Friday, November 03, 2006

Reeling in the Net

News, maps, entertainment, recipes, art, videos, music — all of this and more can be found on the internet. Increasingly, business is conducted on the internet; people use online banking services. And as electronic media merge, the internet will play an even greater role in our lives.

The core of electronic communication is the transmission lines, the wires that connect us. Those wires represent a basic system of our modern infrastructure, just as the interstate highway system links our cities, just as water and electrical utilities join individual homes into communities. Those same wires, however, represent a point of attack and control.

The past decade has seen a tremendous surge in media consolidation which has meant the end of thousands of small town newspapers and radio stations. Now, the phone and cable companies have their eyes on the next venue, the internet. There are proposals before Congress to give telephone and cable companies indirect control over the content of the internet by allowing them to create a two-tiered rate structure for information traveling the net.

We’ve been here before. There was a time when there were no oil pipelines, and railroads were the primary oil carriers. John D. Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, achieved preeminence through kickbacks to the railroad companies so they would charge higher rates for his competitors. A similar process led to the dominance of the Associated Press after the development of wire services.

For years, the telephone companies have stymied faster and more reliable public access to the internet. A decade ago, they were granted tax breaks and price hikes to finance a new fiber optic network. You’ve already paid for the network that they never built. Now they’re back, promising again to modernize the net — this time in exchange for control of it.

The stakes are high. The internet is not merely the conveyor of entertainment or financial services; it is the most powerful tool for advancing democracy since the invention of the printing press. The internet doesn’t merely bring the world into your home; it allows you to reach out to the world. Blogs and websites — right wing and left — have become such a force in political discourse that mainstream news outlets which once joked about the net now rely upon it. The scope of citizen participation may shift if net neutrality is not established.

What is net neutrality? Think of the electrical outlets in your home. They don’t discriminate between the appliances you use. The outlet in your kitchen works the same way for your toaster as it does for your microwave. Net neutrality means that the transmission facilities work the same for text traffic or videos, advertisements or emails.

The first effort to seize the net failed thanks to an outpouring of protest from groups across the political spectrum. Millions of Americans called, faxed, and emailed their representatives to support net neutrality. But with the coming elections and the possibility of a lame-duck Congress — and the certainty of a lame-duck President — the threat has grown more ominous. Outgoing Senators and Congressmen with nothing to lose and a lot to gain might well side with the telephone and cable companies. If they pass a bill ceding overall transmission control to a few big companies, is there any doubt that George Bush, Jr. will sign that bill?

The decisions made today will affect our society for decades to come. Don’t let politicians take the short view, and don’t assume they’ll do the right thing. The period from November to February may be critical to the future of media in this country. So call, write, fax, or email your representatives. Tell them you don’t want a variable rate program. Tell them the internet is a common carrier and should stay that way.

To learn more, watch “The Net at Risk”


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