9.1.4 Open Networks

Apple’s attitude is alarming enough, but the company is a freedom fighter compared with the major telecommunications companies. Brazen control freaks, they don’t have enough competitors—as Apple still does—to give them the slightest concern for the independent desires of their customers.

In We the Media I wrote that we are heading into a world with only one, two or at most three broadband telecommunications providers serving any given geographical community. I asked, back in 2004:

Should giant telecommunications companies—namely cable and local phone providers—have vertical control over everything from the data transport to the content itself? For example, as I was writing this book, Comcast, the cable monopoly in my area, was trying to buy Disney. The attempt failed. If this happened, Comcast could have decided to deliver Disney’s content online more quickly than someone else’s, discriminating on the basis of financial considerations. Such a regime would have been a disaster for the unimpeded flow of information. We should insist on a more horizontal system, in which the owner of the pipe is obliged to provide interconnections to competing services. Unfortunately, today’s regulatory and political power brokers lean in the wrong direction.

Late in 2009, Comcast announced it was buying NBC Universal, one of the biggest “content” companies on the planet. It’s time to worry, and to act.

What’s at stake? Free-speech activists have worried for years about the corporate consolidation of mass media. In the era when mass media held nearly total sway, that was a reasonable fear. And to the extent that Big Media holds onto its huge audiences, it’s still a legitimate issue.

But now we face a consolidation that dwarfs anything contemplated before: the “broadband” oligopoly’s increasing control over what we can do with our media. The cable and phone giants are determined to decide what bits get delivered in what order, at what speed and at what time—if at all—to the people who want them. We are heading toward a level of media control that, if the telecom companies succeed in achieving it, will threaten every bit of the work I and many others have been doing for the past decade—not to mention our mediactive future.

What do these companies want? Their plain goal is to turn the Internet into something that resembles cable television, where they decide which channels you need and which you’ll pay extra to get (in this case, penalizing you if you want your own choice of feeds, videos and the like at the same speed you get their preferred ones).

What’s especially galling is the telecom companies’ claims that they have a right to control your choices because the networks are entirely their own property. Historically, they got this property via monopoly deals with local governments, allowing them to tear up streets and claim rights of way in a system that no new competitor can possibly duplicate. Serious competition, except in a tiny number of places, is unlikely, barring some advances in mobile technology that are more theoretical than imminent.

The mobile carriers are, if anything, even more restrictive. They have a reason at the moment, given the limited capacity of their networks. But in moves that can’t remotely be blamed on network availability, they have curtailed all kinds of activities that they deem contrary to their own interests: notably, preventing Internet-based voice applications from competing. Alarmingly, Google—once a prime mover for “network neutrality,” the term open-network advocates use to describe the kinds of networks we need—has joined with Verizon in a public statement all but abandoning the principle for mobile networks.

The Federal Communications Commission has been looking at network neutrality, but in the end Congress will decide this, and Congress has been a pawn of the telecom industry for too long. You should care about your ability to read and watch what you want, and the ability of others to read or watch what you create, in a fair marketplace. And if you do care, you should tell the people who represent you in the U.S. House and Senate that you do, and why.

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