The firestorm over tech giant Google and telco titan Verizon’s self-interested proposal to arbitrarily codify a pay-to-play Internet will dominate the news in the coming months, as net neutrality steps onto a mainstream media stage crowded with Muslim mosques and other distracting fodder. But now that other telcos like warrantless wiretapper AT&T have quickly endorsed Googlezon’s proposal, it was left to Jon Stewart on a recent episode of the Daily Show to sum up the mammoth migraine awaiting us all: “We’re fucked.”
My colleague Ryan Singel at Wired had a similar take, calling the one-time staunch net neutrality defender Google a “carrier-humping net neutrality surrender monkey.” Both assessments are dead-on: By giving up its previous commitment to open networks and devices in both the wireline and the wireless space, Google — arguably the most powerful tech company in the world — has simply cashed in its neutrality chips, nearly fully compromised “Don’t Be Evil” corporate philosophy, and screwed us all. The irony is that the Internet we’ve become used to over the last couple decades has made Google and Verizon powerhouses in the first place. For the most part, citizens at the moment are mostly concerned about which company can give them the fastest internet. These particular questions can often be answered by having a look at a site such as www.highspeedoptions.com, which is definitely worth checking out if you are interested in upgrading your internet service.
“The Internet and communications industries are in the same category as the energy, transport and finance industries: for they are the lifeblood of commerce and speech in this nation,” said Columbia Law School copyright and communications professor Tim Wu, whose 2003 paper “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination” helped shape the network neutrality issue. “Just consider the power and public role of firms like Verizon or Google (especially if they work together). Sitting atop the web, they can influence what firms succeed or fail — by making sites load faster or slower, or end up on page 10 of search results. It goes further — in subtle ways, the information carriers have the power to influence elections and even censor speech they don’t like.”
The ramifications of allowing dumb-pipe telcos like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and others to instead provide tiered services — with the so-called “public Internet,” no doubt slowed to a crawl, firmly stashed at the bottom of that traffic hierarchy — is simply insane. People deserve to get the best broadband deals and the best speed for their money. It would be like your city allowing businesses, local and otherwise, to determine which blocks of your homeward commute become toll roads. Sure, one road would be spared in the interest of the public good, and it would be claustrophobically crowded with anyone and everyone who decided against paying the toll because of economic hardship, because of philosophical disagreement, because of whatever.
“The greatest danger of the fast lane is that it completely changes competition on the net,” Wu explained in a New York Times roundtable on Google and Verizon’s sweetheart deal. “The advantage goes not to the firm that’s actually the best, but the one that makes the best deal with AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast. Had there been a two-tier Internet in 1995, likely, Barnes and Noble would have destroyed Amazon, Microsoft Search would have beaten out Google, Skype would have never gotten started — the list goes on and on. We’d all be the losers.”
Or as IO9’s Annalee Newitz put it: “Googlezon has succeeded in creating a caste system in the online world, and the public is the lowest caste of all.” Cue Jon Stewart’s disturbing truth. No laugh track please.
But is there an option available to the public, other than pressuring Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski to join his FCC colleagues Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn — as well as level-headed politicians like Al Franken, Alan Grayson and others — in their efforts to reclassify broadband as a communications service, a political no-brainer if there ever was one? After all, the FCC has already filed a plan to do just that, but has yet to move on it, although with Copps, Clyburn and Genachowski on board it has the needed votes. It seems the easiest place to start, although Grayson has rightly complained that the whole debacle “doesn’t inspire confidence that the FCC can hold the line against telecom and cable companies, when those companies have something else in mind.”
Because of this collusion — empowered by an April federal court ruling, spearheaded by Clinton-appointed judge David S. Tatel, declaring that the FCC lacks Internet regulatory authority and needs specific permission from Congress to get it — open-spectrum and other utopian proponents and are hamstrung by cold, economic reality. Tatel’s pointed barb that FCC and congressional “policy proposals” about network neutrality or regulatory authority “are just that — statements of policy…not delegations of regulatory authority” was a not-subtle reminder that the FCC’s only play is to get Congress to step up and give it the power it pretends it has. But instead of doing just that, Genachowski has wasted time diving back and forth between the boardrooms of Microsoft, AT&T and other heavyweights to forge a corporate consensus. But feel his pain: Congress couldn’t pass a football in the name of the public good these days. Getting them to agree that the FCC should be able to regulate AT&T’s management of its networks — after asking the company to spy like crazy on Americans — is beyond a non-starter.
As Google and Verizon made clear in their proposal, emboldening a publicly engineered alternative wireless Internet is going to be hard to do when indispensably well-meaning spectrum reformers like Gigi Sohn and Laurie Racine’s nonprofit Public Knowledge are counting on both telco goodwill and congressional power. Public Knowledge’s first principles on open spectrum demands that “bidders for half of the spectrum to make access to that spectrum available to third parties at wholesale rates” and respect consumers’ “right to use any equipment, content, application or service on a non-discriminatory basis without interference.” Good luck enforcing that without FCC regulatory authority.
Everything comes down to parsing the signals. At last report, more than half of current wifi hotspots are free; a 12 percent increase from the first quarter of 2010. A comparative deluge of broadband-enabled devices are on the way, a thankful development for those who are tired of having to connect their DVD players, sound systems, television, computers and phone with nearly obsolete cables. The logical pattern leads forward into a future littered with free, fast Internet connections, right? Wrong.
In the absence of neutral, enforceable legislation, who controls the spectrum controls the wireless world. And right now, the spectrum is seen as a revenue stream by the FCC: The controversial 2008 spectrum auction raised nearly $20 billion from the usual suspects like Verizon and AT&T, who carved up America’s wireless empire for themselves and left crumbs for the rest. (Proceeds from the auction, according to the FCC, were transferred to the U.S. Treasury to be used for the nation’s digital television transition efforts, but given Treasury’s economic malfeasance, who knows where that $20 billion went?) And the throttling wasn’t far behind: Earlier this year, Genachowski proposed the “Mobile Future Auction” in an effort to encourage television broadcasters to stop hoarding unused spectrum, which is what monopolies routinely do when they own it.
“The highly valuable spectrum currently allocated for broadcast television is not being used efficiently,” Genachowski said. “Indeed, much is not being used at all.”
Freeing up that wireless, radio, television and microwave spectrum, whether through voter initiative or anti-capitalist hacking, should be the prime objective of any net neutrality advocate or official. Even nationalization shouldn’t be off the table; in fact, it should probably be at the head of it.
Because it is pure folly to rely on corporations looking to carve the internet into variously monetized thoroughfares to provide unrestricted access, although the airwaves belong to the same public it has been fleecing for decades. As civilization as we know it fully enters the wireless 21st century, setting aside net neutrality provisions only for the wireline world, as Google and Verizon have proposed, is both like naming technocratic educational downsizing No Child Left Behind and actually expecting it to work.
Without a government-sponsored open spectrum available without restriction to the public, which can also choose become a living broadcaster in its own right, net neutrality will remain but a theory in search of an application.
Even if the FCC decides to reclassify broadband, we have already learned from the evolution of the communications industry that, when left unregulated, it trends toward consolidation and complexity rather than diversification and simplicity. We are in the early stages of the 21st century with what seems like unlimited capacity, pardon the pun, for tremendous connectivity and capitalization. But instead we’re watching the same corporations squeeze us dry of options and alternatives. And until advances in multi-node mesh networking and similarly minded wireless workarounds put the lie to mounting warnings of a suspicious spectrum crunch, we’re left with the usual options: Crawl up Congress’ lazy ass and make net neutrality more important than Muslim mosque controversies, or economically punish service and content providers like AT&T, Verizon and Google for their selfish behavior. (Killing off redundant landline and wireless accounts would be a good start.)
Google already got the message after publicly selling out its corporate slogan “Don’t Be Evil,” while Verizon got a pass because everyone already knows telcos are evil incarnate. But pressure must be kept on Google, telcos, the FCC and the Obama administration to make net neutrality an election issue. Otherwise, we’re all going to wake up one day and find that the internet has a carpool lane for the upper class, and we’re not invited unless we’re willing to cough up our cash and principles.
This article appeared at AlterNet