Jeffrey Chester

Under the Radar, Big Media Internet Giants Get Massive Access to Everything About You

Editor's note: The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series. 

Keep reading... Show less

The War Against Google

Fearful of the growing dominance of Google, some of the country's most powerful media companies are seeking to rein in the digital giant. Viacom's $1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit against Google's YouTube and the recent deal between NBC Universal and News Corp./Fox to establish a rival online video site have made the headlines. But this is just the beginning of a larger effort designed to weaken and undermine Google. The stakes are high, not only for Google and the other media conglomerates but for the future of the broadband medium and the public interest.

Privately, a number of media giants have been exploring ways to limit Google's growing clout in the advertising marketplace. Among the options, insiders say, is a possible federal antitrust case, similar to the 1998 case brought against Microsoft. Another avenue is possible actions against Google at the Federal Trade Commission over the company's interactive data-collection apparatus.

Representatives from Google's growing list of competitors say that unless checked now, Google will ultimately control most of the interactive advertising revenues for broadband. Industry insiders understand that control over ad revenues will give Google tremendous clout over the future of content online, since it will have the resources to fund whatever it desires. Consequently, Viacom's legal action against Google is less about copyright infringement over clips from The Daily Show appearing on YouTube than about cutting the search and advertising behemoth down to size.

Currently, Google garners nearly half of all US online searches. The company has also aggressively expanded its advertising services into newspapers, radio, television and mobile communications. As commerce, communications, entertainment and information further merge online, companies that control both the most popular sites and the interactive targeted-marketing (and data-collecting) apparatus will dominate.

The media industry now finds itself in a critical period of transition, which will determine what the financial relationships will be among the major content providers (such as Viacom), mobile and cable systems (such as Verizon) and advertising powerhouses (Google). Viacom chief Sumner Redstone knows firsthand how legal action can humble potential competitors. He successfully took on cable TV baron John Malone more than a decade ago in another well-known entertainment industry lawsuit. As with the case against Malone, Viacom's legal action against Google is not just about humbling a rival but also about getting the best deal for splitting revenues.

Time Warner, Viacom, Fox, Google and the others are really arguing about the role that interactive advertising will play in determining the future of digital content and its distribution: Who gets the lion's share of revenues from ad and content sales? How much access can advertisers have to our personal data? How much advertising can they send our way? To what extent can media giants control the monetization of our eyeballs and our psyches? This is also everything about pleasing the biggest deep-pocketed advertisers, who don't want to see their ads adjacent to videos that might undermine their message. Google has already implemented a technology fix to prevent unwanted content from appearing on YouTube and other sites. Its "advanced content identification architecture" is designed to insure major program producers and advertisers that it can identify and remove any problematic content.

There is real danger that the media buzz around disputes like the Viacom suit and the new NBC-Fox online venture will obscure real concerns about privacy and other rights we have as consumers of online content. As media powerhouses seek to make the new digital landscape a better environment for large advertisers, those who care about the potential of broadband to serve the public interest should be engaged in the debate. We should not leave decisions about how digital content is paid for and distributed just to Google and its ever-growing list of corporate competitors.

Will Google Take the Internet Over the Cliff?



Under the radar of all but the most savvy Internet users, powerful commercial forces are rapidly creating a digital media system for the United States that threatens to undermine our ability to create a civil and just society. The takeover of YouTube by Google announced October 9 and the 2005 buyout by Rupert Murdoch of MySpace are not just about mega-deals for new media. They are the leading edge of a powerful interactive system that is being designed to serve the interests of some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet.






Aware that social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube are attracting the key youth audience, and aiming to maintain their influence over future generations of consumers, marketers are aggressively seizing the initiative. Leveraging existing relationships with Yahoo!, Microsoft, the phone and cable companies, Google and the other large players, the advertising industry are developing an array of immersive online experiences--like MTV's Virtual Laguna Beach and Studio.com's Go Deep--that seamlessly blend relationships with products and brands.



Advertisers are harnessing technology that targets and follows Internet users on their journeys through cyberspace, collecting data and tracking behavior. Virtual software marketing tools will be deployed across the digital landscape so that wherever we go, whatever we do do--e-mail, instant messaging, mobile communications or searches--we will be immersed in enticing content for the lifelong sell: Witness the work of Oddcast, a New York-based immersive media company, whose "conversational character products" represent a new medium for marketing to get inside consumers' heads.



YouTube capitalizes on the growing proclivity of Internet users to be creators of information as well as consumers. And as the network television and cable audiences age, advertisers are increasingly aware that "user-created content"--be it a cute kitty video or clips from The Daily Show--are key to attracting young audiences. But as the Goo-Tube model develops, behind each video will be a powerful connection to an ad, targeted to the user's online behavior, as well as the stealth collection of personal data. As Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive, noted about his company's acquisition of MySpace, "the digital gold inside of MySpace wasn't the number of users, but the information they're providing." [Google, it should be noted, now also represents the interests of Rupert Murdoch's US empire. In August Google became Fox's principal online advertising agent for MySpace, Fox TV and Fox Interactive.]




Given this emerging marketing model, the US broadband infrastructure may well become one giant "brandwashing" machine. The most powerful communications system ever developed by humans is increasingly being put in the service of selling, commercialization and commodification. And it will lead to an inherently conservative and narcissistic political culture, in which the interests of the self and the consumption of products are the primary, most visible, media messages. And unless we begin to challenge it now, the emerging digital culture will seriously challenge our ability to effectively communicate, inform and organize.



A handful of companies now dominate much of the US new-media market. Five corporations--Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon and Qwest--control the wires and cable lines delivering us broadband, digital TV and, soon, much wireless service. The viral "Singing Puppy" campaign from Nokia is an early warning that soon even our phone calls will become platforms for commercials. A few other major players--especially Google, News Corp., Viacom and Microsoft--have done the necessary deals to strategically grow their broadband content businesses (buying gaming sites and other programming to insure they ensnare the key youth market). Even if the pending update to the Communications Act of 1996 preserves the core principle of network neutrality, the voices of these most powerful media companies are likely to be the loudest.




More mergers in coming years will continue the consolidation of old media giants with the new. It's only a matter of time before a handful of companies will own TV, radio and newspaper properties along with key online services. This further interferes with the ability of mainstream news media to serve as an effective watchdog on government and big business.




Though the Internet was originally envisioned to serve the public interest, there is no guarantee it will continue to do so. Like radio, broadcast TV and cable, it will continue to be shaped by politics, telecommunication policies and the market. Web activists envision a medium that will always support social change and can serve as a platform to distribute diverse points of view. But if the economic relationships between the old and new media are allowed to dominate online culture, what guarantees do we have that the Internet will continue to be the "people's" medium? Events are moving quickly; media and telecommunications giants already have a powerful hold on members of Congress; regardless of which party is in power, it is unlikely our elected officials will deliver a federal policy that that puts the needs of citizens ahead of corporations.




That's why I suggest that progressives begin to get real--and get smart--about digital media. While we have a few reliable outlets--Democracy Now!, Alternet, Huffington Post and The Nation--the progressive community lacks a reliable well-connected broadband infrastructure that will deliver an array of news and cultural content to national and community audiences. I'm not talking about the wires and connections but about building a coalition of tech-savvy content providers that will deliver to PCs, TVs and cellphones a flow of alternative news and information challenging the status quo.



Imagine progressive organizations making smart deals with a variety of providers to carry this content deep in the heart of the digital distribution system. Imagine nimble, creative enterprises willing to experiment with new business models. Imagine having the courage to go beyond foundation grants and pledge drives and becoming adept at paying your own way. Imagine developing socially responsible advertising that respects personal privacy, is transparent about how data is collected and used, allows consumers to opt out of immersive experiences, fosters independent identity, builds community and supports social justice.



Foundations and the so-called Democracy Alliance have the potential to be the economic engines for such experiments and do the organizing necessary to patch together a content-challenge to the status quo.




As YouTube, Google, MySpace and immersive media marketing reshape the digital landscape, we need to be sure that public interest remains in the picture. And as tech-savvy progressive media find their place in that landscape, we must work together to build an online culture that not only pitches products but works for equity, social justice and the riches of a civil society.

Save the Internet

Imagine, wanting to donate money to a charity and not being able to open the nonprofit's web page because of the charity's inability to afford the dominant internet provider's fees required to make the page efficient? Imagine the millions of life-saving dollars these charities will lose if lobbyists get their way? What if your child is sick, and you can't gain access to a support group's page because the support group can't afford the fees? Or even scarier, imagine not gaining speedy access to a politician's views because the specific provider is against his or her ideology?
--Who's the Boss? star Alyssa Milano
Will the internet in the United States become, in the words of AT&T (SBC) CEO, their company's private "pipes"? Or will it remain, as the Supreme Court cited in 1997, "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed"? These two very different perspectives reflect what's at stake in the growing fight now in Congress over the internet's future.

A growing movement of online users, public advocates, internet "visionaries," bloggers, and online corporations are fighting to have Congress enact what are called "network neutrality" safeguards. Such rules would preserve the internet's essential democratic structure: All content would be required to flow into our PCs and digital devices in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner. Network neutrality would help ensure that internet serves the interests of diversity of speech. As the new Savetheinternet coalition put it, network neutrality is the equivalent of the internet's First Amendment.

But an unfettered open road is directly at odds with the broadband business plans of AT&T (formerly SBC), Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon. The cable and telephone industry see enormous revenues as operators of a private internet toll-road. How has the internet -- so diverse and unwieldly -- fallen into their hands? The answer is (of course) the Bush administration. Heavily lobbied by the cable and phone giants, the Bush Federal Communications Commission has been eliminating the rules that required the internet to operate in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Under the "old" policy governing what's called the "dial-up" internet, the public was guaranteed that their internet service provider (ISP) had to treat all online content in an unbiased manner. ISPs couldn't, for example, speed up the email or websites they liked, or decide to slow down content it didn't like (such as from a peace group). The former rules also permitted the public to choose from literally thousands of ISPs to connect them to the internet. Such federal safeguards have, sadly, now bitten the digital dust.

It's all about broadband

Verizon, Comcast and the others had former FCC chair Michael Powell and current chair Kevin Martin strip away these rules because they were an obstacle to their plans to dominate the high-speed internet, or broadband, market. If a purely open and nondiscriminatory internet remained, then anyone could distribute a movie or video program -- a serious threat to the cable industry's monopoly over TV distribution.

No one needs a "Ma Bell" anymore to bring us telephone service. Practically anyone can now use the internet to provide phone service (known as voice over internet protocol, or VoIP). In other words, if the internet remained a real First Amendment friendly pipeline, both the cable and phone industry would see their profits and power evaporate -- fast.

But it wasn't only to prevent competitors that spurred our new broadband bandits to action. With the federal nondiscrimination policy now toast, the phone and cable companies could embark in earnest with plans to -- in their words -- "monetize" digital distribution. Through their sole control over America's residential broadband pipes (they have more than 90 percent of the market), they planned to set up a multitiered and pay-as-you-go private internet highway.

There would be a new fast lane, giving the content owned by the phone, cable and other media giants, the fastest preferential treatment. Video and multimedia programming owned by AT&T and Comcast, for example, would be received lightning speed on PCs, digital TVs and mobile devices. Those that couldn't afford to pay would be relegated to what the phone and cable lobbyists derisively called the "public" internet.

This so-called public lane would be the equivalent of a digital dirt road, easily marginalized by the majority of the public that has come to enjoy ever-faster and more efficient connections. A slew of Silicon Valley tech companies, including Cisco, have built broadband delivery equipment that allows a phone or cable company to make business decisions about every packet of data that travels over its lines.

Imagine a private air traffic controller working for Airline X. Its planes would be given priority takeoff and landings -- while competitors and others slowly circle overhead. Only those who could afford to make a payoff (such as huge fees or a cut of their business) would be afforded similar treatment. The Bells and cable hoped that with this control over the data lines, their broadband content competitors would crash and burn.

The cable and telephone broadband scam, however, is now meeting intense opposition. First, there is a growing opposition movement against the privatization of the internet. Led by Free Press, there is a new "savetheinternet.org" coalition, representing a diverse group of activists, users and experts from across the political spectrum, including Gun Owners of America, the United Church of Christ and Craigslist's Craig Newmark.

Earlier in the week, this group and MoveOn.org helped flood the halls of Congress with emails and online petitions calling on the Congress to enact safeguards for "network neutrality." The power of the cable/telco alliance to determine the future of the U.S. internet has also alarmed many of the country's most powerful online companies -- such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. They have launched their own new coalition, called "Don't Mess with the Net.com."

The GOP -- led by Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Energy and Commerce Chair Joe Barton (Texas) -- is firmly in the grip of the broadband monopoly lobby. Yesterday, Barton's committee rejected a network neutrality provision, 34-22 (sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, among others). Helping the Republicans defeat the internet freedom measure were five Democrats, including Edolphus Townes (N.Y.), Albert Wynn (Md.), Charles A. Gonzalez (Texas), Bobby Rush (Ill.) and Gene Green (Texas). (It was the endorsement of Rep. Rush, a former activist, that permitted the Republicans to call their broadband bill a bipartisan effort).

But the growing outcry to protect the internet led to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's formally endorsing the network neutrality call. There is now growing optimism among "save the internet" supporters that the Senate, which will soon take up a broadband communications bill, will endorse a neutrality rule. A bipartisan plan to do just that has already been prepared by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Federal rules to ensure that the internet remains a democratic medium of expression is essential if the United States is to ever become a more just and civil society. In the emerging era, the nature of what will be a ubiquitious broadband communications system will greatly define us as a culture. It must be one where the voices of those calling for justice, health care, environmental protection and peace can resonate as loudly as the commercial messages brought to us by Time Warner and AT&T. Network neutrality, or internet freedom, is a necessary and critical step to make sure such voices are part of the mainstream -- not exiled to the digital dirt road.

Sign the petition HERE or contact your rep HERE.

The Dangers of Corporate Wi-Fi

The digital gold rush is on across America, as cities scramble to develop free or low-cost Wi-Fi zones. These public on-ramps to the Internet are designed to provide every citizen with a form of always-on, high-speed Internet access -- at the playground, in the office or at home -- at low or no cost.

Dozens of communities large and small, in red states and blue, are either planning or currently constructing Wi-Fi systems. Community leaders -- from Philadelphia; Houston; Columbia, South Carolina; and San Francisco, to name a few -- recognize that creating a citywide Wi-Fi zone is not only vital for economic development and public safety but helps insure that Americans who can't now afford digital communications on their own can also tap in to the riches and convenience of the Internet. But there is no such thing as a free digital lunch.

Consumers and public officials should have no illusions that what is being touted as a public benefit is also designed to spur the growth of a mobile marketing ecosystem, an emerging field of electronic commerce that is expected to generate huge revenues for Google, Microsoft, AT&T and many others. Soon, wherever we wander, a ubiquitous online environment will follow us with ads and information dovetailed to our interests and our geographic location.

Unless municipal leaders object, citizens and visitors will be subjected to intensive data-mining of their web searches, e-mail messages and other online activities are tracked, profiled and targeted. The inevitable consequences are an erosion of online privacy, potential new threats of surveillance by law enforcement agencies and private parties, and the growing commercialization of culture.

Mining your data

Consider the application submitted to the City of San Francisco in February by search giant Google and its partner, the Internet service provider Earthlink. One of six Wi-Fi bids being considered by the City of San Francisco, the Google/Earthlink plan has attracted the most attention. Under this proposal, Google would provide a free but relatively low-speed Internet service available throughout the city (Earthlink would operate a higher-speed service on the same system charging users $20 a month). The costs of operating the "free" service would be offset by Google's plans to use the network to promote its interactive advertising services.

Everyone who uses the Google network would first be directed to a portal page, where they would be offered an array of what Google terms "personalized consumer products." Through those products and other technologies, Google plans, according to its proposal, to "target advertisements to specific geographical locations and to user interests."

What this means is that Google and Earthlink plan to use online files (known as cookies) and other data-collection techniques to profile users and deliver precise, personalized advertising as they surf the Internet. (Earthlink is working with the interactive ad company DoubleClick, which collects and analyzes enormous amounts of information online to engage in individual interactive ad targeting.)

Not everyone is enthused by the Google/Earthlink model. San Francisco was advised by a trio of privacy advocates to develop policies that would respect personal privacy. In letters to the city, the ACLU of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) urged the adoption of a "gold standard" for data privacy, insuring that its Wi-Fi system would "accommodate the individual's right to communicate anonymously and pseudonymously." The groups also suggested that the city require any Wi-Fi company to allow users to "opt in" to any data-collection scheme. [Full disclosure: I rent office space in Washington, DC, from EPIC].

Scary syllables

These two syllables -- "opt in" -- strike terror in the hearts of Google, Microsoft, AOL and everyone else in the interactive marketing field. Opting in requires users to affirmatively give permission before any data can be collected. Individuals would be fully informed about how such information would be used (such as profiling, sharing with others, etc.). What companies want instead is an "opt-out" approach, in which the default is always set to collect and make full use of our personal information.

As EPIC's West Coast senior counsel Chris Hoofnagle explained, "The Google plan proposes to bargain away users' privacy for a trickle of Internet connectivity." Google will have an unprecedented ability to monitor use and build records of web activity. These records will be a honey pot for law enforcement. Individuals' privacy is worth more than a 300K download speed." (Other Wi-Fi applicants in San Francisco also favor opt-out data-collection technology. One applicant, the NextWLAN Corporation, envisions "an e-commerce monetized, fully captive, location-aware Internet portal." But also on the table is a proposal from the nonprofit Seakay that offers a free service and pledges no personal information will be collected online.

The interest San Francisco and other cities have in securing the financial support of commercial investors for their Wi-Fi grids in part reflects the success of the campaign run by the nation's largest cable and phone companies, which have opposed the idea of municipally owned and operated Internet service. Companies such as Comcast and AT&T view these low-cost local municipal competitors as a threat to what they believe is their rightful broadband monopoly businesses. Already, there have been lawsuits, lobbying and legislation against such municipal Internet services.

As a result of this pressure, cities are now seeking a more corporate-friendly approach to provide what should really be a public utility operated for everyone's benefit. Too many local governments are embracing a model for Wi-Fi, says advocate and expert Sascha Meinrath, that creates a system more favorable to "billable moments" than one designed to truly connect communities together.

Instead of creating yet another e-commerce stomping ground, San Francisco and other cities should understand that real alternatives do exist to the corporate model of municipal Wi-Fi being peddled by Google and its cohorts. It is possible to develop community networks that reflect our highest principles, including the right to personal privacy, and the cost of building such networks can be very low. There are already successful publicly supported models. St. Cloud, Florida, a city of 30,000, has built a free Wi-Fi service for its residents, seeing it as an important public service. The city has been able to build and operate the network, reduce its telecommunications costs and generate new economic opportunities.

Building a Wi-Fi network this way brings in economic development and saves the city money on telecommunications. At a time of growing media consolidation and emerging threats to the future of the Internet, America needs to create online systems that are democratically run and commerce-neutral, that protect the privacy of the citizens they serve.

The End of the Internet

The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online.

Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants are developing strategies that would track and store information on our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency.

According to white papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and telecommunications industries, those with the deepest pockets -- corporations, special-interest groups and major advertisers -- would get preferred treatment. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out.

Under the plans they are considering, all of us -- from content providers to individual users -- would pay more to surf online, stream videos or even send e-mail. Industry planners are mulling new subscription plans that would further limit the online experience, establishing "platinum," "gold" and "silver" levels of Internet access that would set limits on the number of downloads, media streams or even e-mail messages that could be sent or received.

To make this pay-to-play vision a reality, phone and cable lobbyists are now engaged in a political campaign to further weaken the nation's communications policy laws. They want the federal government to permit them to operate Internet and other digital communications services as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. Indeed, both the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are considering proposals that will have far-reaching impact on the Internet's future. Ten years after passage of the ill-advised Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone and cable companies are using the same political snake oil to convince compromised or clueless lawmakers to subvert the Internet into a turbo-charged digital retail machine.

The telephone industry has been somewhat more candid than the cable industry about its strategy for the Internet's future. Senior phone executives have publicly discussed plans to begin imposing a new scheme for the delivery of Internet content, especially from major Internet content companies. As Ed Whitacre, chairman and CEO of AT&T, told Business Week in November, "Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment, and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"

The phone industry has marshaled its political allies to help win the freedom to impose this new broadband business model. At a recent conference held by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank funded by Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and other media companies, there was much discussion of a plan for phone companies to impose fees on a sliding scale, charging content providers different levels of service. "Price discrimination," noted PFF's resident media expert Adam Thierer, "drives the market-based capitalist economy."

Net Neutrality
To ward off the prospect of virtual toll booths on the information highway, some new media companies and public-interest groups are calling for new federal policies requiring "network neutrality" on the Internet. Common Cause, Amazon, Google, Free Press, Media Access Project and Consumers Union, among others, have proposed that broadband providers would be prohibited from discriminating against all forms of digital content. For example, phone or cable companies would not be allowed to slow down competing or undesirable content.

Without proactive intervention, the values and issues that we care about -- civil rights, economic justice, the environment and fair elections -- will be further threatened by this push for corporate control. Imagine how the next presidential election would unfold if major political advertisers could make strategic payments to Comcast so that ads from Democratic and Republican candidates were more visible and user-friendly than ads of third-party candidates with less funds.

Consider what would happen if an online advertisement promoting nuclear power prominently popped up on a cable broadband page, while a competing message from an environmental group was relegated to the margins. It is possible that all forms of civic and noncommercial online programming would be pushed to the end of a commercial digital queue.

But such "neutrality" safeguards are inadequate to address more fundamental changes the Bells and cable monopolies are seeking in their quest to monetize the Internet. If we permit the Internet to become a medium designed primarily to serve the interests of marketing and personal consumption, rather than global civic-related communications, we will face the political consequences for decades to come. Unless we push back, the "brandwashing" of America will permeate not only our information infrastructure but global society and culture as well.

Why are the Bells and cable companies aggressively advancing such plans? With the arrival of the long-awaited "convergence" of communications, our media system is undergoing a major transformation. Telephone and cable giants envision a potential lucrative "triple play," as they impose near-monopoly control over the residential broadband services that send video, voice and data communications flowing into our televisions, home computers, cell phones and iPods. All of these many billions of bits will be delivered over the telephone and cable lines.

Video programming is of foremost interest to both the phone and cable companies. The telephone industry, like its cable rival, is now in the TV and media business, offering customers television channels, on-demand videos and games. Online advertising is increasingly integrating multimedia (such as animation and full-motion video) in its pitches. Since video-driven material requires a great deal of Internet bandwidth as it travels online, phone and cable companies want to make sure their television "applications" receive preferential treatment on the networks they operate. And their overall influence over the stream of information coming into your home (or mobile device) gives them the leverage to determine how the broadband business evolves.

Mining Your Data
At the core of the new power held by phone and cable companies are tools delivering what is known as "deep packet inspection." With these tools, AT&T and others can readily know the packets of information you are receiving online -- from e-mail, to websites, to sharing of music, video and software downloads.

These "deep packet inspection" technologies are partly designed to make sure that the Internet pipeline doesn't become so congested it chokes off the delivery of timely communications. Such products have already been sold to universities and large businesses that want to more economically manage their Internet services. They are also being used to limit some peer-to-peer downloading, especially for music.

But these tools are also being promoted as ways that companies, such as Comcast and Bell South, can simply grab greater control over the Internet. For example, in a series of recent white papers, Internet technology giant Cisco urges these companies to "meter individual subscriber usage by application," as individuals' online travels are "tracked" and "integrated with billing systems." Such tracking and billing is made possible because they will know "the identity and profile of the individual subscriber," "what the subscriber is doing" and "where the subscriber resides."

Will Google, Amazon and the other companies successfully fight the plans of the Bells and cable companies? Ultimately, they are likely to cut a deal because they, too, are interested in monetizing our online activities. After all, as Cisco notes, content companies and network providers will need to "cooperate with each other to leverage their value proposition." They will be drawn by the ability of cable and phone companies to track "content usage…by subscriber," and where their online services can be "protected from piracy, metered, and appropriately valued."

Our Digital Destiny
It was former FCC chairman Michael Powell, with the support of then-commissioner and current chair Kevin Martin, who permitted phone and cable giants to have greater control over broadband. Powell and his GOP majority eliminated longstanding regulatory safeguards requiring phone companies to operate as nondiscriminatory networks (technically known as "common carriers"). He refused to require that cable companies, when providing Internet access, also operate in a similar nondiscriminatory manner. As Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig has long noted, it is government regulation of the phone lines that helped make the Internet today's vibrant, diverse and democratic medium.

But now, the phone companies are lobbying Washington to kill off what's left of "common carrier" policy. They wish to operate their Internet services as fully "private" networks. Phone and cable companies claim that the government shouldn't play a role in broadband regulation: Instead of the free and open network that offers equal access to all, they want to reduce the Internet to a series of business decisions between consumers and providers.

Besides their business interests, telephone and cable companies also have a larger political agenda. Both industries oppose giving local communities the right to create their own local Internet wireless or wi-fi networks. They also want to eliminate the last vestige of local oversight from electronic media -- the ability of city or county government, for example, to require telecommunications companies to serve the public interest with, for example, public-access TV channels. The Bells also want to further reduce the ability of the FCC to oversee communications policy. They hope that both the FCC and Congress -- via a new Communications Act -- will back these proposals.

The future of the online media in the United States will ultimately depend on whether the Bells and cable companies are allowed to determine the country's "digital destiny." So before there are any policy decisions, a national debate should begin about how the Internet should serve the public. We must insure that phone and cable companies operate their Internet services in the public interest -- as stewards for a vital medium for free expression.

If Americans are to succeed in designing an equitable digital destiny for themselves, they must mount an intensive opposition similar to the successful challenges to the FCC's media ownership rules in 2003. Without such a public outcry to rein in the GOP's corporate-driven agenda, it is likely that even many of the Democrats who rallied against further consolidation will be "tamed" by the well-funded lobbying campaigns of the powerful phone and cable industry.

Time for a Digital Fairness Doctrine

The debate on Sinclair Broadcasting's plans to air an anti-John Kerry documentary on its 62 stations underscores the need for new national safeguards for the electronic media in the U.S. Policies that ensure that digital media – including cable, satellite, and the broadband Internet – have an obligation to provide diverse viewpoints are more necessary than ever.

While we must address the issue of bias in broadcasting, the principle at stake is bigger and has more far-reaching implications.

Until the late '80s, the broadcasting industry was governed by a set of rules, better known as the "Fairness Doctrine," which required stations to operate in the "public interest." This included the requirement that stations must offer a variety of viewpoints that reflect opposing perspectives, and that they operate in a "fair" manner while doing so. Broadcasters also had to ensure they would treat a wide variety of politically related speech fairly, including ballot initiatives and personal attacks on the character or honesty of an individual and group.

The broadcast lobby and their allies successfully won repeal of much of the "Fairness Doctrine" during the late '80s. The Reagan/Bush Sr. FCC was notoriously aligned with the broadcast lobby. Since that time, the National Association of Broadcasters has successfully fought against its re-imposition using the spurious argument that the Fairness Doctrine harms the First Amendment rights of the media. The leading advocate for the Doctrine – Media Access Project – has never had the resources it needed for an effective campaign to restore it.

The rise of conservative talk radio is directly linked to the absence of the Fairness Doctrine. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the myriad of shrill right-wing talk jocks are immune from having to provide even a modicum of balanced perspective. Media consolidation has greatly fueled the problem, creating powerful station chains with a distinct political perspective, such as Clear Channel and Sinclair Broadcasting. While on cable and satellite networks, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel offers conservative commentary thinly disguised as journalism.

Conglomeration and deregulation has also weakened what little capability TV and radio networks possessed to engage in serious news reporting. All of these developments have created a one-sided (and highly crazed) media environment where opinion has replaced journalism, and ideology and ownership shape what audiences see and hear.

Broadcasters, however, are still licensed to serve the public interest and receive invaluable free access to public airwaves. It is time to restore the full measure of rules that require stations to provide a balance of perspectives. But safeguarding public interest requires not just reinstating the Fairness Doctrine but also new safeguards that reflect the realities of today's digital landscape.

The majority of Americans – around 87 percent – receive their TV service from "multichannel" providers, i.e., either cable TV or direct broadcast satellite (DBS). The handful of conglomerates that control cable and DBS keep a tight rein over programming. As we move toward digital broadcasting, companies such as Comcast, Time Warner and Murdoch's DirecTV will have even greater gatekeeping clout, especially in the emerging world of "personalized" TV, where content can be targeted directly to individuals. These companies will also control access to vital "choke points," including set top box controlled personal video recorders, that will determine what content a viewer can access.

The broadband Internet is not immune either. New policies for cable and telephone broadband by the Bush FCC give "last mile" control of content to monopolies like Comcast, SBC and Verizon. For example, there's nothing to prevent them from speeding up online advocacy ads to your in-box that support their favored political causes.

What's to be done?

A new national policy on "fairness" is needed, along with restored rules on media ownership and forward-thinking approaches to reducing the role of money for paid electronic advertising. All legally qualified candidates and ballot initiatives should have access to viewers, able to distribute campaign information directly (and without having to buy "time"). TV channels should be required to promote public awareness to this information. Cable and satellite network owners should be required to provide on-demand channel or program capacity to any bona fide news operation. These measures will help break the stranglehold the companies have over news, permitting the emergence of (hopefully) more services geared towards substantive coverage.

For broadband, the Congress (or a different FCC) must require that network operators treat all content in a non-discriminatory manner. Such a policy has long been at the core of the Internet's evolution. FCC Chair Michael Powell, as part of his "Leave No Media Monopoly Behind" regime, has crafted new rules that will help the big cable and telephone companies to stealthily change how the Internet serves the public. Expect broadband service to be further commercialized and "monetized," as the industry likes to say. That's why we need a new "Fairness" rule to ensure that all political and news content can flow unimpeded to users.

Radio and TV broadcasters should have to provide the full range of safeguards in return for being allowed to use a public resource for free.

It's time now to develop a "Fairness Doctrine" agenda that strengthens democratic discourse. A decade from now, we don't want to witness a "digital" Sinclair debacle, where Rupert Murdoch, Comcast, and BellSouth "push" their favorite candidate for president, using the hundreds of TV channels and broadband connections at their command. New policies are required now, to help make clear what we mean by the "public interest, convenience, and necessity," of the digital era.

A Congressional Gift to Media Biz

On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission will announce new policies on U.S. media ownership.

The shame is that nobody is telling the public what these new policies mean. That might be because so many of the changes are bad ideas or not in the public interest. Here are some lowlights:

Current safeguards limiting the number of TV stations a single company can own both locally and nationally are expected to be weakened.

The big four commercial TV networks will be allowed to buy more stations, and broadcasters will likely be able to operate two or even three stations in a community (known in the trade as "duopolies" and "triopolies").

A long-standing rule that currently prevents a single owner from controlling both a community's major daily and a TV station may be overturned.

The New York Times Co. is just one of the major media firms that have asked the FCC to make a major policy change. Under chairman Michael Powell and his Republican majority, the Times Co. has found a sympathetic ally in its quest for "deregulation." In the last few weeks, some of the industry's most powerful CEOs have personally lobbied the FCC, including Viacom's Mel Karmazin, NBC's Robert Wright, and Fox's Rupert Murdoch. They have been joined by a long list of other well-connected media lobbyists, representing Belo, Tribune and the Newspaper Association of America.

Changes these companies are proposing would help further transform the U.S. media landscape, affecting journalism and TV programming. There would be even fewer owners of TV stations, cable systems, and newspapers. Yet for the most part, the media industry has failed to inform the public about what the implications of such changes might be, let alone how their own company stands to benefit from such a decision.

The debate over media ownership policy could (and should) fill up a significant part of the front page of this and other papers. But what's most distressing is the relative paucity of such coverage. Television -- especially the main network newscasts -- has all but ignored the issue.

The story of how the U.S. media world is being transformed as it proceeds with a transition to a largely digital system is linked with the current efforts at the FCC to end ownership limits. Companies want to position themselves to be media megagiants, with clout over more stations, cable channels, and newspapers (what the industry calls adding additional "platforms").

Yet the failure to report effectively on the implications of what the media companies are doing, both in Washington and in the marketplace, is an example of what's alarming about consolidation of media outlets into fewer and fewer hands. As media companies grow larger, with more financial links to other interests, what will happen to the critical watchdog role of news media? Specifically, in the digital age, which media entities with the power to inform the country will be able to serve as a check on the power and influence of their peers?

One example is the New York Times. Last year, the Times Corp. invested $100 million in Discovery Communications, making it a 50 percent owner of what is now known as the Discovery Times Channel. But the Times investment now makes it a partner with Discovery's owners, including Cox, Liberty Media, and Advance Newhouse. Yet with the exception of a single 367-word story last April, readers might not realize that the paper's owners have made a significant decision to expand into cable programming (including such ventures as the New England Sports Network). They are likely also unaware of the Times' new relationship with powerful cable TV interests.

Nor has the paper ever informed readers about the consequences of the Times Co.'s December 2001 filing at the FCC asking it to dismantle the policy on broadcast and newspaper cross-ownership. The Times isn't alone in this omission. In mid-April, the Belo Corp. wrote to FCC Chairman Powell that it was now advocating a new policy that would permit greater consolidation. Yet its flagship Dallas Morning-News didn't report on it.

The country is at a crossroads on media ownership. At stake ultimately are the First Amendment rights of the public to a system that promotes free speech and serves as a mechanism of private and public accountability. The media industry should use the next month to inform the country fully about the consequences of ownership changes, and what they may mean for democracy.

Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy.

Showdown at the FCC

The Bush Administration will soon hand the nation's biggest media conglomerates a new give-away that will concentrate media ownership in fewer hands. On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission, run by Michael Powell (son of Colin), plans to end long-standing federal checks and balances on corporate media power.

Companies behind the measure include the powerhouses of corporate media power: Rupert Murdoch's News Corp/Fox., General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, Tribune Corp and Clear Channel. Once the rules are swept away, expect to see more mergers and buy-outs of radio and TV stations, major papers and even TV networks. It will then soon be possible for a single conglomerate to control most of a community's major media outlets, including cable systems and broadband Internet service providers. There will be fewer owners nationally of all major media outlets of communications.

Right-wing powerhouses are also likely to grow more powerful soon, unless opposed. Rupert Murdoch's Fox is planning to take over the country's most powerful satellite service, Direct TV. He will be able not only to control access to millions of households, he will use it as a "Death Star" to further expand his broadcast and cable TV empires. Meanwhile, liberals -- let alone progressives -- have no ownership influence over any major media outlet.

This is all happening despite the fact that growing numbers of the public are willing to stand up and express their unhappiness with the way media conglomerates are using the public airwaves. As Neil Hickey describes in his article, "The Gathering Storm Over Media Ownership," in hearings across the country there has been a huge outpouring of public concern and anxiety about the direction of the media system.

Not surprisingly, the media conglomerates thirst for more control as they seek to end media ownership limits. What all this means for our nation hasn't been covered by the media. There has been no TV network news coverage on the impending media give-away. Nor have the major dailies explained to readers what their lobbyists are doing and how such changes will affect journalism, politics and the public's First Amendment rights to a system fostering diversity of viewpoints and expression.

A rare exception was a recent column in the New York Times by conservative pundit William Safire arguing that the media system is hiding the real story because it is unwilling to "expose the broadcast lobby's pressure on Congress and the courts to allow station owners to gobble up more stations and cross-own local newspapers, thereby to determine what information residents of a local market receive."

The proposed FCC rule changes will further weaken the ability of mainstream journalism to serve as a critical public safeguard. Soon, reporters at newspapers will have to pay attention to whether they get TV ratings, once their papers become part of larger TV empires concerned about promoting advertising and "brandwashing." More importantly, the country will have even fewer gatekeepers over the news and popular culture that informs much of public consciousness. (Read more about this problem from media mogul Barry Diller, who made many revealing statements to Bill Moyers on a recent edition of his program NOW, on PBS.)

As recent TV coverage of the Iraq war illustrates, US media companies aren't interested in providing a serious range of analysis and debate. "Embedded" reporters present information from a point of view shared with U.S. soldiers. News outlets hire retired military generals to dish up the prominent "expert" point of view. Journalists regurgitate communiqués disseminated by the Pentagon. Corporate TV stations avoid feeding viewers information and images they "don't like" such as coverage of civilian casualties and protests. The network that 36 percent of people watch for their primary war coverage (Fox News, according to a recent Gallup poll), is a deliberately conservative mouthpiece. Furthermore, for the media companies to be heavily lobbying the Bush administration for give-aways that will net them billions of dollars -- while they are providing mostly uncritical coverage of the war -- gets to the crux of our media problem. Danny Schechter of the Media Channel provides more details of this media conglomerate war cheerleading collusion in "War Coverage Rewrites History."

The FCC's Powell is also promoting massive consolidation in cable TV and with online communications for this summer. Soon just two massive cable companies -- Comcast and AOL Time Warner -- may be legally permitted to own almost all of the nation's cable TV systems. And Powell has already removed critical safeguards that will enable cable and telephone giants to dominate high-speed Internet access -- which has alarmed the ACLU (and even other monopolists like Microsoft and Disney).

Some key members of Congress may be undergoing some reality therapy as citizens are forcing them to confront the stark ramifications of the media deregulation they have enabled. One overwhelming result of their actions, for example, is the Clear Channel Communications buying spree (the company now owns more than 1200 radio stations), which has run roughshod over the nation's commercial radio system, turning it into a wasteland of conformity and commercialism. In contrast, back in 1996, the combined total of the number of stations owned by the two largest radio chains was a mere 115. Eric Boehlert, as part of a powerful and detailed series on Salon.com on media concentration, explains how the Clear Channel situation may be producing a backlash.

A less known but also disturbing trend is represented by another conservative company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which, as Paul Schmelzer writes in "The Death of Local News," is pioneering the frightening model of local news from a central sources thousands of miles away from the market. Meanwhile, perhaps unrelated to media concentration, but clearly connected to the war, female voices have just about disappeared from the media as documented by Caryl Rivers from Women's ENews.

Despite all the bad news, Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project offers: "These decisions in June are hardly the end of it. There is a real effort to keep the FCC in check going forward. Cable ownership rules are up for review this summer. There will be a spate of mergers after the rules change, and organizing may be able to beat some of them back, and pushes for legislation to gain back some of what has been lost."

But in the big picture, unfortunately, elected officials have been silent about what will be the most significant changes in media diversity rules since the Reagan era. It's time to send Congress a message that they should speak up now and defend the right to free speech, competition and ownership diversity in the digital age. To make your voice heard go to MediaReform.net, a comprehensive website that makes it easy for you to register your protest about the FCC's media deregulation policies.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.org. Jeffrey Chester is the director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Time Is Now to Fight for Future of TV

The rising tide of protest against U.S. media coverage of the war should also signal the need for a new progressive strategy about the future of the media system. Recent marches across the country protesting the networks, and a new focus by Moveon.org on media issues are vitally important. But they don't address the need to take advantage of fundamental changes taking place and alter how our media system is structured. The time is ripe, given all the activism and commitment now in place, to direct our energy towards achieving long-term positive changes for our media system.

A major transformation that is underway is reshaping broadcasting, cable and the Internet. The TV system in the U.S. is being reorganized because of digital technology, which should provide new opportunities for progressives to directly offer channels and program services to the vast majority of television households. But unless progressives and their allies pursue a proactive strategy, they will continue to be as marginalized as we are today.

The emerging structure of the television industry will flow primarily from cable television, a monopoly service that already serves 70 percent of all U.S. viewers (direct broadcast satellite controls the next 15 percent, with over-the-air broadcast serving the remainder). In the future, both cable and satellite companies will be sending their programming via servers, storage devices that will deliver programs and channels to individual households. There will be more channels since cable broadband technology can distribute a greater range of programming options. Already, more than 20 million U.S. cable households receive digital service. Within the next five to seven years, digital set-top and other connections will serve the vast majority of the viewing public.

But mainstream commercial programmers intend to keep a tight control over this new media landscape, dimming the possibility for the inclusion of alternative voices. Their goal is to use the new technology to make TV an even more potent commercial medium through targeted advertising. For example, Comcast, the nation's largest cable television and broadband Internet Service Provider, is now testing on-demand delivery by offering Philadelphia viewers 1500 hours of programming, with half of it for free (but with ads). Working with its partner NBC, Comcast intends to provide its captive viewers with the programs and channels of its choice to store on their server.

The next-generation of set-top boxes will also allow viewers to download and store programming on the hard-drive of their personal video recorder or PVR (similar to what Tivo today provides to more than 500,000 "early users"). Control of the PVR will be partly under the influence of the cable or satellite company since they provide the download connections that make such a device "intelligent." TV will also be interactive and personalized. Leading the way are people like Rupert Murdoch, whose company NDS is building cutting-edge software for television's next technological leap.

Cable also intends to effectively mold the future of the Internet as more households select broadband online connections. Both cable and large phone companies have recently secured new policies at the FCC that allow them to deny access to other ISPs -- in effect, they will become broadband monopolies. Cable's new set-top boxes include high-speed internet access and wireless connections. They hope that a single "bundle" of services, attractive to many users, will foreclose competition from alternatives.

The commercial cable and broadcast conglomerates have no intention of sharing their "broadband wealth" with others. Even PBS recently complained to the FCC that the cable industry is refusing to carry their proposed new digital channels. The FCC will soon allow even fewer companies -- perhaps as few as two -- to own the majority of cable systems. And although the Writers Guild of America (West) recently complained to the Commission that just five companies already control the vast majority of all the major television channels, the FCC will also soon permit more consolidation as it weakens media ownership safeguards as early as June.

A broadband system possesses the capacity to offer progressives and other groups the opportunity to create new channels and programming services by using a variety of business models. Imagine, for example, that 500,000 progressives agreed to pay $5 a month to support a news service. With a $30 million a year programming budget, that channel could be made available for free and seriously challenge the timidity of both commercial and public TV. A whole range of news and cultural services could be created, including ensuring that independent producers have access to the servers, PVRs, and electronic programming guides that will be at the heart of the new interactive TV landscape. But first we have to secure access to the treasure trove of channel capacity held by cable and satellite companies.

What can be done? First, progressives will have to craft a legislative strategy that breaks the cable and satellite stranglehold over channel capacity. They will have to mount efforts at the local level as well, challenging the ways in which cable, for example, intends to serve the public with its new technology. Finally, they will have to develop plans that will lead to the creation of real programming alternatives. While we should continue to pressure the networks through demonstrations and other efforts, we must also strive for more long-term fundamental changes.

The history of U.S. communications in the twentieth century was marked by a striking common theme. During each major transition to a new medium -- radio, broadcasting, or cable -- the media industry assured the public that they would use their new capacity to serve the public interest. But once they were able to lobby away any policy safeguards, the networks served only their narrow commercial goals.

Unless progressives embrace a strategy to intervene in the emerging digital TV marketplace, they may find themselves locked into a future commercial media system that once again marginalizes critical analysis and dissent. Let's avoid that rerun.

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. His book "America's Digital Destiny (and what you can do about it)" will be published by The New Press.

Minority Ownership of Major Media Going Extinct

For decades, civil rights groups and others have expressed concern about the shocking lack of ownership of major media outlets by persons of color. The numbers of newspapers and TV stations owned by non-white companies has always been appallingly low (and these figures have become even more dismal since the passage of the deregulatory 1996 Telecommunications Act). But increasing media concentration and a new FCC policy on the Internet will likely make any hope of greater ownership diversity well nigh impossible.

While a consortium of groups representing civil rights concerns have been meeting with broadcast network officials to discuss concerns over representation and employment, there has been little focus on issues related to control and ownership. As a result, despite their growth in the population, persons of color may continue to play, at best, "supporting" roles when it comes to making decisions about how the media system should effectively reflect their interests. Ironically, although there is no longer any physical limitation to the number of TV channels or new digital services that can be created, tight media industry control is ushering in a new era of scarcity. So while there should be new minority-owned local and national channels, it is unlikely to happen. Instead we will see an extension of white-owned conglomerates controlling handpicked channels to serve African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and others as an extension of the commercial marketplace.

Two major networks-BET and Telemundo-have recently been swallowed up by conglomerates-Viacom/CBS and GE/NBC respectively. If Hispanics wanted any proof that, despite their protestations, NBC views them in stereotypic terms, one has only to look at a recent report in the show-biz trade publication Electronic Media. In a prominent three-page color ad spread, NBC touted its control over Telemundo and the new mun2 channel "created for young Latino viewers." NBC's new motto claimed proudly in boldface type: "We speak the language. We live the culture." But how NBC truly understands the Latino audience is best observed while reading an accompanying EM news article about the Hispanic market. NBC's commitment to the culture, it turns out, includes a "planned mid-season replacement show, 'Kingpin,' [which] is an hour-long drama centered on a family of Mexican drug dealers." We also learn that "NBC aims to foster new talent by hosting open-mic nights for ethnic stand-up comics and by producing showcases for actors of color." All of this is an attempt by NBC to cash in on what people in the entertainment industry say is one of the "hot" markets-Hispanic-focused programming. It is expected that the top 10 advertisers will spend $286 million alone targeting them in 2003.

Hope that there will be greater diversity and creative freedom to establish cable channels is also now threatened, due to industry mega-mergers like the recent AT&T and Comcast marriage. Comcast and AOL Time Warner, for example, intend to exploit their cable monopoly clout and establish new national and local channels focused on minority audiences. These channels will be firmly under their control, reducing the possibility of independent, alternative fare.

For example, according to trade reports, Comcast will soon unveil "services targeting the Hispanic and African-American communities…." According to Multichannel News, Comcast has insisted on "operational control" of these channels, including one backed by rap music notable Russell Simmons and another by actor-producer Tim Reid. Comcast is also said to be in discussions with GE/NBC about co-investing in a number of new Spanish-channels. NBC swallowed up Telemundo this year, the second largest Spanish-language cable service.

AOL Time Warner, the country's second largest cable company, plans to establish a new local Spanish-language cable news channel in New York. Last March it launched "Bay News 9 en Espanol" in Tampa, Florida. AOLTW may also create several Spanish-language local cable weather channels as well.

These cable giants will also be able to dominate online distribution as well, since cable will be a major provider of high-speed Internet service, Both Comcast and AOLTW have successfully lobbied the FCC to eliminate any requirements that would require them to operate their broadband pipes in a manner that might permit new minority ventures-whether commercial or noncommercial-to succeed.

Unless there is greater activism on media issues, it is likely that the pattern of control today by a few major conglomerates over the US media system will continue into the digital age. And hopes for greater diversity of ownership by communities of color will fade out.

Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

The Death Of The Internet

The Internet’s promise as a new medium -- where text, audio, video and data can be freely exchanged -- is under attack by the corporations that control the public’s access to the 'Net, as they see opportunities to monitor and charge for the content people seek and send. The industry’s vision is the online equivalent of seizing the taxpayer-owned airways, as radio and television conglomerates did over the course of the 20th century.

To achieve this, the cable industry, which sells Internet access to most Americans, is pursuing multiple strategies to closely monitor and tightly control subscribers and their use of the net. One element can be seen in industry lobbying for new use-based pricing schemes, which has been widely reported in trade press. Related to this is the industry’s new public relations campaign, which seeks to introduce a new "menace" into the pricing debate and boost their case, the so-called "bandwidth hog."

But beyond political and press circles are another equally important development: new technologies being developed and embraced that can, in practice, transform today's open Internet into a new industry-regulated system that will prevent or discourage people from using the net for file-sharing, internet radio and video, and peer-to-peer communications. These are not merely the most popular cutting-edge applications used by young people; they also are the tools for fundamental new ways of conducting business and politics.

These goals and objectives are visible to anyone who cares to look at the arcane world of telecommunications policy and planning, either in the industry trade press or government documents. The bottom line is the industry want to kill the Internet as we know it.

Take a minute and wade through this bit of arcana -- and ponder its implications.

"The IP Service Control System from Ellacoya Networks gives the Broadband Operator ‘Total Service Control’ to closely monitor and tightly control its subscribers, network and offerings." So reads the Web site of Ellacoya.com, a relatively new firm, describing the business-to-business service that it is selling to large Internet service providers.

Ellacoya is backed by Wall Street investment powerhouse, Goldman Sachs, which sees a major opportunity to turn around the red ink-plagued broadband sector. Continuing, the website explains, "Establishing Total Service control enables operators to better manage traffic on the network, [and] easily introduce a range of tiered and usage based service plans... Talkative applications, especially peer-to-peer programs like KaZaA and Morpheus, tend to fill all of the available bandwidth... The IP Service Control System allows operators to identify, limit and report on these aggressive applications."

The fundamental character of the Internet today is that it lacks precisely these kinds of tolls, barriers and gatekeepers. But technology like Ellacoya’s hardware and software is not just an enticing idea; it’s more of a silver bullet for beleaguered telecom executives. It’s being tested in industry trials and points to the kind of Internet the industry would like to develop over the next few years. The way telecom corporations get from today’s open-access Internet to their version of the future starts by changing how people pay for the net.


Industry's New Business Plan
Most people now pay a flat fee for online access. But the big media companies offering Internet service; Comcast, ATT, AOL -- would like to change that, and already have in a few test locations.

The broadband industry’s plans to institute tiered pricing have been widely reported in its trade press. There are numerous articles about replacing today’s open 'Net environment with industry-self-described versions of "walled gardens" or "Internet Lite." (See "Cable Operators Seek to Corral Bandwidth Hogs", Cable Datacom News, 10/01/02) The central feature of these proposals is much like telephone companies; there’s a price plan for everyone.

To make the case to regulators that such pricing is fair and overdue, cable operators have begun a PR effort, spinning that a small percent of users account for a disproportionately large amount of bandwidth used on broadband networks. They’ve created and embraced the pejorative term, "bandwidth hog," to describe those -- such as music-obsessed college students -- who find robust uses for high-speed connections. Already major news sources, such as the BBC, and technology journalists are using the term in their reports.

To deal with this "problem," the companies are considering a variety of approaches to ensure they remain in full control of their bandwidth -- unless consumers can afford to pay the hefty access fees. Under a typical plan, a user would be allotted a limited amount of bandwidth per month, and would be charged extra fees for going over this amount. This approach isn’t very different from the software industry, where the free versions of an application are intended to frustrate and prompt people to buy the ‘better’ version.

Bandwidth caps have already been implemented in Canada by major Internet service provider Sympatico, Inc., and observers have been quick to note that the limit -- 5 GB per month -- would effectively restrict regular use of emerging applications such as Internet radio, streaming media and video-on-demand.

Consider this excerpt from an article about Sympatico’s bandwidth caps in the May 6 edition of Toronto Globe and Mail by reporter Jack Kapica.


A classic conflict has arisen over streaming media, especially of radio. In a recent letter to globetechnology.com, Andrew Cole, manager of media relations for Bell Sympatico, defended the 5GB bit cap, saying that "In my experience, Internet radio stations usually transmit at approximately 20 Kbps. This equates to 1.2MB per minute, or 72MB per hour. At this rate, a HSE customer could enjoy 70 hours of Internet Radio per month and remain within the bandwidth usage plan."

But a 20-Kbps stream is considered poor quality by many people who tune into Internet-based radio stations for such things as classical music concerts. For these people, audio quality streamed at 20 Kbps has been described as "pathetic at best, somewhat akin to AM radio" by Tony Petrilli of Level Platforms Inc. of Ottawa.

"Decent audio quality starts at 56 Kbps to 64 Kbps, and really gets acceptable only around 100 Kbps," he said. This alone, continued Mr. Petrilli, "will blow the cap, let alone any other form of surfing, such as looking at movie trailers or even reading Web-based news. Heaven forbid that someone listens to 90 minutes a day of quality Internet radio. That way we'd blow the cap in 20 days.

When you consider the fact that the largest American telecommunications firms are often part of the same mega-corporation with music, video or movie-producing entertainment divisions -- such as AOL-Time Warner -- you can see how an industry-regulated Internet would handily end music and movie industry worries about Napster-like file swapping by people who don’t want to pay industry-monopolized retail prices for content.

Thus, the strategic and technically feasible solutions embodied by companies such as Ellacoya is obviously why Goldman-Sachs was keen to invest in the firm -- as it offers the actual means to monetize the net and turn around the revenue-poor broadband sector.

According to Ellacoya’s technical datasheet, operators can create "up to 51,000 unique policies that can be combined to generate limitless numbers of subscriber policies." Such rules, they explain, can either permit, deny, priority queues, address lock, rate limit or redirect access. The same technology also poses new concerns over privacy, since Ellacoya's technology "collects usage statistics for subscribers and applications, capturing service events, session details, and byte counts.... Operators can 'stamp' the subscribers identity on all records."


The Industry Spin
The cable industry will argue that such ubiquitous control systems and restrictive pricing structures are necessary to resolve bandwidth backups. But the fact is, this cannot be the case, because cable systems are constructed to avoid bandwidth shortages. But don't take my word for it.

Mike LaJoie, vice president for advanced technology at AOL-Time Warner told MultiChannel News, "The way that the HFC (hybrid fiber coaxial) architecture works, we never run out of bandwidth," LaJoie said. "We can always split or do other things that will give us the bandwidth that we want, so it really ends up being a desire to provide the best and highest experience for our customers." (See "HD on VOD Searches for Resolution", Multichannel News, 09/30/02) What these statements make clear is that the cable industry's goal for broadband is to monetize bandwidth. By charging a toll for every bit, the industry can simultaneously extract great profits from the new applications that it allows on its networks, as well as restrict access to those that it finds problematic, i.e. those that compete with its own content offerings. In short, the industry finally sees a way to make money online.

Of course, these calculations are utterly self-serving, ignoring the fact that the net was developed with tax dollars and has been an incubator for an array of innovations that extend far beyond creating new profit centers for big media companies. The envisioned control structures will inhibit robust Internet use by early broadband adopters, and discourage development of new high-speed applications such as Internet-based telephone and video-on-demand, thus slowing overall broadband growth.

Worse, this business model will erect high economic and technical barriers to entry for non-commercial and public interest uses of the high-speed Internet, threatening civic discourse, artistic expression and non-profit communications. In moving to implement this highly centralized vision for broadband, the cable industry does not simply ignore the democratic and competitive history of the Internet -- it is actively hostile to it.

Consumption-based pricing and other restrictive access controls contradict the spirit of openness and innovation that built the Internet in the first place, and will do irreparable harm to its future as a medium for small business initiatives, non-commercial users and democratic discourse. New threats to privacy are also clear, given the intrusive nature of the technology to closely monitor all online use. If you think spam is bad now...


And Where Is The FCC?
This new threat to online communications is a direct consequence of recent Federal Communications Commission policies by Chairman Michael Powell that permit cable companies to operate their broadband platforms in a "discriminatory, non-open access" manner. This legalese means the FCC, the historic guardian of the public interest in the communications field, has abdicated its founding charge: to serve the public interest before private interests.

In sum, the Internet as we now know it -- and its revolutionary promise -- may soon pass into the history books. In the absence of public policy safeguards, the emerging pricing and control structures will fundamentally change the kinds of information -- and way it’s delivered -- on the Internet. The ramifications extend far beyond the quarterly reports and shareholder earnings for the nation’s telecommunications corporations.

The consequences are cultural and will affect the pace and character of progress in the early 21st century. If the communications companies impose tolls, roadblocks and dead ends on the information ‘superhighway,’ they will be robbing public trust resources in much the same way 19th century mining companies pilfered public lands and 20th century radio and television networks privatized the public’s airwaves.

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

A Call To Protect Media Diversity

Editor's Note: The Federal Communications Commission, led by Michael Powell, plans to introduce several important rules that will dramatically undermine diversity in both media content and ownership. These new rules are currently in the Comment/Reply period, which means that concerned citizens still have time to either contact their member of Congress or file their concerns with the FCC. The Center for Digital Democracy's Executive Director Jeff Chester outlines the issues at stake and lists the important questions that need to be raised in comments to the FCC.

The FCC has initiated a proceeding that will lead to further dramatic changes in our media system. It's clear the FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the Bush-controlled Federal Communications Commission plan to end or weaken federal policies that have served as an important "check and balance" system for much of our media.

These changes will have an impact in every community in the US, where there will soon be even fewer owners of TV and radio stations, newspapers, and cable systems. Nationally, a smaller number of conglomerates will control most of the major media outlets. Given the Powell FCC's recent policy decisions on the Internet, the few remaining dominant owners of "old" media will have their power extended to the new online medium as well. In short, this is a huge giveaway of public resources and political power to a tiny few.

The commission launched its "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (NPRM) on September 12, 2002, with the clear intention of eliminating or drastically weakening several key rules that were designed to protect the public's First Amendment rights to a diverse media marketplace of ideas. This proceeding is likely to craft a new "public interest" framework for communications in the U.S. Federal rules designed to enhance "diversity, competition, and localism" will be axed, likely replaced by a system that basically permits the biggest media companies to "serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity" by focusing on their corporate bottom lines.

In a strange and twisted "déjà vu," the FCC's Notice points to policy findings made by the Reagan-era "marketplace-is-supreme" FCC as the foundation for its many current assumptions. Mark Fowler, Reagan's first FCC chairman, is clearly the spiritual father of Michael Powell. Fowler infamously said that public interest rules for television were unnecessary since TV was just another appliance, "a toaster with pictures."

Like Fowler, Michael Powell sees a media world in which public policies are unnecessary. For Powell, we live in a new golden age of media, in which the emergence of Fox News and other new cable channels preclude the need for meaningful federal policy designed to ensure the public is served as citizens. Indeed, its striking that the NPRM mentions "citizens" only once, and doesn't discuss "civic engagement" at all. Consumers, however, are mentioned more than three-dozen times, revealing the commission's assumption that the issue at hand is whether "viewers" have several choices for TV movies and sit-coms.

Powell alone cannot be blamed for this proceeding, however. It has also been spurred by the media industry lobby, which includes some of the most powerful companies in the US. GE/NBC, AOL Time Warner, Comcast, News Corp/Fox, and the Tribune Company are among those striving to dismantle what remains of already weakened limits on concentration of ownership. These companies have engaged in a tripartite strategy in an effort to remove any federal limits on their size and power. They have often gone either first to the FCC or the Congress to achieve their agenda. Failing success in one, they have gone to the other. And failing legislative or regulatory intervention, they have gone to court.

Over and over again these media companies have claimed that their corporate First Amendment rights are being violated by rules designed to protect the public's First Amendment rights. The media lobby has been spectacularly successful in its legal advocacy, especially with the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Given an FCC (under Powell and his democratic predecessor) that is either hostile or ambivalent to the public interest rules, it is no surprise that the court has recently declared some of the rules illegal, and ordered the FCC to review others.

In fact, the entire FCC review currently underway is part of the perverse legacy of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a law that was principally dictated by industry lobbyists. In what only can be called a doomsday-like public-interest death device straight out of the movie "Dr. Strangelove," section 202 (h) of the 96 Act requires the Commission to "review its rules adopted pursuant to this section and all of its ownership rules biennially as part of its regulatory reform review under section 11 of the Communications Act of 1934 and shall determine whether any of such rules are necessary in the public interest as the result of competition. The Commission shall repeal or modify any regulation it determines to be no longer in the public interest." In other words, the FCC must now document every two years why the ownership rules are necessary, using the standard of "competition" as its framework.

As the NPRM makes clear, Powell is already convinced that there is plenty of competition in the media marketplace today. For example, the NPRM suggests that the availability of new cable channels and web sites is evidence that an abundance of news sources exists, with the implication that the public no longer has to worry about new rules that will permit even fewer owners of broadcast TV networks or cable systems.

The rules currently under review include the following:

Broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule:

This policy has prohibited the two most important sources of information in a community-the daily newspaper and a broadcast TV station-from being owned by the same company.

Local TV multiple ownership rule and the radio/TV cross-ownership rule:

These rules limit somewhat the number of stations that any one entity can own in a single community.

National TV ownership rule:

This policy limits the number of TV stations a single company can own. The current limit prohibits a company from controlling stations that collectively reach 35 percent of all TV households.

Dual Network Rule:

This policy prevents one of the four major networks - ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox - from buying another network.

In addition to its profoundly undemocratic, anhistorical approach, what's astounding is that the Michael Powell is proceeding with media industry business as usual, despite the scandals of Worldcom, Adelphia, and the dot-com industry that have wreaked havoc on the economy. It's clear that the claims of the media industry should no longer be taken at face value, let alone believed. A serious independent investigation is required before any public safeguards are changed. Yet with his mind made up, Powell's FCC is uninterested in developing a meaningful record of public discussion. That much is evident from the language of the NPRM itself, and from the research design of the twelve commission studies on media ownership that have been released.

There is still time for the public to respond, however, both by writing letters to Congress urging opposition to further deregulation and support for a meaningful public debate, and by filing with the FCC during the Comment and Reply period. We urge you to read or review the NPRM itself (it's a modern political fairy tale, given its uncritical perspectives on ownership and diversity). But whether you respond to all the NPRM questions or not, you should make your voice heard.

To help, here are ten questions that members of the public might answer in filing their comments with the FCC:

1. How should the FCC measure viewpoint diversity? (The Commission suggests that it should simply be evaluated in a context of commercial competition.)

2. In what ways do locally owned and controlled media outlets such as TV stations and newspapers serve their communities more effectively than chain or network-owned properties?

3. The FCC suggests that broadcast TV isn't as important a source of information as it once was, given the "proliferation of outlets." Do you believe this to be the case?

4. The Commission also suggests that ownership limits may no longer be necessary to promote diversity of expression in the media. Do larger media companies indeed strengthen diverse reporting and analysis?

5. How has consolidation affected the quality of local, national, and international reporting? Has media concentration diminished the ability of the news media to engage in a critical "watchdog" role over private and public interests?

6. Has the so-called explosion in outlets, as Michael Powell would have it, brought about an increase in media owned or controlled by persons of color and women?

7. Has cable television really contributed to program diversity, with real alternatives of genre and scope?

8. Do commonly owned media, as the FCC suggests, have "stronger incentives to provide diverse formats, programs, and content"?

9. Is there truly an "ever-increasing number of alternative providers of delivered video programming"?

10. In determining diversity, should the commission, as it suggests, count every web site and cable channel available? Or should it be more focused on the most powerful and dominant outlets?

A 12-Step Program for Media Democracy

These days, it's the media conglomerates who are drunk with power -- demanding a larger share of the nation's airwaves and threatening to turn the World Wide Web into an electronic theme park -- and we're the ones with a twelve-step program. But at least with this particular regimen you won't bore your friends with tales of self-discipline and sobriety. For this is a twelve-step plan on behalf of a more democratic media system, a collective effort to ensure that alternative, independent voices will still be heard over the growing din of conglomerate media culture.

Listed below are twelve opportunities for activism across three broad areas of concern:

Concentration and Control

Although the Information Age has blunted somewhat the force of A.J. Liebling's famous dictum -- "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" -- the consolidation of ownership across the various media remains a threat to our democracy. The public's right to information and ideas from the widest possible range of sources means little in a world dominated by a handful of interlocking media giants. There may be more media outlets than ever before, given the enormous range of niche publications, special-interest websites and self-produced recordings, but the mass media -- more massive today than ever -- scarcely admit independent or alternative voices. As the Consumers Union pointed out in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation in July 2001, mere variety is no substitute for genuine diversity, as the growth in media variety "has not been accompanied by a comparable growth of independent, diversely owned competitive communications services and media voices."

A major component of any effort to ensure democratic media, then, is a regulatory structure that sets limits on the amount of market power that any one company can amass (and here we are more concerned with the "marketplace of ideas," so vital to our democracy, than with ratings points or circulation figures, which often go to the highest bidder).

Unfortunately, many of the ownership safeguards established to protect the public interest have come under attack, and the reigning laissez-faire spirit in Washington, spearheaded by FCC Chairman Michael Powell, does not augur well for the preservation of these safeguards. Thus advocacy efforts are urgently needed in the following four areas:

1. Ownership Limits

One after another, the final few defenses against media oligopoly are coming up for review at the FCC (which recently indicated that it would review all of these media ownership regulations before announcing any specific policy changes). These safeguards include the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban (no single company can own both a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same market) and the cable ownership cap (no company can serve more than 30 percent of the nation's cable households) that are under review. Limits on the number of TV stations a network or station group can own (currently limited to 35 percent of the national audience) are also being considered, as the powerful media lobby -- lining campaign coffers with one hand, threatening negative coverage with the other -- makes its case for complete deregulation. But don't look for this revolution to be televised or covered anywhere else in the mainstream press, since media attention to this issue (which has generated literally thousands of pages of court and FCC filings) has been scant. But there are a number of organizations (including Media Access Project, Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America) that are working to stem the tide of media deregulation. For a guide to how to fight back against the media giants, see the Center for Digital Democracy's (CDD) Take Action toolkit.

2. Merger Review

In a legal strategy seemingly designed to set the founding fathers spinning in their graves, the media conglomerates are quick to invoke their First Amendment rights whenever another merger or acquisition seems in order. Any limits on a corporation's right to acquire as much media market share as it possibly can, or so the argument runs, violate that company's First Amendment right to "speak" in whatever venue it chooses. Never mind the public's right to "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources" (in the words of the Supreme Court). If they weren't finding such a sympathetic audience in Washington these days, such constitutional contortions would be laughable. But as the protracted AOL Time Warner merger review demonstrated (under a different administration and FCC and FTC leadership, admittedly), there will be opportunities for public-interest advocates to make clear the dire implications of the current rich-get-richer, journalism-gets-poorer school of media ownership. Some important safeguards were built into the FTC's and FCC's approval of the AOL Time Warner merger, and we need to demand similar constraints in reviews involving AT&T Broadband and Comcast, EchoStar and DirecTV, and others. Unlike the fine-print filings of most FCC rule-makings, the merger review of these industry behemoths is invariably front-page news, and media activists should take advantage of such notoriety to raise the important public-interest issues -- open access to new-media platforms, robust local news and public affairs programming, diversity of viewpoint, minority ownership and content -- that will surely be affected by these major media mergers.

3. Spectrum Management

In the range of telecommunications issues before us, there is probably none more complex than the management of the electromagnetic spectrum, the radio waves that carry everything from ham operators and baby monitors to radio and TV broadcasts, wireless phone calls and civil defense applications. Still, a number of spectrum issues are alarmingly simple: Telecommunications and broadcast companies shouldn't get anything for nothing -- these are public airwaves, after all, merely licensed for a variety of private uses -- and a portion of the proceeds from the spectrum auctions that the government conducts periodically should be devoted to public-interest uses. Moreover, advances in technology -- with various digital transmission and reception devices much more finely calibrated than the analog broadcast equipment of old -- suggest that additional unlicensed uses of spectrum may now be possible, including open, community-access communications systems. A number of projects are underway to explore these and other public-interest applications, including the New America Foundation's Public Assets Program and NYU Law Professor Yochai Benkler's research on a "spectrum commons."

Thus before we sell off more of the spectrum for the real and imagined benefits of "3rd Generation" (3G) wireless phone service, we should give more thought to preserving portions of this valuable -- if invisible -- electromagnetic property for civic and other public-interest uses.

4. Privacy Protection

Interactive television (ITV) has been so long in the making that skeptics will be excused for thinking that it will never arrive. But rudimentary forms of menu-driven, pay-per-click television are already here, and with the impending introduction of more sophisticated set-top boxes, ITV will finally arrive at our doorsteps. And along with all of the customized services that it will offer, ITV will also bring new threats to our personal privacy, in the forms of intricate data-collection schemes (often under the guise of "personalizing" service to match our tastes and interests) and "one to one" marketing ploys. Occupying a gray area between cable and Internet service, ITV is poised to slip through the cracks of FTC and FCC oversight (fissures that grow larger every day, it seems). But with a little concerted advocacy work, the same kind of attention that has been focused on Internet privacy can be extended to the new ITV platform. (For more information on this issue, see CDD's report.) EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, continues to play a leadership role on a wide variety of digital privacy issues.

Content and Culture

Although the "public interest" is mentioned over 100 times in the original Communications Act of 1934 and its subsequent incarnations over the years (culminating in the Telecommunications Act of 1996), that concept has never been adequately defined. Beyond the vague notion that all broadcasters somehow operate in the "public interest, convenience, and necessity" by the very act of making their fare (no matter how pedestrian or trivial) available to the masses, the issue is rarely discussed. The broadcast industry itself, when pressed on the subject, is quick to cite news coverage, emergency weather alerts, public service announcements and purported "educational and informational programming" as among the stations' primary public-interest offerings. More recently, the National Association of Broadcasters has touted its post-9/11 coverage and fundraising efforts (extraordinary events by any measure and scarcely reflective of typical prime-time programming). For the most part, though, the public interest principle has languished for decades. Even the tepid solutions offered by the Gore Commission in 1998 (discussed in step eleven, below) seem wildly optimistic in today's deregulatory climate, and any effort to reinvigorate the content and culture of the media in the digital age will likely have to arise from beyond Washington. Still, the basic rules of content ownership and the public domain are tied to federal legislation (including the flawed Digital Millennium Copyright Act), and any significant effort to fund the development of noncommercial new-media programming will likely depend on federal sources (including tapping the proceeds of spectrum auctions). If we are to realize the full potential of the digital age to deliver new forms of public-interest programming, then, action is needed in the following four areas:

5. Intellectual Property/Fair Use/Open Source

Balancing the rights of copyright owners with those of consumers, never a simple task, has become far more complex in the digital era. The ease with which digital content can be copied, stored and transmitted electronically (with neither a loss of quality nor a diminution in the supply of the original item) has produced a spate of legislative and technological remedies. In most cases, however, the proposed cures are worse than the alleged disease. Such was the case with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with its infamous section 1201 (which makes it illegal to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work" -- even for legal, fair use purposes). As Virginia Democratic Representative Rick Boucher has observed, the DMCA "has moved our nation one step closer to a 'pay per use' society that threatens to advance the narrow interests of copyright owners over the broader public interest of information consumers." More recently, South Carolina Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings has introduced a similarly wrongheaded measure, the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, which proposes to build copy-protection technology into any computer or consumer-electronics device to prevent any unauthorized copying of music, movies or software. Arrayed against these assaults on consumer rights and citizen interests are a handful of efforts to promote fair use, shared intellectual property resources and the public domain, including Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Creative Commons.

But this battle will not be easily won, given the resources of the entertainment conglomerates. Thus the nonprofit sector, which stands to lose the most if fair use withers away and online information becomes a commodity, needs to be more actively involved in this issue.

6. The "Dot Commons" Online Civic Sector

Neither a particular place online nor a Web portal nor a collection of laudable URLs, the dot-commons concept acknowledges that the same nonprofit sector that we've protected and promoted in the real world, through tax-exemption and charitable contributions, for example, deserves similar treatment in the online context. Thus we must find new ways to nurture and support public-interest programming -- from community information resources and educational applications to cultural expression and social services -- that is unlikely to be well served by the commercial marketplace. A number of civic networking experiments have been conducted over the years, some focusing narrowly on political participation, others devoted more broadly to the exchange of ideas and information. Still others address such issues as youth civic participation, cultural diversity and closing the digital divide.

What's missing is a national movement to weave together the various strands of "e-democracy" -- from community networks to public-access media centers to voter-education websites -- and to build a broader coalition involving other parts of the nonprofit sector (including consumer advocates, media activists, social service agencies, libraries and cultural organizations) that have equally as much at stake in the broadband revolution. CDD's Dot-Commons project is a small step in this direction, but much more work remains to be done in this area. David Bollier and Tim Watts's Saving the Information Commons is perhaps the best single source on this topic, with references to a number of organizations and projects worthy of support. The eighty-three-page report is available for download from the New America Foundation's website.

7. New Media Tools of Democracy

The Internet has long been a boon to democratic discourse, from the free flow of Usenet group discussions to the targeted interests of e-mail listservs. The advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s provided a new forum for civic programming online, a publishing platform fully accessible to nonprofit organizations and individual activists alike. More recently, peer-to-peer file sharing has altered the means of digital content distribution -- much to the chagrin of the music industry, to be sure, but also providing a viable model for alternative distribution networks that bypass the bottlenecks and tollgates of the reigning commercial delivery systems. On a somewhat smaller scale, the phenomenon of "blogging" (personal Web logs that comment on and highlight notable websites) has emerged as a new form of journalism, blurring the distinction between producer and consumer that marks the traditional top-down media system. With the growing power of the media giants, however, it becomes all the more important to preserve these democratic traditions online, and to ensure their survival in the broadband era, in which streaming media will play an increasingly important role in the delivery of content. So, too, must the PEG-access concept in cable (i.e., Public-, Education- and Government-access channels) be reinvented for the digital age, taking full advantage of the two-way communications that the new cable networks will provide. Community-based wireless networks, finally, (employing the low-cost I.E.E.E. 802.11b) must also be encouraged as a means of fostering public-access networks. Organizations working on these fronts nationally include the Alliance for Community Media, the Association for Community Networking and FreeNetworks.org.

But much work will have to be done at the local level, where municipal governments, cable franchise authorities, public libraries and community-based organizations need to assess their broadband networking needs and then work together to satisfy that demand. Waiting for the marketplace to deliver these vital civic services simply won't work.

8. New Support Structures for the Digital Age

From the earliest philanthropic gestures of the Carnegies and Rockefellers, through the massive Depression-era and postwar federal funding programs, to the elaborate private funding structure that now encompasses more than 20,000 foundations, we've always found a way to support our analog culture. Now, with a distinctly digital culture emerging at the dawn of the twenty-first century (and with significant portions of more traditional expression to become available via broadband networks), we must find similar means, public and private alike, to support noncommercial projects devoted to the creation and distribution of various forms of new media. In the federal arena, Massachusetts Democratic Representative Ed Markey has introduced the Wireless Technology Investment and Digital Dividends Act, which, among other things, would create a permanent Digital Dividends Trust Fund, based on the proceeds of spectrum auctions, to support both "human capital telecommunications investments" (e.g., teacher training, educational software development, digitizing archival material and AmeriCorps technology projects) and "broadband infrastructure investments for public access and rural development" (e.g., projects that attack the digital divide in rural and inner-city locations). Based on Newton Minow and Lawrence Grossman's Digital Promise project, Markey's bill would also establish a "spectrum commons," setting aside two bands of frequencies (20 MHz of spectrum below 2 GHz and another band between 2 and 6 GHz) for unlicensed public use as an open wireless platform for communications. But until such time that either spectrum auctions or a new Corporation for Public Telecommunications can channel support to educational, civic and cultural new media, private foundations will need to expand their efforts in support of noncommercial, public-service programming in the digital environment. Ever quick to recommend collaboration among their applicants and grantees alike, foundations themselves must now explore cooperative strategies in order to meet the demands of the digital age.

Access and Diversity

As Ben Bagdikian has chronicled in the various editions of his The Media Monopoly over the years, the number of companies controlling the bulk of our print, broadcast and entertainment industries has dwindled from fifty corporations in 1983 to a mere six in 2000. Equally disturbing, this "survival of the fittest" (in which fitness is defined by an insatiable appetite for market power) has affected the new media as well. In the first five years of the World Wide Web's existence, for example, when it was growing at an almost exponential rate, diversity prevailed. But by 1999, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, 110 companies controlled 60 percent of users' online time. Just two years later, that figure had been reduced to a mere fourteen companies. And today, the democracy that was once the Internet is beginning to look more and more like an oligarchy. The recent attacks on the traditional ownership/diversity safeguards, moreover, waged in the courts and at the FCC, represent an effort on the part of a handful of entertainment conglomerates (AOL Time Warner, General Electric/NBC, Disney/ABC, Viacom/CBS and News Corp/Fox among them) to extend their hegemony into the digital frontier. There is no guarantee, in other words, that the spirit of competition, diversity and democracy that has long been the hallmark of the traditional, "narrowband" Internet will prevail in the broadband future.

While the broadband era will doubtless bring new online products and services, these must not come at the expense of other, less marketable but no less important fare. There must be room, in short, for the collective wisdom and shared expertise, for civic participation and educational programming, that have proved so valuable to our society in the past. The new broadband networks can help preserve these assets, and make them more widely available, but only if these networks incorporate the open-access, nondiscriminatory principles that have long governed the Internet, and if other policies are in place to share the fruits of the digital revolution with the widest possible audience. On this front, four areas of policy reform demand our attention:

9. Open Access/Open Architecture

In "The Open Access Principle: Cable Access as a Case Study for the Next Generation Internet," Stanford Professorof Communications Francois Bar writes of "an electronic marketplace which systematically favors the providers of content, services or transactions who have a privileged financial relationship with the monopoly owner of the underlying infrastructure.... The infrastructure owner will have strong incentives to configure its network to give superior performance to the preferred ISP and superior service to the ISP's favored partners." With the FCC's recent reclassification of cable Internet service as an unregulated "information service" rather than a telecommunications service, we've moved one step closer to the tilted playing field that Bar and others have described. Thus the principle of open access and nondiscriminatory transport remains as important a public policy goal as ever. As EarthLink CEO Garry Betty recently testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, the minimum standards for effective open access are as follows:

Consumers of broadband cable services should have a choice among multiple ISPs.

Cable broadband providers must negotiate at arms-length nondiscriminatory commercial arrangements with both affiliated and nonaffiliated ISPs (including "first screen" placement).

ISPs should have the choice of operating on a national, regional or local basis.

Both the ISP and the cable operator should have the opportunity for a direct relationship with the customer.

ISPs should be allowed to provide video streaming and there should be no discriminatory restrictions on provision of content.

Coupled with an expanded concept of PEG access -- one that takes full advantage of the advanced, two-way communications features of the new cable broadband networks -- these open-access, nondiscriminatory transport principles will go a long way toward ensuring that the broadband cable platform serves the public interest, now and in the future.

10. Set-Top Standards

Once described as the most valuable square foot of real-estate in the world, the set-top box that is perched innocently on our TV sets is about to become even more valuable. Infused with microprocessors, hard disk recorders and other digital technologies, the next generation of the set-top box will perform a variety of entertainment, communications and e-commerce functions -- including some, unfortunately, that will have more to do with AOL Time Warner's and Microsoft's interests than with our own. Remarkably, some thirty years after they first appeared, these set-top devices are still essentially black boxes, whose simple LED displays may tell us what channel we're watching, but little else. And they remain largely beyond the reach of regulators at the FCC and FTC, who thus far have ignored not only the increasing power and sophistication of set-top boxes, but also the real threat that their proprietary standards and closed architecture will enable cable operators to control the Internet's vital "last mile." Stated most simply, if our mailboxes were as vulnerable to incursion and control as our set-top boxes currently are, no one would stand for it. Especially as these devices become what may turn out to be the most important and powerful household appliance, a review of their capabilities and control mechanisms, and a requirement that they handle Internet traffic in an open, nondiscriminatory fashion, would seem to be in order.

11. Digital Television

Even as the long-awaited transition to digital television seems destined to miss the federally mandated 2006 deadline, the power of the new platform to redefine the television medium remains clear. While it has often been compared to the transition from black-and-white to color television that began in the 1950s, the impending shift to DTV will be far more dramatic. "It is more akin to the arrival of television in a radio world," observes industry analyst Gary Arlen, "especially in the programming realm.... The tools and content of today's digital environment make it possible for broadcasters to reinvent their medium, not merely enhance it." In the process, we must also reinvent the civic uses to which television can be put in the digital age, building on the admittedly faint public-interest tradition that is supposed to govern the use of the public's airwaves. Such was the task of the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (the so-called Gore Commission) in 1998, which failed, however, to breathe new life into the public interest principle. Although it included a small number of public-interest advocates (including former FCC Chairman Newton Minow, children's television advocate Peggy Charren and the Media Access Project's executive director at the time, Gigi Sohn), the committee, co-chaired by CBS president Leslie Moonves, was ultimately ill suited to produce the kind of thoroughgoing reform that is so sorely needed if the digital television revolution is to realize its full potential. There's still time to reopen that issue at the FCC, however, just as there is time to demand a public-interest dividend from the spectrum that the nation's 1,600 TV stations will relinquish once the transition to DTV is complete.

12. Universal Service

Extending basic telephone service to all Americans has long been a goal of federal telecommunications policy (and it's a goal that, even at the start of the twenty-first century, has never been fully achieved). In 1996 the concept of universal service was nominally expanded to include the following three goals: "(1) increase access to advanced telecommunications services throughout the nation; (2) advance the availability of such services to all consumers, including those in low income, rural, insular, and high cost areas at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas; and (3) promote the availability of quality services at just, reasonable, and affordable rates." In the six years since that new mandate was adopted, even while considerable progress has been made in closing the so-called digital divide, little effort has been made to redefine universal service for the digital age. Mere connections to the Internet are hardly sufficient, for that environment (which grows more commercial every day), offers no guarantee of advanced services in the public interest. Fortunately, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 empowers both the Federal State Joint Board, which oversees Universal Service, and the FCC itself "to determine those other principles that, consistent with the 1996 Act, are necessary to protect the public interest." As a start, the board and commission might explore ways in which guarantees of advanced telecommunications services might be extended beyond the current list of institutions -- which includes "all schools, classrooms, health care providers, and libraries" -- to reach further into the community, via social, cultural and other community-based organizations.

While they obviously come with no guarantees, these twelve steps would nonetheless go a long way toward advancing the course of media democracy in the digital age. The sad irony is that never before have we had such communications power at our disposal, in the form of new digital technologies that allow any of us to be producers as well as consumers of media content. The corresponding danger, of course, is that we've never had so much to lose, in ceding that power to the cable and telecom giants eager to make the new media as monolithic and market-driven as the old. The time to act, clearly, is now.

Jeffrey Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org). Gary O. Larson manages the Center for Digital Democracy's "Dot-Commons" project.

Will the AOL-Time Merger Flop?

When Steve Case and Gerald Levin, CEO's of AOL and Time Warner (TW), respectively, announced their intention to merge their two companies last January, they predicted smooth sailing from regulators, so sure were they that the merger was in the "public interest." The AOL-TW combination, they told the Federal Communications Commission, would enhance the public interest by offering "next generation branded content." As proof of how their merger served the public interest they submitted to the FCC (which, along with the Federal Trade Commission must approve the merger in the U.S.) three reports from Wall Street investment houses, each praising the merger for the "sticky applications" that would drive e- and t- (TV) commerce revenues.

But now, after a concerted effort from public-interest and consumer groups, and from competitors both here and in Europe, AOL-TW will be forced to make major concessions. These groups have mobilized because they know that the merger would profoundly alter the shape of the Internet.

If the merger goes through, AOL-TW would be able to use its high-speed cable pipes to favor its own content, including its Web sites and e-commerce applications, over others. The open, nonhierarchical architecture of the dial-up Internet, which has allowed for a flowering of discourse and commerce, would be reshaped by AOL-TW (and also other cable giants) whose business model is based on controlling all bits to make the most bucks.

Advocates have asked the Federal Trade Commission to insist that AOL-TW, as a condition of the merger, agree to a policy of nondiscriminatory open access for competing ISPs. Critics of the merger also want the FTC to guarantee that AOL-TW will treat content providers, including all Web sites, equitably. They want these policies extended to next-generation devices, including television set-top boxes and interactive TVs, which will soon play a major role in delivering high-speed digital content. These groups also have asked the FTC to sever the ties between AOL-TW and AT&T (the nation's largest cable provider), whose combined holdings would give them a lock on more than half of all cable TV households in the country.

Public-interest advocates believe they will be successful in imposing conditions to the merger for several reasons. One big help in this regard comes from AOL itself. Up until the day last January when it announced its merger, the company was the chief corporate advocate for an open-access policy for high-speed cable networks. AOL recognized that despite its presence as the nation's largest ISP, with approximately 40 percent of the market, its ability to survive would depend on whether it could use cable TV's pipes, perfect for delivering super-fast video and data (also known as broadband service).

Up until now, AOL's ability to become the country's number one ISP and a huge digital powerhouse has rested on open access to the telephone network, which by law is a "common carrier." But the next phase of Internet delivery requires companies like AOL to use cable wires, which are defined by federal law as proprietary networks controlled by their owner. Before the merger announcement, AOL spent millions of dollars in a coast-to-coast lobbying blitz, trying to convince policymakers to require open access for cable. Recognizing how important cable access was to AOL's future, the company realized that the only sure entry into cable's monopoly community was to buy its way in with the acquisition of Time Warner.

Accordingly, in what is now seen by many as a huge flip-flop, AOL reversed itself, telling regulators to ignore its previous calls for an open-access policy. "We're going to take the open access issue out of Washington and out of City Hall and put it in the marketplace, " said TW's Levin, when first announcing the merger.

Since that time, a coalition of public interest groups, including Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, Media Access Project, and the Center for Media Education, have waged an intense campaign to protect the Internet and diversity of expression online. The results have been encouraging.

Unlike the FCC, long under the domination of the very industries it's supposed to oversee, the FTC is undertaking a much more rigorous review of the merger. In a meeting last spring, public-interest advocates detailed to FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky how the AOL-TW merger would threaten the Internet. Through filings, market research, investigative reports, and other advocacy, these groups presented to the FTC evidence of how an AOL-TW could use its control over its cable holdings to thwart competition while favoring its own content and services.

To be sure, these groups have been helped by a number of larger commercial competitors, such as the Walt Disney Company and NBC. These mega-giants understand and fear the power an AOL-TW would have even over them. They have been able to bring significant political pressure in support of the kinds of safeguards supported by the open-access advocates. AOL-TW's alleged "marketplace solution," moreover, in the form of a much-touted memorandum of understanding committing itself to open access, has also backfired.

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, to offer service under the terms that they are offering," EarthLink Vice President David Baker announced recently, dealing another crippling blow to the merger's chances for uncritical approval.

Also helpful to the cause of open access has been the European Union's investigation of the merger. In a height of hubris, TW had also agreed to merge with music powerhouse EMI, which would make it the undisputed global leader is music. EU regulators opposed the union, believing that the merged entity would give Time Warner undue control over the future of Internet music distribution and sales. The merger was eventually blocked because TW didn't acquiesce to any of the meaningful conditions or safeguards that EU regulators had demanded.

While the AOL-TW merger will no doubt be approved, it will almost certainly carry restrictions that should signal to the entire broadband industry that the battle for the future openness of the Internet will continue. Even as intelligent new set-top boxes and "enhanced" TV applications are introduced, bringing the Internet to the masses, we should not be forced to trade choice and diversity for speed and simplicity, despite what Steve Case and Gerald Levin would have us believe. AOL-TW, AT&T, and other giants will undoubtedly accelerate efforts to transform the Internet into a digital high-speed shopping mall. Citizen action and new policy safeguards will be required to save the openness of the Internet from these new digital landlords.

Remember Community Access As Broadband Technology Rises

The recently betrothed AOL and Time Warner should be hearing wedding bells any day now, their union blessed by Washington regulators seemingly enthralled by the fast play of market forces.

Look at the papers the beloveds filed recently with the FCC as part of the proposed merger, the largest in U.S. corporate history. See all the appendixes -- bullish reports on the merged company's prospects from Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Paine Webber. The Merrill Lynch analysts predict that the final impact of the merger would be profound, suggesting that AOL-TW would likely become the "operating system for everyday life." Everywhere, there's an enthusiastic embrace of an interactive future filled with "sticky" content, instant messaging, buddy lists and "dynamic" brand-distribution platforms. But is that all we should expect of the broadband revolution? An enhanced online marketplace?

If we want more -- and we should, including more community access, more room for public, not just commercial, uses -- we need to start our public debate now, because it's getting late.

Still in its infancy, broadband delivery is a communications crossroads not unlike the advent of telephony, radio, television, cable and the Internet. The impact of this latest communications revolution eventually will touch all aspects of our lives.

Whether all that is ultimately good or bad, however, remains to be determined. The opportunity is before us, now that bandwidth constraints have been lifted and the new digital infrastructure is about to be put in place, to build a richer set of services that promote citizenship and democracy, education and culture. All of these are aspects of community -- both virtual and real -- that are beyond the power of the increasingly commercialized marketplace to deliver on its own.

But they are within our grasp, if we make the right decisions now about how the broadband future should unfold.

As Massachusetts Institute of Technology Dean of Architecture William J. Mitchell observes in his book City of Bits, "The most crucial task before us is not one of putting in place the digital plumbing of broadband communications links and associated electronic appliances (which we will certainly get anyway), nor even of producing electronically deliverable 'content,' but rather one of imagining and creating digitally mediated environments for the kinds of lives that we will want to lead and the sorts of communications that we will want to have."

The process that Mitchell describes, one of establishing a vision for the broadband future, requires that we develop an agenda now for building an online environment that serves the public interest as effectively as it meets the expectations of Wall Street. Waiting until after the e-commerce marketplace matures before adopting public-service requirements will yield only a repeat of the sad story of broadcast television, where advocates of free time for political discourse, for example, are reduced to begging stations for a modest five minutes of airtime for debates.

As a first step in developing a new public-interest agenda, we need look no further than such communities as Portland, Ore., and Montgomery County, Md., where local officials have negotiated franchise agreements with broadband network providers that contain important public-interest concessions. These include setting aside portions of the bandwidth for noncommercial use, securing new support for community applications, and installing high-speed connections for civic organizations.

At the national level, just as we have carved out space for noncommercial programming on radio and television (and, more recently, on direct broadcast satellite systems), so should we set a portion of the broadband environment aside for similar noncommercial fare (and, more important, for new interactive public-interest services). As our experience with public broadcasting has shown, however, bandwidth set-asides alone will not be enough to achieve broadband's full programming potential. We have to find ways to sustain the kinds of civic, educational and cultural services that will otherwise be lacking if broadband is merely commercialized.

Companies such as AOL-TW, which control both conduit and content, also need to be held to a higher public standard. They will wield tremendous power in the marketplace of ideas, which is why an open-access policy to ensure that the Internet remains democratic and diverse is also needed. It is time for a national dialogue with policymakers, these new media leaders, and the public to ensure that the new broadband Internet serves as effectively as it sells.

Jeffrey Chester (jeff@cme.org) is executive director of the Center for Media Education in Washington.

BRAND NEW STORIES