The Internet At The Crossroads

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With the National Conference of Media Reform happening in Minneapolis this weekend, we’ve invited Timothy Karr, campaign director for media reform organization Free Press, to blog from the event.

The Internet At The Crossroads

While a generation of connected Americans can barely remember life without Google or iTunes at our fingertips, millions of others are still stuck beyond the grid — unable to send an e-mail to a loved one, look for a job online, check up on their local city council or research a book report for school. The state of the Internet, and our fight to safeguard and spread access to the Web, was the focus of a crowded panel discussion at the National Conference for Media Reform last Friday in Minneapolis. The discussion comes on the heels of a survey released late last month showing the U.S. to be more of a broadband backwater than a world leader. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Internet access and service in America have slid to 15th place among 30 developed nations, a drop from our 12th place ranking in 2006.At the same time, policymakers in Washington have been divided over how to ensure free speech over new digital media.  The largest network providers — companies like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast — have said market dynamics compel them not to police their networks too heavily. Internet rights advocates, however, aren’t buying it — calling for baseline legal protections to prevent these companies from blocking or degrading the free flow of user information over the Web."People have begun to realize that any threat to the Internet is a threat to the whole national infrastructure," said Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu, a panelist. "This has made Internet issues real political issues — and this is a good thing."There are no real free-market dynamics guiding the Internet. For more than a decade, Internet policymaking has been controlled by well-heeled lobbyists acting on behalf of the powerful phone and cable companies. For all their talk about the free market and deregulation, the telecommunications giants work aggressively to force through rules that protect their market duopoly, close the door to new market entrants and competitive technologies, and increase their control over the content that travels across the Web.The net result has been the emergence of a phone and cable duopoly that controls broadband access for more than 99 percent of homes. Wu, who coined the term “Network Neutrality,” warned that we are re-entering an age of national monopoly similar to the early 20th Century. But he added that, "Media industries are consolidating to a degree that we have never seen before."According to Wu, it’s reached a point where we either have to act to heavily regulate these monopolies, or look for alternative ways to get Americans connected to the Internet.“This country is too addicted to the phone companies and cable companies as a source of bandwidth," Wu said. "I think we’re in the early days of a movement — not unlike the one in the alternative energy world — to develop alternative, realistic sources of bandwidth that are under our control."Wu pointed to experiments with grassroots fiber-optic networks, municipal Wi-Fi and innovations using unlicensed spectrum such as white spaces. Susan Crawford, the founder of OneWebDay, said the “Titanic battle” for the future of the Internet pits two competing forces against one another: the network operators, and groups and people who want to democratize the Web.Crawford said the network operators allege that the Internet is in danger of collapse, mostly because "they’re not making enough money off of it so they have to push it back into a managed box." "On the other side are those that understand the great social change that an open and free Internet can bring about, and the empowerment it can bring for everybody around the world,” she said.Crawford has launched OneWebDay to create a global constituency that cares about the future of the Internet "and will rise up when stupid policies come down the pipe towards us, backed by very powerful incumbents." Crawford pointed to looming threats from powerful interests in Hollywood — and also among law enforcement and network operators.  The policy decisions that we make in the next couple of years will determine the type of Internet we’ll have for generations to come. There was broad consensus among people at this discussion that now is the time to get started to protect our most fundamental rights online.

-Timothy Karr

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