Many conservatives tell us that they are committed to extending "freedom and democracy" around the world. Freedom is an elusive concept. It seems to be equated with our modern corporate economy. That corporate economy has become a threat to democracy. The major players increasingly view themselves as free to use any method at their disposal to advance their power and wealth. Sometimes called "cowboy capitalism," the system threatens not only basic freedoms of speech and thought but also risks undermining the very economic vitality that market theorists celebrate. No struggle better illustrates these risks than the current push for telecommunications "reform."
Unbeknownst to most of us until very recently, the major phone and cable companies have been striving to change the basic legal structure under which they operate. Current law allows local governments to grant exclusive franchise to cable companies. Since no one would be well served if several cable companies built their own polls and wires, individual cable companies are granted monopoly rights to their communities. In return, cable companies must agree to specific conditions. These generally include requirements that all parts of the community, rich and poor, have access to service and that local access channels for public service programming be included.
The phone and cable companies that provide access to the internet for most of us are also required to meet another related set of requirements, Internet neutrality. Under this principle the internet must serve as a common carrier. All content is provided equal access. All content providers must be charged equally.
Though Internet and cable access are still beyond the reach of too many poor families in this country, both services have now been widely extended. The humblest blogger and the largest media conglomerate can distribute their products in an equally timely and inexpensive manner. At least so far.
Current legislation pending in different forms in both houses of Congress would allow cable and phone companies to create a segregated Internet. Some users would be able to pay for high-speed connections while other others were relegated to the slow lane. In addition, cable systems would be franchised at the national level. Regulations requiring community service access and nondiscrimination would be removed.
The phone and cable companies claim that giving them the market freedom to charge for new services and circumvent local regulations will allow them to accumulate capital for future technological developments. Yet these companies are already profiting handsomely for providing current service.
Just as fundamentally, there is an element of hypocrisy in their demands for market freedom. Phone and cable companies enjoy both economic and political power because they have benefited from government-granted monopoly franchises. In addition, the very existence of the Internet is a tribute to publicly-funded research and development. The computer revolution itself depended heavily on Defense Department research going back to the '50s. Now that the gains have been realized, these corporations seek to change the rules so that they can reap even more extraordinary returns.
In this regard they are typical of the modus operandi governing much of corporate America. Drug companies patent drugs whose origins lie in public research. They plow growing profits into demeaning and market-manipulating advertising. We have a push- the-envelope capitalist culture that uses market freedoms when convenient even as it often relies on and exploits the public purse and public regulations.
The consequences are most dire when the communications industry is involved because democracy is at stake. In an era in which media consolidation has substantially narrowed the range of debate, internet blogs and open access on local cable television provided at least some openings for diverse voices. Howard Dean's surprising run in the 2004 Democratic primary elections was an early demonstration of the potential of this technology. Nonetheless, as with all technologies, much will depend on the regulatory structure in which it develops.
Public funding and public grants of monopoly privilege made these cable and Internet industries possible. The public has a right to guarantee equal and affordable access to these services. From the earliest days of the republic, the commitment by the postal service to serve all communities not only united the nation but also fostered the spread of ideas and broadened markets for new technologies and products. Phone regulation and rural electrification programs served analogous functions.
Until very recently, the push for cable and internet "reform" has been a stealth endeavor. One industry lobbyist recently expressed the hope that both houses of Congress just pass something. His expectation is that legislation would then go to a joint conference committee where industry lobbyists can do their thing. Fortunately, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has joined Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) in sponsoring legislation intended to preserve Internet neutrality. The rest of us need to use our emails, phones, letters, and blogs to encourage Congress to preserve and extend this principle.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.