Global Village or Virtual Shopping Mall?

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 MoveOn.org and MeetUp.com, 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 TomPaine.com 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.

‘The country needs a debate now about broadband. Shouldn’t
government services and news about elections and civic affairs be
free from charges? . . . Shouldn’t communities be given enough
bandwidth and control so they can provide links and access to
information about schools and local issues? Shouldn’t nonprofits
also have affordable access? The answer is yes. But communities
need to ask for these things and fight for them.’

But how? By getting involved in the process of deciding how
broadband technology will be deployed — from FCC hearings in
Washington to meetings of your city council. To help citizens and
policy makers at all levels fight the telecoms, Chester has
launched the Digital Destiny Campaign, which provides a wealth of
resources that show how you can survey your local broadband
landscape and design a campaign to ensure that community needs are
taken into account as the broadband infrastructure grows.

For more information on the Digital Destiny Campaign, visit
www.democracticmedia.org/ddc/

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