As the month of June ended and "pack journalists" refocused our attention on Independence Day not much signifance was given to the upcoming Congressional debate about how best to modernize broadband Internet access for all Americans. Was this a deliberate omission by commercial reporters pimping for an industry which has an enormous stake in the destiny of the information highway ?
For the past couple of years most people have either read in their newspapers or seen on television newscasts generalized stories about Net Neutrality. Individuals lacking the zeal to explore these reports further, callously dismiss them as insignificant distractions irrelevant to their daily lifestyles. Attitudes like this are exactly the type of notions the establishment media has tried to foster within its audience since the argument about the future of the Internet emerged. The impression intellectual savvy persons like myself are left with is the more unenlightened we are about the subject, the greater opportunity corporate media has to exert monopolistic control over this evolving medium of expression for the 21st century.
As usual, when a controversial topic such as this heats up the "K Street" money on Capitol Hill and its sycophants step in to try influence the outcome favorably for their clients. In this this instance, the major U.S. phone companies have spent "more than $175 million in lobbying money to defeat Net Neutrality," according to an April 2007 report by Kriss Perras of Malibu Arts Reviews. The return on investment has succeeded in channeling the discourse towards an old familar theme revolving around free market competition vs the merits of government regulated capitalism.
The inevitable outcome has been to obscure the public's comprehension of the matter and limit their perspective to shallow phrases designed to evoke conditioned responses. Former Vice President Al Gore believes this form of manipulation obstructs citizens' interpretations of the critical questions they are faced with whether it be those associated with the Internet, health care, the environment or democracy.
"People listen but they don't have an opportunity to take part in the conversation," Gore told anchor Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America, May 22. "One of the principal reasons why Americans feel they don't have a role to play, their vote doesn't count or voice isn't heard is because it's mainly a one-way conversation over television. The point is instead of engaging in a free and vigorous discussion that anybody can take part in, candidates for office and those who want to influence public opinion use these sophisticated propagandistic techniques to give emotional impressions and try and herd people this way or that. The great virtue of the Internet is that individuals have open access to it, not only to take what they are interested in but also to contribute their own ideas."
Gore's contentions epitomize the way the discussion about Net Neutrality has evolved as both politicians and the media have addressed it in the kind of vague, symbolic talking points utilized by the special interests shaping its outcome. Rather than beginning the conversation with Constitutional guarantees for its usage, they've redefined it to narrowly focus on who the providers of broadband services will be. Missing from the exchange of views is specific language detailing the fair implementation of a policy initiative for the evolution of the digital age.
Founder Andrew Rasiej of the Personal Democracy Forum recently told a reporter for the Progressive Magazine he thinks it's imperative our political leaders develop a strategy for its onset.
“Technology creates an opportunity for a more robust and participatory democracy,” he said. “Some of the candidates may have BlackBerries but none of them have demonstrated any vision.”
Rasiej believes our next President must enter office prepared to implement a broadband curriculum that ensures its practical development as a tool of democracy for all citizens rather than a commercial venture for a few corporations to profit from. He recommends the following six essential components for voters to evaluate candidates by in the next national election.
1. Declare the internet a public good like water, electricity and education.
2. Make wireless connectivity available everywhere at low cost.
3. Go from “No Child Left Behind” to “Every Child Connected.”
4. Support Net Neutrality.
5. Give Americans a “connected democracy” with access to government activities, information, and hearings online.
6. Build a national “NetGuard” of technologists to be deployed in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
The underlying problem with Rasiej's proposal from the business community's perspective is the plan would require government checks against commerce to secure fair application of the the Internet. A report issued by the Federal Trade Commission June 27 basically agreed with their contention and advised legislators to move forward carefully before creating laws that might hinder market innovation.
However, several proponents of an "open access model" for broadband neutrality contend the FTC's position is regressive and will enable providers to limit customer access to information based on their economic circumstances. "This is not the time for caution but rather forward-looking and decisive action reinstating Net Neutrality once and for all," said S. Derek Turner of the SavetheInternet.com. His sentiments are echoed by similar organizations such as the Open Internet Coalition who argue recent consolidation within the provider market has undermined consumer choice and caps their broadband options in essence to two companies per locality.
As special interests jockey for control of the information highway, consumer input has become noticably absent from the conversation. Unable to express their concerns, people are reduced to passive listeners, voiceless to interject their opinions about the most significant free speech matter to emerge in the past 75 years. Instead of focusing on a substantive policy which assures the Internet will be shared equally by everyone at an affordable price, the slugfest has degenerated into a hostile engagement about who will profit the most from its future deployment.
Lost in translation are the details about making it an educational tool for school children, upgrading broadband speed consistent with those enjoyed by citizens of other countries, cost-efficiency and a government policy which secures it without being unduly intrusive. When we read in the alternative press the Department of Homeland Security has been hacked, people begin to realize the need for developing a comprehensive federal Internet plan that's non-partisan and driven objectively to serve democracy rather than proponents of demagoguery or greed.
Last week Congress and the Hill press corps were fixated on legislative maneuvering about whether to continue funding the Iraq pork barrel. That's appropriate, considering we're wasting billions of taxpayer dollars for a war built on lies. It's money which could be better spent in America on the care of our elderly, investing in a quality universal healthcare system, cleaning up the environment or educating our children through inexpensive, broadband access. Doing anything less places American democracy at risk and jeopardizes our young people's competitiveness for the future.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
"Democracy is a conversation and what made American democracy in the first place over 200 years ago was a new way of communicating that involved average people in the conversation. The great virtue of the Internet is that individuals have open access to it, not only to take what they are interested in but also to contribute their own ideas." ... Al Gore