. In the late 1800s, Congress approved of Western Union, America's telegraph monopoly, censoring the Associated Press. The 1934 Communications Act resulted in political discussion over the national airwaves being tightly moderated by CBS and NBC.

Most telecom laws are sold to the public as the "natural evolution" of communications technology. Yet there is no truly natural evolution to our telecommunications laws. Only very rarely is regulation completely ordained by physics or technological limits. More commonly, it emerges from the political process. This is news to many Americans unaware of their own media history.

Many people believe the Internet's decentralized structure guarantees that no company or oligopoly could control it. Internet censorship - whether by corporate or state interests - simply sounds impossible. Yet not only is it theoretically possible, but the history of telecommunications regulation tells us it is probable. By the time the telecoms start changing what you see on your screen, it will be too late to complain.


Write, or better still: e-mail your Congressman. Use the internet for free while we still can.


Michael Socolow is an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine. His e-mail is michael.socolow@umit.maine.edu.

There's more than one way to censor what is broadcast and read on the Web. Although I'm not sure about the bill number, here is something else that appears to require our immediate attention in Congress: The House Commerce Committee's (HCC) Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing on HR __ [PDF], a committee print of a bill that may be titled the "Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006", or COPE Act. Here is a site with many more links. One source states that the bill number is HR5252. The pdf linked does not have a number. Read a full summary at the Benton Foundation in .doc form. At the same site there are several updates.

Luckilya lot of people are as upset about this turn of events as am I.

An uniformed public, one that has difficulty communicating, is easier to manipulate and manage. Until now the Web has offered free access to information, news, and the ability to create virtual communities that are outside the control of Congress or any other governmental body; obviously an unacceptable condition that's about to end.

3 Comments:

  • At Wed May 10, 05:08:00 PM PDT, Blogger Cubed © said…

    "Universality is essential to the Web," says its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee."

    But...but WAIT! Didn't Al Gore invent the internet?

    Seriously, Eleanor, thanks for bringing this up. It's one of those things that may slip through while we are distracted by things like Islam and the border situation. That's how the Doncaster sale (you know, the contracters who make stuff for the Department of Defense) to Dubai got past us.

    We do have to pay attention to this issue. It's getting to the point where there aren't enough hours in the day.

    It's hard to get anything done; I just got another "There, there..." pre-formatted email from one of my congressmen. ARGH!

     
  • At Thu May 11, 07:17:00 AM PDT, Blogger Mark said…

    Eleanor:

    If this is really going to happen, then it will be a very sad day for the Internet. Just when people have been empowered like never before, the empowerment will all be taken away from them, at a stroke so to speak. Then the BIG BOYS will take over, and we'll be back where we started.

    Surely, the US is not going to let that happen, is it? What a sad day for freedom that day will be.

    Strange how the MSM don't pick up on this story. Is there some conspiracy going on? We know that the Internet doesn't help their cause.

     
  • At Fri May 12, 08:14:00 AM PDT, Blogger George Mason said…

    Mark,

    We have a government at every level and in every way addicted to power and preservation of itself at the expense of anyone and anything, at all times. Our allegedly pro-freedom president is the worst power-luster since LBJ. I think this is another example of what you eloquently call the "death wish of the West." It is just too early to know how it will work out.

     

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