Casting the ’Net

The Internet is more than just a technological toy. It is a key piece of the modern information puzzle, a medium that is fast replacing print and even cable in providing news and information to not just American citizens but the world at large.

According to a report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Internet has become the central figure in the transformation of the news-scape.

“Six in ten Americans (59%) get news from a combination of online and offline sources on a typical day,” according to the report, “and the internet is now the third most popular news platform, behind local television news and national television news.”

Part of the reason is its immediacy and accessibility — especially as phones and other portable devices become more prevalent. And it is easily sharable, which allows news consumers to determine what they deem most newsworthy, giving them an authority formerly reserved for print editors and television producers.

That makes the Internet far more than a just a tool for corporations to make money. It has become an integral part of our democratic culture.

The telephone and cable companies, which control the broadband lines, have a different view. As the Save the Internet Coalition points out, companies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable “want to be Internet gatekeepers, deciding which Web sites go fast or slow and which won’t load at all.”

“They want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data,” the coalition writes on its Web site. “And they want to discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services and streaming video — while slowing down or blocking services offered by their competitors.”

That would seriously damage the Internet as a democratic media platform, shifting even more power to the corporations that already control far too much in our society.

Advocates, building on the familiar description of the Internet as the “information superhighway,” liken these taxes or fees to tolls, saying that the companies “want to reserve express lanes for their own content and services — or those of big corporations that can afford the steep tolls — and leave the rest of us on a winding dirt road.”

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission can prevent the creation of this tiered system by enshrining - or re-enshrining — “net neutrality” in law. Net neutrality, as scholars Lawrence Lessig and Robert McChesney wrote in a 2006 op-ed in the Washington Post, “means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network.”

“The owners of the Internet’s wires cannot discriminate,” they wrote. “This is the simple but brilliant ‘end-to-end’ design of the Internet that has made it such a powerful force for economic and social good: All of the intelligence and control is held by producers and users, not the networks that connect them.”

Without this legal guarantee, they say, “the Internet would start to look like cable TV.”

“A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it costs,” they wrote. “Major industries such as health care, finance, retailing and gambling would face huge tariffs for fast, secure Internet use — all subject to discriminatory and exclusive dealmaking with telephone and cable giants.”

That is what is so ominous about the April 6 federal court ruling limiting the FCC’s ability to regulate internet service. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with Comcast, the massive cable corporation, which claimed “it had the right to slow its cable customers’ access to a file-sharing service called BitTorrent,” the New York Times reported.

The FCC, according to Megan Tady of Save the Internet Coalition, opened itself up to this ruling through its own mistakes and failures during the Bush administration.

“The FCC has found itself in the ridiculous situation of attempting to regulate broadband without the authority to do so unless the agency takes strong and decisive action to ‘reclassify’ the service under the Communications Act,” she wrote.

“Here’s the deal: under the Bush FCC, the agency decided to classify and treat broadband Internet service providers the same as any Internet applications company like Facebook or Lexis-Nexis, placing broadband providers outside of the legal framework that traditionally applied to the companies that offer two-way communications services.

“That’s the loophole that let Comcast wiggle out from under the agency’s thumb.”

The FCC has it within its powers, Tady says, to make “an easy fix”:

“The FCC can change broadband back to a “communications service,” which is where it should have been in the first place. By reclassifying broadband, all of these questions about authority will fall away and the FCC can pick up where it left off — protecting the Internet for the public and bridging the digital divide.”

The hope, she says, is that “this court decision will hopefully force the FCC to take action that will ultimately come back to haunt them.”

That’s the hope, anyway. Let’s see if Barack Obama’s FCC is more willing to back American citizens than the Bush FCC was.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in New Jersey. E-mail; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2010

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