Saturday, April 22, 2006

Evolution of "the Internets"
Yeah, we all had a good laugh when Bush flashed his malaprops in the 2004 debates. But a pending sea change in how the online world operates could yet render him a "visionary in error," as Ahmad Chalabi might put it. Legislation is pending in Congress to effectively hand control of the Internet to the same group of telecommunications companies that made out like bandits when Clinton signed the odious Telecommunications Act of 1996. This change really will create different "Internets"--a fast one and a slow one, with preferred and discouraged destinations. And, as was the case ten years ago, both political parties are to blame.

Here's how it's about to go down:

Don’t look now, but the House Commerce Committee next Wednesday is likely to vote to turn control of the Internet over to AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner and what’s left of the telecommunications industry. It will be one of those stories the MSM writes about as “little noticed” because they haven’t covered it.

On the surface, it may seem a stretch to think that those companies could control the great, wide, infinite Internet. After all, the incredible diversity of the Net allowed everything Web sites and services of all kinds to exist in perfect harmony. What’s more, they were all delivered to your screen without any interference by the companies that carried the bits to and fro. Until recently, they had to. It was the law. The telephone companies, which carried all of the Web traffic until relatively recently, had to treat all of their calls alike without giving any Web site or service favored treatment over another.

The result was today’s Internet, which developed as a result of billions of dollars of investments, from the largest Internet company that spent millions on software and networking, to the one person with a blog who spent a few hundred dollars on a laptop. The Internet grew into a universal public resource because the telephone and cable companies simply transported the bits.

Last fall, however, the Federal Communications Commission, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, decided that the high-speed Internet services offered by the cable and telephone companies didn’t fall under that law, the Communications Act. Out the window went the law that treated everyone equally. Now, with broadband, we are in a new game without rules.

Telephone and cable companies own 98% of the high-speed broadband networks the public uses to go online for reading news, shopping, listening to music, posting videos or any of the thousands of other uses developed for the Internet. But that isn’t enough. They want to control what you read, see or hear online. The companies say that they will create premium lanes on the Internet for higher fees, and give preferential access to their own services and those who can afford extra charges. The rest of us will be left to use an inferior version of the Internet.

Admittedly, it hasn’t become a problem yet. But to think it won’t become one is to ignore 100 years of history of anti-competitive behavior by the phone companies.

Emphasis mine. Given the vertical integration of entities that both "control the roads" and own the destinations, all sorts of monkeying with the market will be not only allowed, but encouraged: if Time Warner owns your connectivity and is allowed to speed your trip to the book or music site they own while slowing your connection to their competitor, what do you think they'll do?

For that matter, it's not a stretch to see them widening bandwidth to political sites and candidates they support, and shutting off your trip to those they don't. Candidates who support legislation not in the interests of the telecom companies could see their online fundraising s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n to the point where users just slam the keyboard and give up.

This site adds more detail on how "the gutting of Network Neutrality" will affect all of us end-users. Here are just some of the groups that will be at risk:

  • Nonprofits—A charity’s website could open at snail-speed, and online contributions could grind to a halt, if nonprofits can’t pay dominant Internet providers for access to “the fast lane” of Internet service.

  • Online purchasers—Companies could pay Internet providers to guarantee their online sales process faster than competitors with lower prices—distorting your choice as a consumer.

  • Small businesses and tele-commuters—When Internet companies like AT&T favor their own services, you won’t be able to choose more affordable providers for online video, teleconferencing, Internet phone calls, and software that connects your home computer to your office.

  • Parents and retirees—Your choices as a consumer could be controlled by your Internet provider, steering you to their preferred services for online banking, health care information, sending photos, planning vacations, etc.

  • Bloggers—Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips—silencing citizen journalists and putting more power in the hands of a few corporate-owned media outlets.

The Internet has been arguably the most positive and revolutionary technological development of the last fifty years, greatly increasing the ability of Americans and everyone else to communicate, shop, organize, work and play in ways unimaginable 20 years ago. We are now looking at the very real prospect of all those gains being washed away and our ability to join and enjoy "communities of affinity" closely controled by some of the world's wealthiest and most powerful corporations. Please click here to find out more and take action.

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