“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.