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American Samizdat

John Steinberg - Raw Story Columnist
Published: Monday April 24, 2006

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Raw Story is in danger. Your right to read news stories and writing that disrupt the government/Big Media symbiosis is under attack. And you probably don’t even know it.

There has been so much going on lately, what with plans to nuke Iran and the rolling mutiny among the top brass that you may well have missed another growing menace to all that we have built here.

The Internet phenomenon – the dizzying evolution from Netscape to Yahoo to Google to the new world of blogs and wikis – is the result of an essential structural attribute of the medium: the content-neutrality of the pipes we use to connect to it. It is the natural tendency of the powerful to silence and hinder anything that threatens their dominance, but the phone companies could not stop AOL, AOL could not stop Yahoo, and Yahoo could not stop Google, because the folks who owned the pipes used to carry all those ones and zeroes to and from your computer were not permitted to discriminate against bits they didn’t like. (The concept of the “common carrier” dates back at least to the earliest regulation of railroads more than a hundred years ago.) That level field has also resulted in the current flowering of our participatory democracy. But that flower is about to pruned or even torn out by the roots.

The Orwellian “Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006,” sponsored by Congressman Joe Barton (R, Texas), will, if it becomes law, allow your Internet provider to charge you extra to read this column. It will allow your provider to block this column entirely. Congressman Ed Markey (D, Mass), who sponsored a defeated amendment that would have explicitly preserved neutrality, explains:

The Joe Barton (R-TX) sponsored telecommunications bill that is moving through the Energy & Commerce Committee in the House would fundamentally change the way the Internet works. … In short, the Barton bill opens the door for the Bells and other ISPs to throw out a key principle of net neutrality and enact a new era of telecom taxes and tolls, roadblocks that would shut down the avenues of innovation that have allowed the Internet to become what it is today.

That bill took a big step toward being enacted into law last week.

A House subcommittee handed phone companies a victory Wednesday by voting 27-4 to advance a bill that would make it easier for them to deliver television service over the Internet and clearing the way for all Internet carriers to charge more for speedier delivery. …
Earlier in the day, the subcommittee voted 23-8 to reject an amendment by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that would have inserted specific language designed to enforce network neutrality and prevent the feared creation of fast and slow lanes on the Internet.
"Members from both sides of the aisle endorsed a plan which will permit cable and phone companies to construct 'pay as you surf, pay as you post' toll booths for the Internet" said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington.
But Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies for the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, dismissed concerns that the proposed bill would lead to a two-tiered Internet.
"There's plenty of competition," Arrison said. "The market will take care of it."

Ah, yes... the market. The same market that has allocated television and radio airwaves so well. The same market that has resulted in our oligopolistic and largely bootlicking newspaper industry. (That market, by the way, is also the mechanism by which the Pacific Research Institute collects its funding… from SBC/AT&T, Verizon and Freedom Communications. Also Big Oil and Big Tobacco, but I digress.)

Yeah, sure.

I don't mean to say that the free market is a bad thing. It is a good thing (or at least the least bad bad thing), but it has fatal flaws. Perhaps the biggest is that in many industries the big just keep getting bigger, and eventually dominate in ways that hurt everyone else. I'll save the economics lesson for another time, but there are industries where, if left alone, the market eventually reduces to no more than a handful of "competitors" who don't actually do much competing.

Telecom is one of those industries, as once and reconstituted giant AT&T demonstrates. A few players have now bought and paid for enough Congresscritters (and, presumably, Senators) to get what they want, which is unfettered power -- to set prices and to grow, even larger, of course, but that ain't all.

Our little revolution has spawned an ugly symbiosis between the telecoms and their regulator/enablers in Congress. An unfettered, content-neutral Internet has zero direct cost to the telecoms, but muzzling the political rabble certainly won't displease them -- the more you own, the more you tend to value order. On the other hand, we have become a growing thorn in the side of the political establishment, and making it easier for their corporate keepers to keep us out is a high (if unstated) priority. So I have no doubt that, behind closed doors, the ability to shut us up was integral to the game plan.

And they are already scheming ways to do just that. Look at this long list of corporate plans to discriminate between good bits and bad bits. Care to venture a guess as to which category Joe Barton would put us in?

The sad fact is that the market will not, left to its own devices, protect your access to information. Look at television: we OWN the bandwidth the government entrusts to the networks, but those networks simply reject liberal messages they find too uncomfortable – even when left-leaning voices are willing to buy time like any other advertiser. The Viacom/Smithsonian deal is yet another troubling manifestation of the same danger.

Also keep in mind that the folks who own the pipes are generally either (a) broadcasters, who are extremely jealous and suspicious of anyone else who figures out how to find the narrow end of their megaphone, or (b) telephone companies, which are happy to let millions of us talk -- so long as our conversations are all one to one. In both cases the democratizing element of the Internet is foreign and frightening to them.

How scared are they? Every bit as scared as their counterparts in the newspaper business, who lash out with hatchet jobs like the one that appeared in the Washington Post, “The Left, Online and Outraged.” As scared as the executive editor of the New York Times, who called us “harebrained” “grassy knoll conspiracy” theorists.

That fear is a backhanded compliment. The powerful do not attack the inconsequential.

Their reaction is two pronged and self-contradictory. They try to persuade others (and perhaps themselves) that we are trivial, hysterical, unworthy of attention or rebuttal. And at the same time they are so concerned that they scheme behind closed doors to wall us off in some digital ghetto, or even silence us.

(If you are so naive as to think that it is only the newspapers who feel threatened, consider this: AOL, which has been pushing its own noxious assault on the Internet, recently censored email sent to its customers urging them to oppose AOL’s plan.)

Hearings on the Barton bill before the House Energy and Commerce Committee have not yet been scheduled, but could come at any time, since Barton chairs that committee as well.

We do have a few allies in this fight – Ed Markey in the House, and Ron Wyden (D, OR) in the Senate, who has introduced a bill that would preserve net neutrality. However, to date Wyden’s bill has NO co-sponsors, and as we all know Democratic legislation rarely even reaches the floor these days. So the Wyden bill should not give us much comfort.

I want to be clear: this is not the most urgent crisis we face. The prospect of war with Iran, nuclear or otherwise, is the most urgent crisis we face. But this may well be the second most urgent. Are you concerned about global warming? Great, but where will you hear about it? Do you want to protest the endless lies about and senseless destruction in Iraq? Please do, but how are you going to organize? Do you really want to be limited to a new American samizdat?

In most of my writing, the call to action is implicit – perhaps too implicit. This time I want it to be explicit and specific: do something. Unless you want the whole Internet to look like Fox News, you need to get out there and do something,

Here are what Matt Stoller calls the Verizon Six – the Democrats who voted with all 17 Republicans on the subcommittee to allow tollbooths on the Internet:

Eliot Engel: NY-17 Bart Stupak: MI-01 Ed Towns: NY-10 Al Wynn: MD-04 Charlie Gonzales: TX-20 Bobby Rush: IL-01

If any of you live in one of their districts, let them know how you feel about net neutrality.

And everybody should do the following:

  • Free Press just opened up the new site for this fight. Go to www.savetheinternet.com and send a message through their website.
  • Go to the Center for Digital Democracy, which has collected a bunch more sites and action items.

Here's the list of members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. If any of them represent you, contact them directly.

And contact your Senators and ask them to co-sponsor the Wyden bill.

Don’t wait until the last minute. By the time the bill comes up for an official vote, the enemies of participatory democracy will have been twisting arms for months, and the real crown jewel of 21st century politics will have been long since auctioned off.

If we lose this fight, or we may be reduced to typewriters and mimeo machines for the next one.

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John Steinberg is a Senior Recidivist with the Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony. He bloviates regularly @ www.blue meme.blogspot.com