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The introduction of internet broadband
could reduce consumer freedom

People who enjoy the freedom of surfing whatever is on the Internet should be aware that a very important battle is underway that could radically change it.

The topic is how broadband is to be delivered to consumers; i.e., open access vs. closed. In an excellent article for the Progressive Magazine (2/00) , Pat Aufderheide explains what is going on for laymen.

Essentially, ‘broadband’ means faster transmission speed. The Internet is widely perceived to be changing towards the wide usage of broadband access. This is because videos and pictures with large amounts of data take a great deal of time to transmit over the current phone lines; not so with broadband. The early leaders in delivering broadband to consumers are cable companies. In this realm the major players are large communication conglomerates such as AT&T and Time Warner. (Time Warner, mentioned in last month’s MediaWise, owns TV stations, movie studios, magazines, music companies and is also the second largest cable operator.)

The cable companies apparently believe that if they can dominate the market in delivering broadband to Internet consumers now, they can literally strangle the competition from sprouting for decades to come. As a means of maximizing their profit they want to require that consumers be able to access broadband through their lines solely via the Internet Service Provider (ISP) of the cable companies’ choice.

Right now, for example, local consumers of ISPs can now choose between ToadNet, CharmNet, Maxinternet, Erols and a whole lot of other companies. However, consumers interested in having broadband delivered via a cable line installed by AT&T can only have their ISP, Excite@Home, deliver it. (Note the cable companies are saying that if you want to have CharmNet, etc., you can have them. But you have to connect through their service as well, which would double the cost.)

Consider This Precedent

There is a precedent that should be considered. Despite the fact that AT&T wired most of the nation’s phone system, The Justice Department has acted to ensure that consumers can choose the long distance phone company of their choice (e.g., union-busting Sprint or the progressive Working Assets).

The right for consumers to connect with the ISP of their choice with the cable lines that local cable companies have installed should logically directly follow that precedent. Of course, as with any other contemporary issue, the cable companies are intensely lobbying local governments from preventing that from happening.

Maryland Governor Parris Glendening has announced that his office will take a year to “study” whether they should propose legislation requiring that cable companies provide open access. Meanwhile, the Virginia legislature has shelved a similar bill.

This is largely because American Online (AOL), the world’s largest ISP, used to be the leading proponent on behalf of allowing open access. However, since they announced that they were acquiring the Time Warner empire, AOL has made a predictable reversal on this subject.

This is a very serious matter. If the cable companies are successful in limiting the choices that Internet consumers can make regarding ISPs, then one can kiss goodbye the idea of a free and open Internet. With a single ISP running the show for entire communities, that ISP could conceivably cut deals with any well-heeled entity to ensure that undesirable web sites are either completely off-limits to users, or the transmission speeds are such that it isn’t worthwhile to visit them.

For example, say you want to go read up on some socialist literature, look at a web page put up by atheists, or even visit the site of a political candidate with views generally outside what you’d find in the mainstream media. The cable company’s ISP could easily determine just how enjoyable your visit will be. (Excite@ Home already won’t send you more than ten minutes of video at a time.)

The upcoming merger of AOL and Time Warner, the largest in history, is a huge loss in the fight for open access. In the language of the times, Time Warner advocates “letting the market decide” whether users can get open access or not. (Read: fat chance.)

Despite the fact that the Internet came entirely from public research and design, it appears that Big Business is once again poised to seize control of how cutting-edge communication is delivered in our society.

Readers interested in a free Internet should consider calling their representatives in government to voice their concerns.

Scott Loughrey

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