The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an
alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and
nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded
service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online.
Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants are
developing strategies that would track and store information on our
every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing
system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency.
According to white
papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and
telecommunications industries, those with the deepest
pockets--corporations, special-interest groups and major
advertisers--would get preferred treatment. Content from these
providers would have first priority on our computer and television
screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer
communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out.
Under the plans they are considering, all of us--from content
providers to individual users--would pay more to surf online, stream
videos or even send e-mail. Industry planners are mulling new
subscription plans that would further limit the online experience,
establishing "platinum," "gold" and "silver" levels of Internet access
that would set limits on the number of downloads, media streams or even
e-mail messages that could be sent or received.
To make this pay-to-play vision a reality, phone and cable
lobbyists are now engaged in a political campaign to further weaken the
nation's communications policy laws. They want the federal government
to permit them to operate Internet and other digital communications
services as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental
oversight. Indeed, both the Congress and the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) are considering proposals that will have far-reaching
impact on the Internet's future. Ten years after passage of the
ill-advised Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone and cable
companies are using the same political snake oil to convince
compromised or clueless lawmakers to subvert the Internet into a
turbo-charged digital retail machine.
The telephone industry has been somewhat more candid than the cable
industry about its strategy for the Internet's future. Senior phone
executives have publicly discussed plans to begin imposing a new scheme
for the delivery of Internet content, especially from major Internet
content companies. As Ed Whitacre, chairman and CEO of AT&T, told
Business Week in November, "Why should they be allowed to use my
pipes? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the
cable companies have made an investment, and for a Google or Yahoo! or
Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"
The phone industry has marshaled its political allies to help win
the freedom to impose this new broadband business model. At a recent
conference held by the Progress and
Freedom Foundation, a think tank funded by Comcast, Verizon, AT&T
and other media companies, there was much discussion of a plan for
phone companies to impose fees on a sliding scale, charging content
providers different levels of service. "Price discrimination," noted
PFF's resident media expert Adam Thierer, "drives the market-based
To ward off the prospect of virtual toll booths on the information
highway, some new media companies and public-interest groups are
calling for new federal policies requiring "network neutrality" on the Internet.
Common Cause, Amazon, Google, Free Press, Media
Access Project and Consumers Union, among others, have proposed that
broadband providers would be prohibited from discriminating against all
forms of digital content. For example, phone or cable companies would
not be allowed to slow down competing or undesirable content.
Without proactive intervention, the values and issues that we care
about--civil rights, economic justice, the environment and fair
elections--will be further threatened by this push for corporate
control. Imagine how the next presidential election would unfold if
major political advertisers could make strategic payments to Comcast so
that ads from Democratic and Republican candidates were more visible
and user-friendly than ads of third-party candidates with less funds.
Consider what would happen if an online advertisement promoting nuclear
power prominently popped up on a cable broadband page, while a
competing message from an environmental group was relegated to the
margins. It is possible that all forms of civic and noncommercial
online programming would be pushed to the end of a commercial digital
But such "neutrality" safeguards are inadequate to address more
fundamental changes the Bells and cable monopolies are seeking in their
quest to monetize the Internet. If we permit the Internet to become a
medium designed primarily to serve the interests of marketing and
personal consumption, rather than global civic-related communications,
we will face the political consequences for decades to come. Unless we
push back, the "brandwashing" of America will permeate not only our
information infrastructure but global society and culture as well.
Why are the Bells and cable companies aggressively advancing such plans?
With the arrival of the long-awaited "convergence" of communications, our media system is undergoing a major transformation. Telephone and
cable giants envision a potential lucrative "triple play," as they
impose near-monopoly control over the residential broadband services
that send video, voice and data communications flowing into our
televisions, home computers, cell phones and iPods. All of these many
billions of bits will be delivered over the telephone and cable lines.
Video programming is of foremost interest to both the phone and
cable companies. The telephone industry, like its cable rival, is now
in the TV and media business, offering customers television channels,
on-demand videos and games. Online advertising is increasingly
integrating multimedia (such as animation and full-motion video) in its
pitches. Since video-driven material requires a great deal of Internet
bandwidth as it travels online, phone and cable companies want to make
sure their television "applications" receive preferential treatment on
the networks they operate. And their overall influence over the stream
of information coming into your home (or mobile device) gives them the
leverage to determine how the broadband business evolves.
Mining Your Data
At the core of the new power held by phone and cable companies are
tools delivering what is known as "deep packet inspection." With these
tools, AT&T and others can readily know the packets of information you
are receiving online--from e-mail, to websites, to sharing of music,
video and software downloads.
These "deep packet inspection" technologies are partly designed to
make sure that the Internet pipeline doesn't become so congested it
chokes off the delivery of timely communications. Such products have
already been sold to universities and large businesses that want to more
economically manage their Internet services. They are also being used
to limit some peer-to-peer downloading, especially for music.
But these tools are also being promoted as ways that companies,
such as Comcast and Bell South, can simply grab greater control over
the Internet. For example, in a series of recent white papers,
Internet technology giant Cisco urges these companies to "meter
individual subscriber usage by application," as individuals' online
travels are "tracked" and "integrated with billing systems." Such
tracking and billing is made possible because they will know "the
identity and profile of the individual subscriber," "what the
subscriber is doing" and "where the subscriber resides."
Will Google, Amazon and the other companies successfully fight the
plans of the Bells and cable companies? Ultimately, they are likely to cut a
deal because they, too, are interested in monetizing our online
activities. After all, as Cisco notes, content companies and network
providers will need to "cooperate with each other to leverage their
value proposition." They will be drawn by the ability of cable and
phone companies to track "content usage...by subscriber," and where
their online services can be "protected from piracy, metered, and
Our Digital Destiny
It was former FCC chairman Michael Powell, with the support of
then-commissioner and current chair Kevin Martin, who permitted phone
and cable giants to have greater control over broadband. Powell and his
GOP majority eliminated longstanding regulatory safeguards requiring
phone companies to operate as nondiscriminatory networks (technically
known as "common carriers"). He refused to require that cable
companies, when providing Internet access, also operate in a similar
nondiscriminatory manner. As Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig has long
noted, it is government regulation of the phone lines that helped make
the Internet today's vibrant, diverse and democratic medium.
But now, the phone companies are lobbying Washington to kill off
what's left of "common carrier" policy. They wish to operate their
Internet services as fully "private" networks. Phone and cable
companies claim that the government shouldn't play a role in broadband
regulation: Instead of the free and open network that offers equal
access to all, they want to reduce the Internet to a series of business
decisions between consumers and providers.
Besides their business interests, telephone and cable companies
also have a larger political agenda. Both industries oppose giving
local communities the right to create their own local Internet wireless
or wi-fi networks. They also want to eliminate the last vestige of
local oversight from electronic media--the ability of city or county
government, for example, to require telecommunications companies to
serve the public interest with, for example, public-access TV channels.
The Bells also want to further reduce the ability of the FCC to oversee
communications policy. They hope that both the FCC and Congress--via a new Communications Act--will back these proposals.
The future of the online media in the United States will ultimately depend on whether the Bells and cable companies are allowed to determine the country's "digital destiny." So before there are any policy decisions, a national debate
should begin about how the Internet should serve the public. We must
insure that phone and cable companies operate their Internet services
in the public interest--as stewards for a vital medium for free
If Americans are to succeed in designing an equitable digital
destiny for themselves, they must mount an intensive opposition similar
to the successful challenges to the FCC's media ownership rules in 2003.
Without such a public outcry to rein in the GOP's corporate-driven
agenda, it is likely that even many of the Democrats who rallied
against further consolidation will be "tamed" by the well-funded
lobbying campaigns of the powerful phone and cable industry.
Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit. His book on US media politics, "Digital Destiny", will be published will be published in the fall by The New Press.
© 2006 The Nation