“Who will control the Internet in the 21st-century?”

“Who Will Control the Internet in the 21st-Century?” is the topic of a talk by media reform activist Wally Bowen at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 1 at Jubilee Community in downtown Asheville.

Bowen is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) and a nationally-known advocate for broadband deployment in rural and other underserved areas. Admission to the talk is free.

Bowen will discuss the recently-released National Broadband Plan in light of a growing threat to the Internet posed by cable and telephone companies, which control more than 95 percent of broadband access in the United States.

In early 2009, Congress ordered the Federal Communications Commission to draft a plan “to ensure every American has access to broadband capability.” Many of the plan’s recommendations can be implemented by the FCC, while others require an act of Congress.

In the 1990s, the Internet moved quickly from research universities and government institutes into mainstream American life, largely because of ‘common-carrier’ protections governing the nation’s telephone networks,” said Bowen.

In 2002, however, the FCC under former chairman Michael Powell surrendered its authority over cable broadband service – effectively removing common-carrier rules — in a controversial 3-2 partisan vote. After legal challenges concluded in 2005, a divided FCC went on to remove common-carrier rules on the telephone companies’ broadband service via digital-subscriber-lines (DSL).

Bowen called common-carriage “a centuries-old legal concept that prohibits a provider of public services, such as a ferry-boat operator, from picking winners and losers.” In the realm of communications, he added, the concept includes privacy and other consumer protections.

“The heart of common-carrier protection is non-discrimination, which means that a broadband provider cannot favor the traffic of, for example, Bank of America, over the traffic of the Bank of Asheville,” said Bowen.

He said the FCC’s controversial 2002 surrender of authority over broadband also gave the cable and telephone broadband providers the power to pick winners and losers among innovations for the broadband-based Web.

“In 1959, a Texas cattle rancher by the name of Tom Carter patented a device that would allow a two-way radio to interconnect with his telephone back at the ranch house. However, AT&T told Mr. Carter that he could not connect his device to the telephone network without AT&T’s permission,” said Bowen.

A legal battle ensued, ending finally in 1968 when the FCC ruled that devices such as the CarterFone were valuable innovations and could connect to the telephone network, provided they didn’t harm the network, Bowen said.

“The CarterFone rules gave us fax machines, answering machines, and dial-up modems for Internet access,” said Bowen. “But the FCC’s abdication of its authority over broadband in 2002 removed CarterFone protections for innovators. That’s one reason Apple had to cut an exclusive deal with AT&T to bring its iPhone to market,” said Bowen.

Bowen called the National Broadband Plan an “historic window of opportunity” to restore the Internet to its original open standards. “If we fail to seize this moment,” said Bowen, “the Internet of the 21st century will become an online space of corporate-control, with limited freedom, privacy and innovation.”

For more information, or directions to Jubilee, please visit the MAIN homepage at www.main.nc.us or call 255-0182.

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2 Responses to ““Who will control the Internet in the 21st-century?””

  1. While I’m all for the spread of Broadband through the National Broadband Plan, I’m hesitant to push for too much control of the Internet under the care of the government. The recent Senate bill proposed by Lieberman shows the dark side of too much government control of the Internet.

    There’s a fine line between too much government oversight, and too much corporate influence on the Internet. We’ve got to find a balance between these forces, that, in the end, leverages the communications channels for the people. Common-Carrier rulings help with this from the ISP/Content Provider side, but isn’t enough to promote a free Internet without keeping Homeland Security out of US citizen’s private communications. Arbitrary laws that gives control of this shared resource to the executive branch without judicial oversight is just as dangerous as an Internet that is controlled by just a few media companies.

    I applaud Wally Bowen’s continued effort to provide broadband to everyone, and schedule pending, plan on attending this event.

  2. Wally Bowen says:

    Thanks for the comment Michael. Unfortunately, I think we have reached a point in the evolution of telecommunications technologies where the term “too much control of the Internet under the care of the government” is meaningless.

    For better or worse, government writes the rules for who controls the Internet. And as we know all too well, government (e.g., FBI, NSA, CIA) and big telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon have had a very cozy relationship for decades. That is not likely to change.

    The only legal mechanisms by which citizens can exercise some control over the Internet are Congress, the courts, and – most directly – the Federal Communications Commission.

    Under the Obama administration, we have a strong pro-consumer, pro-civil liberties FCC. The 1934 Communications Act and its most recent update, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, give the FCC the authority it needs to implement “rules of the road” to protect our civil liberties and our ability to innovate at the grassroots.

    We are not likely to have a better opportunity, in our lifetimes, to implement a progressive set of rules for the Internet than this administration and this FCC.

    Those voices that say “Keep the government away from the Internet” are basically saying, whether they realize it or not, “Turn the Internet over to a handful of big corporations.”

    With the big carriers in control, we have virtually no transparency in order to really know how government and the Internet’s corporate owners are colluding.

    But with a strong pro-civil liberties FCC, we have a fighting chance to maintain some transparency and accountability – and, I hope, to find some traction that will allow us to actually re-structure the Internet by creating hundreds of local and regional nonprofit networks (similar to MAIN) that would in the aggregate constitute a “third pipe” alternative to the cable/telco duopoly we now have.

    Clearly, corporatists like Lieberman and retired intelligence chief Mike McConnell (no doubt now on AT&T’s payroll) have begun playing the national security card in order to preserve corporate/government control over the Internet.

    Here’s what McConnell told NPR just a few days ago:

    “McConnell highlighted the “attribution problem” in a recent interview with NPR. He advocates “re-engineering the Internet” to make more transactions there traceable.’


    I deeply believe we have an excellent chance of preventing total government/corporate control of the Internet, and I will be laying out this argument July 1. I hope you can make it!