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Future of Broadband Communications at Stake

Tuesday evening's event, sponsored by the ACLU and Center for Digital Democracy, discussed the threat that broadband internet monopolies are to a free society. Most households will adopt cable internet service over the next decade and currently, users are monitored, sites are slowed or virtually censored, and the cable giants are doing it legally. The city of Portland initiated a challenge in 1998, and it is heating up.
The future of the Internet the medium that the Supreme Court called "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed" is at risk. The threat: monopolization of Internet access service by cable network owners. By excluding competing Internet service providers (ISPs) from broadband networks, cable owners are extending the local monopolies they hold over cable television to the high-speed Internet.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Oregon chapter, and the Center for Digital Democracy sponsored a conference Tuesday evening at Multnomah Co. Central Library to discuss how to combat the cable monopolies that are looking to dominate the internet, and thus the exchange of information and ideas, into the near future. Unlike dial-up internet, which is done over phone lines that have 'common carriage' requirements by law, meaning anyone can utilize the network of phone lines without discrimination, cable internet access has thus far subjected itself only to the rules governing cable tv, meaning, the cable company controls access for its customers, can choose to block content, give speed priority to its advertisers, or monitor usage of its customers. With broadband cable internet access increasing among households at a brisk pace, this system should put fear into anyone who feels the internet should be publicly accessible by all, and sites such as Indymedia, should not be subject to blockades or slower service. It is worthy to note, that the cable internet company that preceded AT&T in Portland, which was TCI, actually redirected customers who attempted to access the Powell's Books website, meaning they typed in 'powells.com', to the site of corporate chain Barnes & Noble, bn.com. AT&T Broadband service in Portland will soon change to the hands of Comcast Corp., based in Philadelphia. Comcast was recently exposed to have been keeping extensive records of their customers internet usage, and selling that information to marketers, in violation of their customer agreements. This was widely reported, making headlines in the NYTimes and Wash. Post, and elsewhere. So, the track record of our incoming cable internet provider is very suspect.

The panelists on Tuesday's discussion were as follows:
1) Barry Steinhardt, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Technology and Liberty Program
2) Sue Diciple, Chair, Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission
3) Dr. Andrew Afflerbach, Principal Engineer, Columbia Telecommunications Corporation (CTC)
4) Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director, Center for Digital Democracy (CDD)

Mr. Steinhardt, a lawyer for the ACLU based in New York City, noted an example of Comcast's monopoly abuses in Philadelphia. The Critical Path AIDS Project, a Philly medical center, is rendered invisible when a customer is searching for them on the internet through the cable modem. Instead, they are likely to be steered to a pharmaceutical company, or large hospital, who has paid to have more weight, more "internet magnetism" on the Comcast network. This is a purposeful abuse of monopoly power to influence what information people have access to, and whose voice is heard more loudly.
Mr. Steinhardt stressed the fact that monopolies ALWAYS abuse their power, that in a share-price driven world, they will hold allegiance to money only, and not provide a universal service at a fair price.
Also pointed out, is the ongoing legal battle to establish whether cable internet providers are 'telecommunication companies,' or 'information services.' The city of Portland first challenged these monopolies in 1998, bringing a case against AT&T, to force the network of cable lines open to competition amongst Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The city felt it had this right due to its citizens donating public rights-of-way for the cable lines to be dropped in the first place, in exchange for public use of those lines. The 9th Circuit Court ruled that since AT&T was acting as a "telecommunications service", this conflict fell under federal rules. So, the decision is now in the hands of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). The FCC, chaired by Michael Powell, son of Sec. of State Colin Powell, then judged in favor of the cable companies by declaring their service and "information service," meaning they have the right to provide information at their discretion. Of course, common sense tells us that calling the network of cables under the ground and in our walls an "information service" is like calling the bicycle company that makes the bike that the newspaper boy rides an "information service" company. It is a completely misguided interpretation, and it has been encouraged by the immense lobbying power (bribery) of the cable industry.

Mr. Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy laid out what it is the cable companies are after. They want to model the broadband internet world after commercial /cable television. They are appalled at the idea of commercial-free media, and try to invoke their "1st Amendment Rights" to provide only what information they want to. As a government-conferred monopoly, however, it is hard to see where these 1st Amendment Rights come from, not to mention why their rights supercede ours, the flesh & blood citizens of the world. Mr. Chester ominously stated that Comcast is a big problem, and we in Portland need to be ready for battle. They are particularly adamant that broadband cable should be a closed system, with everything going through them and them only in their network area. Not only are citizens like you and me concerned, but large online companies, like Amazon.com, and present-day ISPs, like the popular Earthlink, are also opposed to the closed-system philosophy of the cable internet giants (8 companies own 90% of the networks in the US). Mr. Chester urged people to write/fax/email their congressors and senators, and let them know that the public wants to hear itself speak, not just the voice of consumer slaveholders.

Ms. Diciple has fought this battle for awhile, helping to bring the original Portland vs AT&T court battle into being. She noted that the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission, which covers 6 cities including Portland, was unanimous in its belief that the cable internet system should be open, and subject to equal competition amongst ISPs. She cited 1st Amendment issues guarding against the internet 'portal' (like AT&T, AOL, Microsoft Network, Yahoo, etc.), shaping the content one receives, which of course, does happen. She mentioned how ridiculous it would be if our libraries were corporate-owned, and subject to corporate 'shaping.' The internet, of course, has been built up as an open, largest-ever library of information. Ms. Diciple also reminded people of the once-thriving small ISP business community, that is threatened by extinction with the rapid adoption of monopoly broadband. As it was with telephones earlier this century, private companies will not on their own initiative, provide service to non-profitable communities like rural communities. It was only through government support that the phone lines were built everywhere. Through these phone lines, an open system subject to common-carriage laws, ISPs could provide internet service to small communities because their overhead was low enough to where they didn't need a million customers just to make a buck. Small, independent companies are always needed, to take chances, provide service to marginalized communities, to ensure freedom of information and choice in the marketplace of ideas. The cable broadband giants see this as a threat to their goals, total assimilation of the consuming public into their networked sphere of influence. Ms. Diciple urged people to contact senators and congressors, especially Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, who has not weighed-in on this issue currently, though was supportive in the past. The time is now.

Dr. Afflerbach presented his report from the Columbia Telecommunications Corporation which detailed how a broadband internet system should look like - what an open system looks like. He noted that Tacoma, Washington decided to build their own cable system, right along the same paths as the pre-existing one, to provide their townspeople with a choice in broadband service. This is an expensive alternative that we probably don't want to do in a town the size of Portland. He also showed how some of the cable giants, like AOL-Time Warner, offer "re-branded" broadband service which is a mirage of competition. In other words, there might be 5 or 6 different logos and company names offering to sign you up, but in reality, they are all the same product, offer the same pipeline, at the same high 'lack-o'-competition' cost, and are subject to the monopoly's whims of secret monitoring, impeding service to disfavorable sites, and virtual censorship of material. Again, these are not predictions, this happens and is the modus operandi of these companies. Dr. Afflerbach stressed that a true open system must be a "Seperate Channel" system, whereby many independent ISPs have access to the full range of the cable network structure, and operate independently of the former cable monopoly, not utilizing their computer servers for the passage of information, and thus not subjecting customers to only one corporation's rules, abuses, monitoring and influence. His report can be found here in its entirety...  http://www.aclu.org/issues/cyber/broadband.html

One other note, is that one of the arguments that cable broadband giants frequently use, is that it is not technically possible to have competing ISPs utilizing the same cable line infrastructure. That has been proven untrue by the above report from the CTC(see www link), and by studies done by the ACLU. It is simply not true. I encourage you to speak out to legislators and to your friends, and educate them on this issue. It is vital to preserving democracy during the age of broadband communications, which is effectively upon us now, and will last for the foreseeable future. TV and internet is rapidly becoming one and the same, and we as public citizens will either continue to re-invent it, or it will be re-invented for us. To contact your senator, use this link...  http://www.senate.gov/contacting/index_by_state.cfm

Best Wishes, --Corbin Supak--
Important Issues 31.Jul.2002 18:24

Scot Condry

I was at this event and recorded it for KBOO, it will be reported on during thursday's (8-1-2) local newscast PM and hopefully AM too. It will also be rebroadcast in full at some currently undertermined time in the future.


Portland, Oregon

There is a solution 31.Jul.2002 23:33


There are ways of getting around this, one is dsl, and the other is to participate in internet connection sharing.

there is the Personal Telco Project which is all about communities sharing internet connections using wireless technologies.

Check 'em out!

DSL 31.Jul.2002 23:56

Scot Condry scotcondry@hotmail.com

The discussion was focused on cable. They mentioned that cable has an advantage because the pipe they have is better for video (read digital TV) than broadband according to Hollywood and others. But they also mentioned that DSL is pushing for the same deregulation that cable is getting. And of course you might have to deal with people like Qwest.


Portland, OR