Global Village or Virtual Shopping Mall?

Broadband technology is transforming the Internet -- and giant corporations want to control the process

| July / August 2004

In just the past two years, millions of Americans finally got a taste of the power the Internet holds as a tool for democracy. Web sites like and, the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, and the explosion of weblogs and independent music and video providers have shown many skeptics who were turned off by the false promises of the dot-com bubble that this medium really does have potential to bring people together to create social change, exchange ideas, and build community.

That potential is in serious jeopardy, warns Jeff Chester of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Digital Democracy, as people are switching in droves from slower dial-up to high-speed broadband Internet access. The reason for Chester's concern? Telecom giants like Comcast, AT&T, and NewsCorp, which provide broadband services, are moving toward establishing 'tiers' of access, making users pay extra for higher-bandwidth uses, such as downloading audio and video files. 'The days of flat-rate Internet access are numbered,' Chester says. And they are implementing new technologies to monitor not only usage but also content, in ways that were not possible before.

While that might make sense for the businesses controlling the Internet's pipes, it runs completely counter to the public interest, Chester says. Lawmakers in Congress and regulators at the Federal Communications Commission who once spoke about ending the 'digital divide' between lower- and higher-income Internet users have come full circle, warmly accepting the industry's new vision. In a article about a recent congressional hearing on broadband, Chester and coauthor Steven Rosenfeld write: 'Under the scenario presented by the lobbyists, people on fixed incomes would have to accept a stripped-down Internet, full of personally targeted advertising. Other users could get a price break if they receive bundled content -- news, music, games -- from one telecom or media company. Anybody interested in other 'nonmainstream' news, software, or higher-volume usage could pay for the privilege.'

This chilling scenario has ominous implications for the democratic exchange of ideas in the online world, particularly since the FCC has exempted cable and telephone broadband services from the decades-old nondiscrimination rule governing telephone companies. Like airlines, buses, and public roads, phone companies are considered a 'common carrier' and cannot favor one customer or content provider over another. Dial-up Internet access is governed by this rule, which is the reason thousands of Internet service providers (ISPs) sprang up during the 1990s, catering to all manner of communities of interest -- women, African Americans, gays and lesbians, even the city of Austin, Texas -- and run by for-profits, nonprofits, universities, and local governments. Broadband providers do not have to allow subscribers to choose their own ISP.

Broadband's exemption from nondiscrimination means that a telecom giant can not only force customers to use its ISP services -- such as its e-mail service and Web browser start page -- it can also discriminate against content and sources it doesn't like. This could mean slowing down or even blocking competitors' Web sites, or sites critical of, say, giant telecoms and their political allies.

'Unless there's real action to open cable, DSL, and satellite, and make sure the Internet remains an open medium,' Chester says, '[we] progressives are going to find ourselves as marginalized in the new media landscape as we are now in the traditional media.

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