May 4, 2006
Hindsight is often touted as better than foresight, yet such a truism should not blind us to an imminent threat before it happens. Like someone who takes up with an abusive mate and rationalizes the threat to life and limb until the battering leaves undeniable, indelible scars, there are good reasons right now to expect the worst when it comes to the survival of the free Internet. Now unfolding is a legal-political-corporate plot for turning a vibrant, democratic Internet into a global web of corporate and government deceit. The tell-tale signs exist but as in domestic abuse, the perpetrators (federal government and a small group of interconnected, powerful telecom and mainstream media monopolies) have done their utmost to keep it hidden behind closed doors.
Under the veil of a virtual mainstream media blackout, on June 27, 2005, the United States Supreme Court granted giant cable companies like Comcast and Verizon the legal right to dominate and control the Internet. It ruled that broadband Internet was an information service like cable TV rather than an interactive telecommunication service like the telephone (National Cable & Telecommunications Association vs. Brand X Internet Services). This gave these behemoths the green light to exclude Independent Service Providers (ISPs) from using their pipes, thereby laying the foundation for a corporate dominated and controlled Internet. Succinctly, in controlling the conduit of communication across the Internet, these companies now had acquired the legal right to control the content (Web of Deceit: How Internet Freedom Got the
Federal Ax, And Why Corporate News Censored the Story). Moreover, in
writing this decision, the Court also left the door open for telephone companies like ATT to control telephone modem connectivity to the Internet. As a result, just three weeks after the decision was handed down, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seized the opportunity to grant this right, effectively ushering in the beginning of the end of free-access Internet.
The Supreme Court ultimately rested its decision on its own Chevron ruling which held that courts should defer to government agencies, such as the FCC on matters of statutory interpretation so long as the statute in question was ambiguous and the agency¹s interpretation was reasonable. Despite the fact that there was unambiguous, prior precedent for considering the Internet to be a telecommunication service rather than an information service (AT&T Corporation vs. Portland); and despite the fact that treating an interactive service such as the Internet like a one-way, cable TV station defied rationality, it still deferred to the FCC, which sought to interpret the Internet as an information service. Brand X has now set the legal stage for a further maneuver in the dismal saga of the declining free Internet. Now in Congress, under extreme pressure by telecom lobbies, is a pending house bill introduced by Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) entitled the ³Communications Opportunity Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006.² This Act includes a ³Title II- Enforcement of Broadband Policy Statement² that states the FCC ³shall have exclusive authority to adjudicate any complaint alleging a violation of the broadband policy statement or the principles incorporated therein.² With the passage of this provision the FCC would no longer have to rely on Chevron to attain deference. Instead, it would be given a blank check to enforce its own mandates. This would mean that courts would have scant authority to challenge and overturn its decisions.
Unfortunately, the FCC harbors a political bias that makes granting it this authority dangerous. Under the direction of former FCC Chair Michael Powell, and now under its current chair, Kevin Martin, the FCC has moved toward increased deregulation of telecom and media companies, and there is now little reason to expect that this trend will reverse. The consequence is the thickening of the plot to increase corporate control of the Internet.
Presently, behemoth telecom corporations like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T are poised to set up toll booths on the Internet. According to this plan, only content providers with deep pockets would be given optimum Internet connectivity. This would leave the rest of the Internet community running slowly or not at all. The net result would be the demise of Internet neutrality. No longer would all of us have an equal voice within the freest and most comprehensive democratic forum ever devised by humankind. This would accordingly be yet a further maneuver in the gradual dismantling of the free, democratic Internet. Indisputably, the Internet is currently on a path of becoming an extension of the corporate media, owned and operated by a few giant corporations that control the information Americans receive. This erosive trend threatens to infect the Internet just as it has radio, broadcast, and cable TV. The transition, however, has not been politically benign. Rather, big money has teamed with neoconservative politics to usher in an age in which quid pro quo between mainstream media corporations and government largely define what Americans see and hear.
Nor is this trend as regards the Internet without chilling precedent in other nations marred with dictatorship, notably China. There, a ³Great Firewall² has been erected by the Chinese government around its Internet. Accordingly, sights considered ³subversive² -- which is anything of which it disapproves -- are slowed down and/or phased out. The recent cooperation of Google with the Chinese government in creating Google.cn, a government-censored version of itself, is an instructive example of how corporate power can yield to the authority holding the purse strings.
If there is no disruption of current trends, the Internet will predictably fall in line with a rigid program of censorship that will fundamentally devour the free spirit with which the Internet was conceived. This has been a net born of a free, interactive, democratic mission, not a profit-maximizing vehicle of corporations. It is not surprising therefore that under the auspices of the latter, in concert with a government with an insatiable appetite for power, which has the ability to regulate these corporations out of existence, the Internet would undergo an identity crisis. It is a blatant fallacy to suppose that profit maximization equates to democracy. To the contrary, in the present corporate context it equates to the marginalizing of any perspectives that are not cost effective.
In 1997, a neoconservative think tank emerged called The Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Its main mission has been to promote corporate globalization and the increase in U.S. military dominance throughout the world. This includes defeating all regimes opposed to
U.S. corporate interests. In its blueprint of what would be required for the transition, it stressed the necessity of government control of the Internet. In one of its documents entitled ³Rebuilding America¹s Defenses² (2000), the PNAC stated, as with space, access to and use of cyberspace and the Internet are emerging elements in global commerce, politics and power. Any nation wishing to assert itself globally must take account of this other new "global commons."
Speaking of ³cyber-war² it stated:
AlthoughSthe role of the Defense Department in establishing "control," or even what "security" on the Internet means, requires a consideration of a host of legal, moral and political issues, there nonetheless will remain an imperative to be able to deny America and its allies' enemies the ability to disrupt or paralyze either the military's or the commercial sector's computer networks. Conversely, an offensive capability could offer America's military and political leaders an invaluable tool in disabling an adversary in a decisive manner.
It is mind boggling to think what the terms ³control² and ³security² might portend for a militaristic government bent on defeating its ³enemy.² If this seems a stretch from the current political climate, then it is worth noting that those who have formally endorsed the mission of the PNAC include familiar figures in the Bush Administration
-- Vice President Dick Cheney; former Chief Advisor to the Vice
President I. Lewis ³Scooter² Libby, Jr.; Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld; and former Deputy Secretary of Defense and current President of the World Bank Paul Wolfowitz, to name just some.
From this point in time, in light of the aforementioned legal, political, and corporate realities, it is not difficult to envision the broad stages in transforming the Net into a vehicle of world domination:
Corporatize -- Sanitize -- Propagandize -- Militarize (Turn the Net
into a Weapon of Mass Deception) -- Globalize (Enclose the world inside one Great American Firewall).
The further down this slippery slope we travel, the less chance there will be of turning back!
--------- Elliot D. Cohen is a media ethicist and author of many books and articles on the media and other areas of applied ethics. His most recent book on the dangers of corporate media is News Incorporated:
Corporate Media Ownership and Its Threat to Democracy (Prometheus Books, March 2005).