March 25th, 2009 18:30 EST
Big Money's Grab for the Internet
Whenever you read the lead or off-lead story in a newspaper, whenever a TV anchor interrupts newscast to bring you breaking news, you can be pretty sure the real story is living its secret life unnoticed.
Now that`s not a bad a lead for a story, is it? Your professor might approve of it. But, like most leads, it`s only a whiff of the story "and a bit misleading to boot. (Leads are almost always a bit misleading, but that`s another matter.) I said the real story is unraveling unnoticed. I meant it`s probably unnoticed by you, but it`s not unnoticed by the people to whom it means most, and it`s probably not unnoticed by news editors either. It`s like selective hearing; they`ve just chosen to ignore it. And the chances are it`s about money, about somebody making money in ways that are not good for society. But the media don`t serve society, much as they might like you to think they do, they serve corporate masters, CEOs who answer to shareholders.
I`m not going to argue that the media are at fault for giving you a day of burning buildings and forest fires while many of our cherished liberties are burning to the ground around us, but while we`re hearing all about the latest polls in Iowa and the obscene amounts of money people are paying to get elected one of the most momentous struggles of our time, a struggle that will determine just how free we`re going to be, is going on under the media`s` noses and it`s hardly being covered at all. There`s a good reason it`s not being covered. It`s because the media are themselves vitally concerned and hopelessly burdened by the agendas of their Big Business bosses.
What I`m talking about is control of the Internet. The subject has been dubbed net neutrality, but that`s an entirely too bland term for what is going on. What is at stake is whether you and I can have the same kind of high-speed, equal-service access to the Internet that Big Business has, or whether giant telecommunications companies like Time Warner, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will get away with creating a tiered, or multilevel system of Internet speeds so that certain providers can buy a fast lane ahead of you and me. It would be like a rich guy having a lane all to himself on a six-lane highway because he paid for it. You would get the lane you could afford. Net neutrality, on the other hand, would mean no special privileges for Big Money. It would mean equal access and equal service. It would reflect the democratic principles expressed in our Bill of Rights. A tiered system would give the corporations exactly what Thomas Jefferson feared they would acquire, power to corrupt democracy. There would be the corporations` democracy, and then there would be yours. Yours would consists largely of the right to be hornswoggled. Controlling access to higher speeds and better service would be a form of censorship, just as our voting power is now being censored by Big Money. We don`t have the best candidates, we have the candidates who are best at selling themselves to monied interests. The best people in every community can`t afford to run for office, and so, rather than having the best government we can give ourselves, we have the worst government money can buy.
You can argue that this story is inherently less interesting than the misadventures of a rich and spoiled heiress. You can argue that it is inherently less interesting than a war and its terrible casualties. But here`s what you can`t argue: you can`t argue that our press was given certain privileges under the Constitution to ignore the very issues that the Constitution was written to address. No, you can`t argue that. If the press doesn`t show us that control of the Internet is as important as heiresses and wars and national security, then the press has betrayed us and the Constitution that so relied on the press to do its job.
This is the issue of the century, not whether we should live in a federal security state, as George Bush and Dick Cheney argue, or whether we are engaged in an interminable life-and-death struggle with Islamic terrorism. This is the issue that will decide whether we are going to be a free people. And it`s the issue that Big Business, your elected officials and the media don`t want you to know too much about. It would suit the owners of most of our news organizations to have a tiered Internet, because they would have all the privileges they have now, and you would lose many of the privileges you have now, either because you could no longer afford them or because laws will be written to disqualify you, and you can be sure the laws that disenfranchise you will be written in very small print and will not make the headlines the next day or the next week.
Don`t underestimate what is at stake. This is not just another piece of technology we`re talking about. The Internet has the potential of counteracting the concentration of media in a few hands, it has the potential to encourage worldwide freedom of expression, to bring down authoritarian regimes like the Taliban`s or Vladimir Putin`s in Russia or the mullahs` in Iran or Hugo Chavez`s in Venezuela. The stakes are enormous. There really isn`t a bigger story, not even global climate change, because the Internet enables a freewheeling discussion of global climate change and its control by Big Money would censor that discussion. So any of you who have been doubting my contention that big stories aren`t being covered, ask yourselves how much you know about this one, how much your friends and family know, how much your community knows. Is it being covered thoroughly? You be the judge. Ask yourselves why your text messagers and cellphones and e-mail aren`t burning up with this issue. They should be. Somebody is breaking into your house, looting your possessions. You`re under attack.
When Apple introduced its new iPhone the rah-rah press turned up the volume, just as it did when neoconservatives were manufacturing from whole cloth their case for going to war. There were reports about long lines at Apple stores. There were rave reviews. Those of you who have noted the sometimes laughable lengths to which the pharmaceutical industry has been constrained to go to warn us of side effects might wonder why the press isn`t similarly constrained to tell us that Apple, among others, is a major advertiser. Only on the second and third day were there stories that Apple`s iPhone exclusive partnership with AT&T, one of the companies lobbying mightily to limit your access to the Internet, was a serious drawback to iPhone users, since AT&T`s technical reach isn`t as long as some of its competitors`, or the fact that in one or two years the iPhones will have to be sent back to Apple for new batteries, since the batteries are not replaceable: no pop-out/pop-in; that would be too convenient.
And there were certainly no stories about how the Apple-AT&T alliance strikes a blow at net neutrality by trying to control markets. Just ask the musicians how they feel about about iTunes` growing control of their markets.
Days later "how`s this for controlling the flow of news? "comes word of T-Mobile`s HotSpot@Home, a phone every bit as revolutionary as Apple`s iPhone, because, unlike the pricey iPhone, it just might save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. The idea is you pay ten dollars a month on top of the regular T-Mobile voice plan and you get a special cellphone. It works like any other phone, eating up your monthly minutes, but when it`s in a Wi-Fi wireless Internet area your calls are free. You get a free router that could turn your home into a cell tower.
T-Mobile`s confident giant step into the future took back seat to Apple`s glitzy iPhone with its half-hidden drawbacks. Why? Well, for one thing the telecommunications giants go all wobbly-kneed when anybody talks about Internet voice communications, such as Skype or Vonage. After all, if they can`t bamboozle Congress into handing them the Internet on a silver platter how are they going to scalp you for your telephone lifestyle?
Their argument is that they`ve invested a lot of money in their networks, so they have the right to control its traffic. But they didn`t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it out of competitive necessity. And if the people own the airwaves, why shouldn`t they own access to cyberspace? The telecommunications giants forget that they didn`t develop the Internet. It was developed with tax money by the Defense Department in order to gather intelligence. So why should the people be made to pay twice? They paid for its development in the first place.
And talk about making the public pay till it bleeds, another major story lurking under all this oohing and ahing about technology is the fact that rural America stands to take a major hit if Congress allows the telecommunications monsters to engineer Internet traffic tiers and charge accordingly. If such a tiered system were adopted, or if some content were to be given priority over other content, which would be a form of commercial censorship, then content providers might have to pay extra fees to network companies to ensure the timely delivery of their content. In other words, network owners would decide whose traffic moves fast, slow, or maybe not at all. Is that what we pioneered the Internet for? Are you listening, all you independent bloggers? If Congress allows a multilevel Internet access system your blogs may as well be mailed at the Post Office.
As the population moves, seemingly inexorably, into urban areas, the danger in such a system is that the economies of rural areas where small companies couldn`t afford fast-lane access to the Internet would be devastated. This would be an ironic shame, because one of the promises of the Internet is that it would revitalize rural areas by allowing people to work at home.
Big content providers like Google, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay, as well as consumer advocates, are asking the federal government to intervene to maintain net neutrality. But the issue shouldn`t be cast solely in an economic light. It`s a civil rights issue, too, because millions of voices will be silenced if the telecommunications giants are allowed to decide how traffic will move on the Internet and even whether it will move at all. Any time such centralization of power is permitted there is a danger of authoritarian government. The multilevel idea is inherently anti-American, but it fits nicely with the global aspirations of corporations more loyal to their shareholders than to the country that bred and nurtured them.
Let me give you an example of how this commercial imperative operates as a censor in the land of the free. The book publishing industry in the United States now consists mainly of six major publishers, most of them foreign-owned, in New York City. They`re the arbiters of taste. They tell us which books deserve to be published. But their decisions about what to publish have very little to do with the quality of the books. They have everything to do with whether the marketers think the books will make a lot of money. Okay, all well and good, it`s a business, after all. But these publishers and the periodical media that serve them by writing about their books pretend that it`s about quality. So here you have money censoring taste.
Now comes print-on-demand publishing by such companies as BookSurge and LightningSource. They make books in response to actual demands, not on speculation. This of course eliminates warehousing and can be done largely on the Internet, eleminating booksellers. But the major media don`t review print-on-demand books, which of course severely censors their ability to win attention. The media claim such books are vanity books. But the real reason they ignore them is that the technology threatens the publishing establishment in the same way the Internet threatens print publishers. So just as the Big Six have the ability to shape the market and act as cultural arbiters, so the telecommunications giants would have the same ability if they were handed a multilevel Internet access system. This is not the free press the Founding Fathers envisioned.
If you were to ask most editors why this story remains on the back burner while the media play celebrity trivia they would probably tell you that it`s a technical story and belongs in journals devoted to telecommunications. Or they might say the story hasn`t come to a boil, by which time of course the public would be getting burned. Or they might say it`s boring. It`s rather like Tom Watson, the one-time head of IBM, saying there would never be a market for personal computers. We all know what that lack of prescience cost IBM. Well, not covering this story could cost all of us a lot more, because we`re not just talking about Big Money`s right to make the green stuff, we`re talking about whether it`s going to control cyberspace and shut the mouths of dissenters, in the same way that concentration of the media has shut the mouths of dissenters. This is serious stuff. This is the story Thomas Jefferson would be watching, the one that would worry him. And Ben Franklin too. And Thomas Paine.
The Internet and the technologies developing to use it are comparable to the Gutenberg press. Without the Gutenberg press, which was developed logically from wine and olive presses and actually resembled them, the Reformation and the Enlightenment would probably have never happened. The Western concept of democracy probably wouldn`t have flourished, because the knowledge that is power would have remained in the hands of the church and the aristocracy. It took more than one hundred and fifty years to wrest the press from the church and the secular rulers, and even then it served them because of the same kind of commercial censorship we have now. So the struggle to give access to knowledge to the people is a long and troubled one, and the hard truth is that Big Money today is better equipped to take control of the Internet than the church and royalty were to keep control of the Gutenberg press, which means that the danger to readily accessible knowledge and communication is even greater, although the danger is obscured by the ready access we now enjoy. The actual machinery that evolved from the Gutenberg press never was cheap enough to fall into the hands of most people, not until the Internet and inexpensive technologies like print-on-demand. When you look at the situation in this light you can see how crucial our moment in history is. You and I have tools we never had before, and so the big guys, the schoolyard bullies, are trying to take them away from us. They`re afraid we might continue to do what we`ve been doing these last few years, what we`re doing right here and now: communicating freely and spontaneously with each other, instead of being told how we can communicate and what we can communicate. They`re afraid we`re changing the rules. And of course we are changing them. They`re afraid they won`t be able to dictate taste or withhold stories or bend stories. They`re afraid this is a whole new ballgame, because it is a new ballgame.
Communications make authoritarian government, whether by mullahs or preachers or money bags, difficult. When Cesar Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, cracked down on street demonstrations a month ago students sent images of the crackdown to CNN and other media via their cellphones. That was a vivid example of how hard communications are on despots.
So let me ask each of you, wherever you are, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Chandigarh, India, what is your government doing about this issue? And where is the story you should be writing about it? Who are the bozos in your neck of the woods who want to strangle the Internet, wringing out of it more money for themselves, and less freedom for you? What has the press in your hometown been saying about this? Anything? The less said the bigger the issue. Count on it. Government censorship is crude and obvious compared to commercial censorship. Let`s see those stories.
For More Information: www.djelloulmarbrook.com
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.