Could it happen here?

[This commentary by MAIN executive director Wally Bowen appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times, which inadvertently printed an earlier draft. This is the intended version.]

On National Public Radio last Saturday, host Scott Simon opined that a “central shutdown” of the Internet as occurred in Egypt was “unthinkable if not impossible” in the United States given the “thousands of Internet routes and providers” here.

Simon noted that Egypt’s four primary Internet service providers could be shut down “with just a few phone calls.” Yet 95 percent of US broadband users have only a cable or telephone to choose from. Only five companies – AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time-Warner, and Cox – control 75 percent of this access.

There was a time in the late 1990s when we could claim “thousands” of ISPs, but they disappeared last decade after the FCC refused to extend “common carrier” rules, governing dial-up Internet, to broadband access.

Common-carrier protection is the essence of what today we call “open Internet” or “net neutrality” rules. Their absence allowed the centralized control of America’s broadband Internet access. Bush-era policies also enabled the reconsolidation of the eight Baby Bells into just three companies: AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest.

Despite this consolidation, Simon is correct that a “central shutdown” of Internet access in the US would be difficult to pull off. But centralized control can also turn the Internet into a dragnet. China and Iran are using the Internet and social media to track down and prosecute dissidents. On Jan. 24, Iran hanged two dissidents for posting video of the 2009 pro-democracy protests on the Internet.

In December of 2005, the New York Times exposed the Bush administration’s warrant-less wiretapping program. The next month, a veteran AT&T engineer named Mark Klein walked into the offices of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation with evidence of a “secret room” in AT&T’s San Francisco facility housing Mae West, a West Coast exchange for AT&T and other providers’ Internet and voice traffic.

This secret room, and others like it around the country, contained government-sanctioned “deep packet inspection” (DPI) technologies for real-time monitoring of voice and data traffic flowing in and out of the US. A 2006 Wired magazine report entitled “The Ultimate Net Monitoring Tool” noted that DPI technologies “can keep track of, analyze and record nearly every form of internet communication, whether e-mail, instant message, video streams or VOIP phone calls that cross the network.”

One expert cited by EFF observed, “This isn’t a wiretap, it’s a country-tap.” We may never know the extent of this surveillance program. In July 2008, Congress passed a law granting retroactive and future immunity to ISPs engaging in warrantless wiretaps at government behest.

Governments, whether democratic or despotic, benefit from centralized control over telecommunications writes legal scholar Tim Wu in his book, “Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.” Wu says Bush-era approval of telecom mergers may have “fundamentally enabled” the sweeping wiretap effort. As in Egypt’s shutdown of the Internet, “the need to involve so few companies in the conspiracy made things much easier,” Wu writes.

Last summer, as the FCC took public comment on chairman Julius Genachowski’s vow to approve “open Internet” rules, a spate of news stories appeared quoting former-intelligence-officials-turned-industry-lobbyists trumpeting a growing threat of “cyber-war” and “cyber-terrorism.” Coincidentally, FCC officials began holding closed-door meetings with telecom lobbyists.

Last fall, Genachowski reversed course on his plan to approve open Internet rules before the mid-term elections. Instead, on Dec. 21 the FCC approved rules widely believed to lack enforcement authority.

As a former Constitutional law professor, President Obama is no doubt aware of the risks to democracy from centralized control of the Internet. Last June he signed an executive order to free up 500 MHz of the public airwaves for broadband access. Wireless broadband is the only Internet access technology which could still elude centralized control. This may explain his singular focus on wireless broadband in the State of the Union address.

As events in Tunisia and Egypt unfold, cyber-libertarians are working around the clock to create open-source tools and applications to prevent the “central shutdown” of the Internet by despotic regimes and to protect tomorrow’s Sons and Daughters of Liberty from unwarranted government surveillance.

Congress and the FCC are now drafting policies to determine who will control wireless Internet as new spectrum is made available. It’s imperative that Americans dispel any illusions that “It can’t happen here.” It already has. And if we are not vigilant, it could get worse.

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