Posts Tagged ‘Net Neutrality’

AT&T Is Asking Us To Trust Them

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week, I noticed a bit of traffic hitting an old post of mine about AT&T’s unlikely sponsorship of libertarian ideologues as they attempt to stop net neutrality. (Unlikely given their history of constantly pleading for government intervention in their favor.) I followed the source to the AT&T’s forum but could find no link leading back to my rather critical post about AT&T.

So, today, I decided to check on what had happened. I didn’t see any easy way to contact the people posting or the moderators, so I posted myself asking if anyone knew what had happened. Tifa_Shines “answered” my question by censoring my link as “spam.”

Her message to me justifying her censorship said:

Links to material that contains political discussion and/or promotion of third party websites are violating the guidelines and will be removed.

And further that it is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to:

discuss[…] participant bans or other Moderator actions

I replied thanking her for “answering” my question — and that post was subsequently deleted. In my 5 minutes as a member of AT&T’s Community Forum, I discovered at least 2 rules:

  • Thou shalt not discuss the political activities AT&T engages in rather than providing decent service.
  • Thou shalt not discuss when AT&T censors you so as better to maintain the fiction of a ‘Community’ Forum.

Knowing that links AT&T, for whatever their reason, did not approve of were labeled “not relevant” and “spam,” I went back to the original page that was the source of traffic and found the offending, censored post — attempting to put AT&T’s bandwidth caps in the context of it’s efforts to fight net neutrality and their history of attacking every innovation from the Hush-A-Phone to the internet in their quest to create “the perfect system” without being distracted by that terrible thing called competition, and coincidentally, extracting the maximum profit from their customers.

In the scheme of things, the injustice of this censorship is rather small. AT&T is a private company and they can do whatever they want in a private forum that they run. Even the Westboro Baptist Church has rights.

But AT&T, by opposing net neutrality, is asking that we as a people trust them to not censor the internet.

They are asking for permission to change the structure of the internet by violating one of it’s foundational principles — net neutrality. (A principle that AT&T coincidentally opposed when government scientists were attempting to create the internet in the 1950s.)

They are asking that we trust them to not make websites that disagree with them slower and making those they approve of faster.

They are asking that we trust them as an ISP to provide access to content that criticizes them.

They are asking that we trust them not to quash the next disruptive technology that will use the internet in ways we haven’t yet thought of or that will be even better than the internet.

Their sordid history of pleading for special favors from the government to destroy any opponent or innovator (as detailed in many places, but most memorably and recently, in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch) — and their attempts to strangle the internet before it even existed — gives us little reason to trust them.

Their bankrolling of former libertarian economists and thinkers such as Adam D. Thierer (who before they sold out were vicious critics of AT&T) to lie about net neutrality gives us little reason to trust them.

AT&T’s attempts to game the political system with a “slush fund” sponsoring what former VP and Director of Communications, Dick Martin, called “so-called ‘grassroots’ organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside” give us little reason to trust them.

That various people AT&T has sponsored (including Grover Norquist) have now joined up with right wing religious fanatics to oppose net neutrality on the grounds that it will prevent the censorship of “obscenity and other objectionable content,” is yet another reason not to trust AT&T.

To summarize, AT&T is making the argument that they should be trusted as a steward of the internet and that the government should not allowed to protect one of the foundational principles of the internet that has made it a libertarian utopia of competition and free markets in the name of…libertarianism. Yet it’s history and current incarnation betray a culture of censorship and anti-competitive behavior that extends down to an Orwellian policing of it’s ‘Community’ Forum — labeling links it disagrees with as “Spam” and forbidding any discussion of it’s own censorship.

If it succeeds in overturning net neutrality, how much longer will it be before any website criticizing them is labeled as spam — just as a link to my blogpost criticizing them was? And how long before any attempt to discuss such labeling will be forbidden as against the user agreement you accept by getting your internet through AT&T?

Mad? Want to do something? Take a moment and email your Congressperson today to tell them how important net neutrality is to you.

Right Wing Christians Against Net Neutrality Want To Censor Your Internet

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Introduction & Summary

AT&T and other internet service providers started out wanting to undermine one of the foundational principles of the internet (and a direct cause of it’s great economic growth) so that AT&T and the rest could pad their profit margin. To do this, they funded think tanks to come up with talking points and propaganda, they created political “grassroots” opposition, and financed candidates who would oppose net neutrality (who happened to be Republican). In buying off opinion leaders to oppose net neutrality, they ended up needing to get into bed with right-wing christianists who want to censor the internet, thus trading away yet another basic aspect of what has made the internet successful.

How successful has this campaign been? A few weeks ago, I came across a few pieces linking to a letter sent by conservative “luminaries” Grover Norquist, Phyllis Schlafly, and a number of others. This letter prompted Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government and Neil Stevens of RedState to announce that the right wing was finally coming together nearly unanimously against net neutrality. As Big Government describes it:

[T]he Right, as a virtually unified whole, has turned a page in the debate over a dynamic Internet, and now is staunchly and almost uniformly opposed to what some critics call “a government takeover of the Internet.”

Non-Controversial and Bi-Partisan

It wasn’t long ago that net neutrality was a non-controversial position with bipartisan advocates and the only opposition coming from the entrenched interests of AT&T and other broadband providers. The reason for the consensus was obvious: The success story of the internet in creating a libertarian near-utopia was the product of government engineers and forceful regulators — and net neutrality was one of the core principles built into the internet that allowed its remarkable, decentralized success and its wide-open field of competition. It was net neutrality that allowed Yahoo! to come from nowhere and become a success; and Google; and Flickr; and Facebook; and virtually every other web success. Net neutrality meant that Google could compete head-to-head with Yahoo! — and that the only thing that mattered was the quality of its product instead of the degree it could pay off internet service providers to speed up its connection.

It was government action to mandate an early form network neutrality that allowed the internet itself to be created and it was government engineers who designed these initial networks to be content-neutral. Beginning in the late 1960s, regulatory agencies forced AT&T to become a more neutral network (to allow non-AT&T products to connect to its phone lines, to allow other firms to lease its phone lines). Until that point, AT&T had been blocking “the emergence of competing data-communications companies” that eventually played a role in the creation of the internet.

AT&T and the “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet”

However, given AT&T’s history, this bipartisan consensus seemed unlikely to last. The right wing’s movement turn against net neutrality can be counted as evidence of the corruption of our political process. And it’s not the first time. As I documented previously, AT&T has always sought favorable regulations to allow it to take advantage of its customers — and it has a history of funding astroturf organizations and buying off “influential people” in political movements in order to push its agenda. Former top AT&T executive Dick Martin confirmed that Grover Norquist was one of those individuals AT&T went to in the 1980s.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the opposition to net neutrality began to be generated — as John McCain and other Republicans reversed their positions as they received large inflows of money from various broadband companies opposing net neutrality. The meme began to circulate on the right wing that net neutrality was a version of the Fairness Doctrine of the 1960s which mandated radio programs give time to opposing views when they spoke on controversial subjects. This description of net neutrality made no sense — except — as I wrote at the time as a “propaganda campaign … directed [not] to the public at large, but at conservative activists.  The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling.  But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners.”  As I had written earlier:

By equating the Fairness Doctrine with net neutrality, [they are] attempting to polarize the public away from a consensus in favor of net neutrality into two competing camps.

The Right’s Mistake

This most recent letter from Norquist, Schlafly, and other conservatives is interesting though — more than just as a representation of the epistemic closure of the right as it deludes itself into thinking net neutrality is a “government takeover of the internet” and a “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet” because believing and supporting each of these things means more money for right-wing causes. What’s most interesting to me is the political mistake they made — quite possibly the price they paid to get so many christianist activists to sign off on it — and the only flaw I have noticed in this multi-year lobbying campaign. They came out in favor of censorship of the internet:

Net neutrality regulations also call into question how obscenity and other objectionable content on the Internet is treated. Let’s be clear, all content is not equal and does not deserve equal treatment, but net neutrality prohibits broadband service providers from prioritizing the content consumers want and preventing peddlers of child pornography from having unblocked access to every home Internet connection. It is critically important for parents and families to continue to have access to the tools necessary to keep unwanted content out of the home.

All rather uninteresting pablum that doesn’t sound objectionable to the average reader. However, it suggests a weakness in the anti-net neutrality coalition — as these more christianist members will undoubtedly begin to paint this as a matter of  protecting our children through censorship. “All content is not equal,” they say. “We need the internet to protect family values.”

Net neutrality isn’t just what makes the internet a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity; net neutrality is the opposite of censorship — it not only protects my right to blog and be heard on controversial issues, but that good old American past-time of porn-watching. It’s opponents want to block access to the parts of the internet that conflict with their family’s values.

As I had some trouble finding the full letter, I’m enclosing it below (with my source as RedState and the Institute on Religion and Public Policy [pdf]):

(more…)

Explaining Republican Obstructionism: Party First

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Republicans are pushing back against the notion that they are simply obstructionists, that they are the “Party of ‘No’!” But as they do so, their obstructionism has reached new heights.

Specifically, you could look to these examples: Senator Mitch McConnell; Senator Judd Gregg; and Senator John McCain (who thought he was in favor of net neutrality before he started to raise money opposing it and calling it a “government takeover of the internet;” and on cap and trade legislation, which he was one of the major supporters of until Obama proposed it; or then changing his position on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.)

What you think about Republican obstruction determines what you think of Obama. The almost unanimous view of the right wing opinionosphere is that Obama is the most left-wing world leader since Mao Zedong. Obama’s supposed radicalism justifies and explains the unified Republican opposition. Yet no reasonable observer can judge Obama’s policies and actions as very far from the center. He has been ambitious, but cautious. So, with that explanation found to be implausible, what other explanations are there?

Andrew Sullivan posits one which seems the typical and politicized answer – and the one I would have given before the health care debate:

The core narrative of Obama’s promise and candidacy remains what it always was, in my view. He’s struggling against ideology to enact pragmatic reform.

There is truth to this claim – but it is insufficient given Obama’s pragmatism and moderation. On a range of issues, Republicans supported Bush and opposed Obama (for example, compare the treatment of failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid with that of failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab or even deficit spending in general.) This suggests the ideological motivation is not sufficient. Ezra Klein describing Senator Mitch McConnell’s vote against the Conrad-Gregg Deficit Commission posits an explanation that seems most compelling in understanding our current political gridlock, in predicting who will do what:

McConnell’s actions cannot be explained by beliefs, which is something that makes people very uncomfortable. But they can be explained by party incentives, which is something  that makes people even more uncomfortable. We’re very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We’re much more concerned by the idea that they don’t disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.

Simply put, for the most part, voters are not electing individuals with ideologies, but parties incentivized and empowered to obstruct to get into power. This creates the dynamic described in an email sent to James Fallows by a source who claims to have witnessed this conversation regarding the stimulus bill:

GOP member: ‘I’d like this in the bill.’

Dem member response: ‘If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?’

GOP member:  ‘You know I can’t vote for the bill.’

Dem member:  ‘Then why should we put it in the bill?’

Ezra Klein, citing John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, explains why this is an effective political strategy, even if it means giving up on governing:

“People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals,” write Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, “and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.”

Disagreement and deal-making, in other words, signal something going wrong in the political process. They signal that legislators aren’t acting in service of the common-sense consensus of the American people, and are instead serving special interests. Moreover, that’s often true.

In other words, most people, not having the time to figure out what is really going on as misinformation and ideology muddy the news, apply heuristic reasoning – shortcuts for guessing answers to complex problems. People don’t judge policies on the merits as there are conflicting claims, but instead on stories about the process as legislation is being debated and stories about effects after a policy is in force. Given this, its clear that Republicans are taking advantage of the dynamic described well by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com:

Republicans can brand any policy as “partisan” simply by opposing it, however moderate it might in fact be.

With the typical focus on ideology, this seems backwards. But a focus on ideology doesn’t explain the underlying facts – either the public opinion about what is happening in Washington or the uniform opposition of Republicans. At some point, this dynamic will change – because the media will need a new story and the public will grow bored and the facts will eventually seep into the public consciousness. Remember how effective the fear-mongering was after September 11? Eventually, it began to be seen as a stale political tactic – and though it may work again, for the moment, it seems to have lost its magical power. So, too, will this strategy – even if the Democrats never figure out that the effective way to counter this is to just pass the damn bills with good policy and defend them vigorously in public.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Net Neutrality Is What Made the Internet a Libertarian Utopia

Friday, October 30th, 2009

[Forgive me, because this morning I am feeling expansive, and as such, I am omitting the usual qualifiers that constrain my opinions.]

The internet is the nearest thing to a libertarian utopia in the history of the world. It creates the closest thing we have seen to a frictionless market, a perfectly free market – and it is, for the most part, tax free. It allows the closest thing we have to maximum free speech and freedom from censorship. It allows every individual a platform to be themselves, or whatever else they choose to be. It circumvents and undermines governments that attempt to control it. It was created to allow for the maximum of freedom with a minimum of cost. It is resistant to centralized control – and makes it more and more possible to decentralize power. It has unleashed the forces of innovation and creativity that libertarian theory has always posited would come with freedom. It is perhaps the greatest force for expanding liberty in the world since the American revolution (or the fall of Communism.)

How did the internet develop this way? How did this profoundly destabilizing and decentralized network develop? Was it some Galtian genius who set up servers on cargo ships in international waters? Was it some giant corporation which decided it could profit from it? Not quite. And perhaps the story of how the internet developed helps explain why is it that liberals and not libertarians are the ones defending the internet.

Government engineers designed the internet as a network that was decentralized and thus “network neutral,” so as to be resistant to a nuclear assault on the United States. It was designed to be adaptable. Many academics worked on the project on behalf of the government – and were among the first to gain access to it. The large corporations of the time that controlled America’s communications grid – primarily AT&T – were resistant and attempted to strangle this competitor in its infancy, as they tried to discriminate against the data being sent over their lines. Corporations, attempting to derive maximum profit from their assets, also attempted to exert maximum control. AT&T only allowed “authorized” objects to connect to its network – and in fact people did not own their own phones. They licensed them from AT&T. Thus, it was only forceful intervention by the FCC that allowed the internet to develop, that opened up the communications network of the United States to innovation.

AT&T and other corporations, attempting to add to their profits, now seek to find another stream of revenue by undermining net neutrality, one of the foundational principles of the internet itself. They seek to introduce new frictions into this nearly frictionless market and to prevent it from becoming so easily a platform for individuals. Opponents of net neutrality claim that the several attempts by corporations to create policies that were contrary to net neutrality should be ignored because they did not succeed. (They did not succeed because the FCC shut them down.) They claim that there is no need to articulate clear principles about what net neutrality is because so far, the attempts to undermine it have failed. They claim government regulation regarding this would retard “innovation” – when it was government intervention that in fact created the possibility for such innovation.

This libertarian utopia was created by government engineers and protected from powerful corporations by forceful regulation.

Many corporate libertarians (such as Adam Thierer) have embraced the fallacy that the government is the only threat to individual liberties, or at least that the government is always a greater threat to liberty than any other force. They also often count corporations as “individuals” as they are considered such by the law. Thus they have a knee jerk opposition to regulation of any sort – even regulation meant to allow their own values to flourish. They favor freedom for corporations from government over freedom of individuals from corporations because they see the government as the primary evil in the world.

The are many different varieties of liberals, but the group of which I count myself believes that large corporations as well as government both are major threats to individual liberties. We favor smart regulation that does not restrict individuals, but instead restricts corporations who often use their power and clout to deprive individuals of rights. We agree with many libertarian attempts to constrain the government in the area of national security and attempts to make the government more transparent and accountable – but believe that government intervention in some form or another is often needed to restrain corporations from taking away the rights of individuals. We realize that the free markets exist not in spite of the government but because of it, because of a balance between governmental intervention and the rights of individuals and the rights of corporations.

[Image by sea legs snapshots licensed under Creative Commons.]

AT&T: An Unlikely Opponent of Government Regulation

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

AT&T has emerged as the main opponent of net neutrality – while it has tried to paint Google as its main proponent (a surprising move given Google’s popularity.)

Yet, as AT&T now embraces the language of the free market and cloaks itself in libertarian rhetoric about government interference and regulation, it’s worth considering its history. AT&T’s business model is and has always been about manipulating the government for its private advantage. (In this it isn’t much different than most corporations – except in its spectacular success.) According to Adam D. Thierer (whose name will come up later), under company president Theodore Vail during the early 20th century, AT&T’s main goals were:

the elimination of competitors, the befriending of policymakers and regulators, and the expansion of telephone service to the general public.

By 1913, as AT&T had bought up many competitors and driven many smaller companies out of business in local phone service and taken a dominant position in long-distance calling, the Justice Department became concerned that AT&T was becoming a monopoly to the detriment of competition. At this point, AT&T voluntarily entered into the Kingsbury Commitment to avoid the otherwise inevitable regulation – agreeing to withdraw from certain markets (divesting itself from Western Union which it had just bought for example) and to stop its war on smaller local calling companies. They secured their advantage though and were able to continue to solidify its lucrative effectively monopolistic position in long-distance.

As the company continued to solidify its position, it was wary of inciting government efforts to break up its monopoly and so avoided typical practices of monopolies such as raising prices quickly. But during World War I, the company was nationalized and controlled by the Postmaster General. AT&T, now safe from monopoly concerns, immediately lobbied the postmaster general to allow it to raise rates significantly, which under normal circumstances would have triggered concern about monopolistic abuse of power. But, as a government entity during a time of war, AT&T was given this allowance: AT&T raised its rates 20% in the first half year under government control. In addition, the government decided to compensate the company with $13 million “to cover any losses they may have incurred, despite the fact that none were evident,” as Thierer points out.

Subsequently, AT&T began lobbying for government regulation of long-distance rates to solidify their advantage as the de facto monopoly of the long-distance. They succeeded in return for their promise to extend universal telephone coverage. This bargain with the government as well as AT&T’s prestige and government contracts gave it great pull with the FCC such that the FCC protected it. Thierer again:

Beside its powers to regulate rates to ensure they were “just and reasonable,” the FCC was also given the power to restrict entry into the marketplace. Potential competitors were, and still are required to obtain from the FCC a “certificate of public convenience and necessity.” The intent of the licensing process was again to prevent “wasteful duplication” and “unneeded competition.”

…[The FCC would] use its power in favor of AT&T when potential competitors threatened the firm’s hegemony.

Thierer’s history ends here. But AT&T never stopped lobbying the government for favors. In the late 1950s, as it attempted to block any competitors from even improving its product. AT&T owned all devices connected to its network, merely licensing phones to its customers – and maintained the right to block the sale of any “unauthorized foreign attachments” and terminate service to anyone who used them.

AT&T continued to fight for special government favors in the 1980s and 1990s – as Dick Martin, former head of public relations for AT&T and author of Tough Calls: AT&T and the Hard Lessons Learned from the Telecom Wars, explained in an email interview with me – attempting to block competitors from getting into long distance as well as lobbying on more esoteric issues, as they attempted to reduce “access charges (i.e., the per-minute rate the local phone companies charge to originate or complete a long distance call) [and] the cost of unbundled network elements (i.e., what local phone companies charge local competitors for leasing parts of their network.)”

Perhaps most relevant to its fight now against net neutrality, AT&T attempted to prioritize voice communications travelling over its wires, discriminating against data. This would have strangled the internet in its infancy. AT&T would have done so because – as Lawrence Lessig points out in The Future of Ideas, AT&T’s closed network of the early to mid-20th century was the exact opposite of the internet:

One network centralizes creativity; the other decentralizes it. One network is built to keep control of innovation; the other constitutionally renounces the right to control. One network closes itself except where permission is granted; the other dedicates itself to a commons.

How then was the internet able to develop when to be successful it required the wires and connections only AT&T could provide? How then was the freedom of the internet able to develop when it needed to utilize AT&T’s tightly controlled network? What entity was able to take on AT&T to force it to allow the most open market ever constructed to enter its closed system? Lessig explains, it was the government:

Beginning in 1968, when [the government] permitted foreign attachments to telephone wires, continuing through the 1970s, when it increasingly forced the Bells to lease lines to competitors, regardless of purpose, and ending in the 1980s with the breakup of AT&T, the government increasingly intervened to assure that this most powerful telecommunications company would not interfere with the emergence of competing data-communications companies.

Along every step of the way though, AT&T has fought and lobbied to get the government on its side and to manipulate the political process for the good of the company’s bottom line. Martin explained that one of the key people who has remained at the top level of AT&T during its many shake-ups has been Jim Cicconi, their top lobbyist:

When we were fighting off the Bells’ entry into long distance, Cicconi had a $60 million war chest, separate from his regular budget, for hiring political operatives around the country. He used the money to throw obstacles in the path of the Bells.  He started and funded so-called “grassroots” organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside. His staffers searched out influential people who leaned in our direction and then funded their efforts on the issues that mattered to us. So, for example, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Relief, received enough funding to set up special interest groups that have only a tangential connection to reforming the tax system. For example, the Media Freedom Project, which is a “project” of Americans for Tax Reform currently opposes net neutrality. As does another ATR “affiliate” The Property Rights Alliance.  Similarly, the Alliance for Worker Freedom, another ATR affiliate, is opposed to another AT&T bugaboo, union card check. And of course, ATR is a member of the Internet Freedom Coalition, among other groups opposed to net neutrality. I’d be willing to bet that these groups still receive funding from Cicconi’s war chest. Of course, the other side does the same thing.  Or at least that was Ciconni’s excuse when anyone challenged him on any of this stuff.

It seems AT&T is once again engaging in these tactics – as Matthew Lasar of Ars Technica reported yesterday:

AT&T Senior Vice President Jim Cicconi has sent out a e-mail to the company’s entire managerial staff urging them to deluge the FCC’s new discussion site with anti-net neutrality comments.

AT&T has a history of lobbying the government for any regulation or deregulation that best suits its interest. Its success is not that of a free market competitor who always had the best ideas (though it often has had good ideas), but of a savvy political operator who has thrown its weight around and manipulated public opinion, the political process, and regulators to undermine its competitors and strengthen its profits.

Now, they are funding groups opposed to government regulation and interference in the market – specifically on the matter of net neutrality. Adam D. Thierer, who wrote the article that provided most of the critical history I found of AT&T’s manipulation of the government to its own benefit, now works for The Progress and Freedom Foundation Project, whose main sponsor according to their website is AT&T. To my knowledge, it was Thierer who began the erroneous right wing talking point that net neutrality is a fairness doctrine for the internet which has now been repeated by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn as well as on many, many right wing radio shows and blogs.

While AT&T claims to be promoting internet freedom by opposing network neutrality, it was only robust government regulation of AT&T that allowed the internet to develop at all. The freedom of the internet was not some natural occurrence – but the deliberate decision by the engineers at the Defense Department and then government regulators, oftentimes while stridently opposed by AT&T. The corporate libertarians such as Adam Thierer hired by AT&T to promote its agenda only seem to see government intervention impinging on freedom – rather than seeing that the power of a large corporation can be just as destructive. Of course, as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

N.B. Neither Adam D. Thierer nor AT&T have responded to any attempts to contact them, though the post will be updated in the event that they do.

Update: Michael Balmoris of AT&T responded to my specific queries regarding net neutrality and AT&T’s fight against it with this vague pablum:

AT&T has long supported the principle of an open Internet and has conducted its business accordingly, and we support the FCC’s oversight of the wireline broadband market through case-by-case enforcement of the current four broadband principles. Furthermore, AT&T shares both President Obama’s and Chairman Genachowski’s vision of an open Internet—an Internet with a level playing field that benefits consumers and stimulates investment, innovation, and jobs.

[Image in the public domain.]

Why Do Republicans Oppose Net Neutrality?

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

The motto of the Republican Party these days seems to be this: If you’re not getting traction opposing something the Obama administration is doing, then make shit up and oppose that.

This was the approach to health care reform and it’s the approach to cap-and-trade legislation (which had been the Republican, market-based approach to dealing with climate change until Democrats came on board.)  The Republican and right wing opposition to net neutrality provides yet another example of this. It’s not that there are no legitimate grounds to oppose these and other Obama administration positions – libertarians and paleoconservatives have found many – it’s just that the Republicans and right wing media figures opposing it choose instead to pretend that what is being proposed is some fantastical evil scheme.

In this case, they are pretending that net neutrality is (a) a radical change rather than a preservation of the internet as it is; and (b) would create an “internet czar” who would “police content” and force conservative bloggers and website owners to put liberal content on their websites. This is not even close to being true!

Network neutrality is an essentially conservative principle – meaning that it seeks to preserve a core principle of the status quo. (SavetheInternet – a pro-net neutrality group – has a good FAQ page if you’re unfamiliar.) Internet service providers (the companies you pay to be able to get onto the internet) in seeking to find new ways to make even more money want to not only charge you to get onto the internet, but to charge companies with websites to be able to reach you (or to be able to reach you quicker.) Doing this would radically undermine the internet as it is and could easily lead to the entrenchment of any big company willing to pay to best its opponents rather than the company with the best idea.

Net neutrality was a fairly uncontroversial idea as late as 2006 – attracting broad bipartisan support in Congress. A libertarian/conservative group – the Internet Freedom Coalition – did oppose it – on the theory that the internet already was regulated enough and no further laws were needed; but the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee still passed the 2006 net neutrality bill 20 votes to 13.

Last summer though, things began to change. I wrote a piece about how money had begun to flow into John McCain’s campaign as well as other Republicans as the cable companies and other opponents of net neutrality began to try to gin up some opposition. McCain himself seemed confused though his campaign had issued a definitive statement saying he was against it (coincidentally right around the time he started to get money from net neutrality opponents.) McCain said in an interview to Brian Lehrer after this statement that he went “back and forth on the issue.” In the interview, he seemed genuinely confused as to what the issue even was.

But as the money began to go to various Republican candidates, and as progressives and liberals began to defend net neutrality, the issue became polarized. Republican and former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, claimed that net neutrality could lead to the regulation of political speech on the internet, calling it a ‘Fairness Doctrine for the Internet,’ which is clearly a Conservative Strawman, as anyone who bothered to do any research about what the meaning of net neutrality was would quickly find out. Even the Internet Freedom Coalition declines to make this exaggerated claim.

Now, the issue has broken into the news again as the FCC is considering writing rules officially adopting net neutrality rather than invoking it on a case by case basis as it has in the past. (Unfortunately, I’m a bit unclear on the distinction being made between guidelines relied upon by the FCC and rules enforced by the FCC.)

And of course, Republicans, having been duly bought and paid for, are now opponents of net neutrality – as rather than conservatively seeking to preserve the structure of the internet, they seek to allow big corporations the freedom to undermine it in any way they find profitable. John McCain who was so confused by this issue just last year now is a leading opponent, introducing a bill this week to prohibit the FCC from protecting net neutrality or any of the other basic principles underlying the internet as it exists now. Marsha Blackburn, a House Republican, has officially taken on the role of the Sarah Palin for the net neutrality debate, as she pushes the limits of public dialogue by demagoguing net neutrality and regurgitating the wacky talking point that net neutrality is the “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet.”

Perhaps in this storyline you can see what it takes to unhinge the public debate from reality: an interest group with money to burn to concentrate the benefits of government policy and disperse the costs.

[Image by -eko- licensed under Creative Commons.]

Free markets exist not in spite of the government, but because of government.

Friday, March 6th, 2009

One thing many Republicans today do not seem to understand is that the free market is not a natural phenomon. The free market exists not in spite of the government, but because of government.

Reading this white paper by a broadband front group (pdf) which purports to described the “ideology behind net neutrality” which it dubs neutralism and connects it to a lack of respect for private property and an undermining of capitalism, the above sentiment was driven home. As they described the “private property” rights that net neutrality would undermine or take away, it seemed clear to me that they had a fundamental misunderstanding of capitalism – and upon reflection, this fundamental misunderstanding of capitalism seems to have animated a great deal of the perversion of the free market that Republicans1 have promoted for the past thirty years.

The impression one gets from the quasi-libertarian Republican rhetoric of the past two decades is that “government is the problem – not the solution” – and that the free market is the solution. The government and the market are understood to be fundamentally at odds – and so, Republicans have supported a government retreat from any interference in markets. They are in favor of a relaxation of regulations in various areas including from financial industry to the environmental impact of industry; they favor a government that provides as few services as possible – from wanting Social Security privatized to opposing government interference in the health care industry; they want government to allow more mergers and avoid breaking up large companies; they want to reduce taxation; they do not want government to interfere to help labor unions; they oppose rules limiting media ownership; they oppose any laws or regulations enforcing net neutrality.

In short, the Republicans oppose virtually any government “interference” in the free market – and where they cannot plausibly roll back government programs and regulations, they seek to undermine them and to reduce them.

This point of view is often described and justified as a defense of capitalism and free markets – but it truly is an assault on our system of capitalism and free markets in favor of corporate interests. One of the chief roles of the government is the creation of a free market – and many, though not all, of the regulations, programs, and services of the government are designed with this in mind. Sometimes these government interventions do more harm than good – wage and price controls during the New Deal, for example. But the Republican assault on government has not been confined to attacking these harmful programs, but to attacking the role of the government itself.

Many Republicans these days are calling Democratic efforts “socialism,” “Communism,” and “Marxism” – but in reality the Democratic Party has mainly been trying to defend the American economic system which has been under assault since the second of the twin revolutions of late 20th century America. (First was the sexual/cultural revolution of the 1960s that overturned the social and cultural mores; then came the counterrevolution which masked the financial revolution of the 1980s which overturned political and economic values.) They use these broad brushes to attack the very concept that the government has a proper role in a free market – rather than to merely disagree about the effectiveness of certain measures.

The lie to this rhetoric is demonstrated by those limited instances in which Republicans have encouraged government involvement in the marketplace – to extend copyright far beyond its initial scope; to offer tax cuts to favored corporations; to have an extremely large military development budget, etcetera. Each of this policies follows what George Will described as “the supreme law of the land…the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.” In other words, each of these benefits big corporations rather than helping to maintain a free market.

A society creates a government to establish a process for making and enforcing group decisions. One group decision is to maintain a free market. A free market is not what happens when a government doesn’t interfere – if it was, then the lawless nation of Somalia would have the freest market on earth. Instead, a free market is a nurtured thing, created and shaped by government and society. The creation of a free marketplace in America meant investing in infrastructure and roads to allow for easy transport of goods and people; it meant the regulation of large corporations to ensure they did not become monopolies; it meant creating an independent judiciary to ensure that business disputes could be legitimately settled; it meant a relatively open and transparent government; it meant regulations concerning consumer safety and protection and environmental impact; it meant regulations regarding the stability of the economic system; it meant providing for the basic needs of citizens, especially the elderly, the disabled, and the young; it meant preventing the concentration of too much power; it meant protecting certain rights for minorities and individuals; and more. 

Today, it means protecting net neutrality. Net neutrality is one of the foundational principles of the internet – and as such must be a principle protected by the government. Imagine how our economy would have changed if there were fees required to travel along any roads – fees which could be waived if you were traveling to certain stores. It would reinforce the dominance of large corporations and serve to continue to concentrate power. Imagine if I would have to pay a fee to travel to my local hardware store, but could go for free if I went to Home Depot. Broadband industry advocates insist that not only should consumers pay broadband companies for access to the “roads”, but that websites should also have to pay broadband companies to get their potential viewers there. They propose to undermine and limit the decentralized market that is the internet to favor big companies. 

It is government’s proper role to protect this market – to enforce the rules that have made it such an effective and innovative force. 

The internet has spurred so much innovation because it is a free marketplace. Large corporate interests seek to control and limit this innovation – to ensure their power and profits are not threatened. The Republican party now seems to be going along with these interests. But they should not be allowed to do so under the pretense of protecting “private property” and “free markets.” In reality, their efforts to stop net neutrality are yet another assault on the freedom of the marketplace, another attempt to undermine the American economic system.

  1. I use this term although it is a rough one. Some Democrats seem to agree with the Republican points discussed – but they have mainly been associated with the Republican party. []

Don’t Be Idiots: Stop Talking About the Fairness Doctrine

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

I didn’t think the Democrats were stupid enough to start talking about reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. But I was wrong.

For those not up-to-date with the Fairness Doctrine controversy, it goes back to the late 1960s when the FCC began to push radio and television stations to air material about controversial matters including some consideration for both sides of the issue.1 The justification for this government interference was that with a very limited amount of media channels available, and with the airwaves owned by the public and merely licensed to the media companies profiting from them, this was a reasonable request and a necessary one in order to encourage an informed citizenry. By the late 1960s, the powerful corporate forces in the right-wing movement had begun to bankroll a conservative movement at this point – giving enormous amounts of money to create advocacy groups, think tanks, magazines, and other means of pushing conservative messages. One of their goals was to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine – and in 1987 they succeeded. At right about this time with no more obligation to be fair or present both sides of controversial issues, right-wing talk radio took off. Simon Rosenberg publicized this sequence of events – and Steve Rendall at Commons Dreams gives an overview of the liberal take on this history which is worth a read. Since then, conservative talk radio has mobilized the conservative movement – and perpetuated quite a few lies and distrortions. 

In this context, you can see why some Democrats want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  After all, if Steve Marlsburg, nemises of this blog, can use the public airwaves to talk for two hours about how Barack Obama is evil and no good people can support him and go on and on supporting this with one lie after another distortion, wouldn’t everyone benefit from a bit of the other side getting a word in edgewise? And if a handful of media titans control almost all of the media, the concentration of power in their hands ensures that opinions they agree with are aired – and oftentimes, that opinions they disagree strongly with are not aired. 

In this context, Bill Clinton mused about reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on a liberal radio show; Democratic Senator Stanbow wants hearings on something like a Fairness Standard; Senator Tom Harken was quoted on another liberal talk radio show saying, “We gotta get the Fairness Doctrine back in law again;” and a number of other Senators and Congressman have similarly suggested something be done to restore “fairness” to the radio.2 Barack Obama though made it clear during his campaign that he did not support this – and reiterated his opposition again after he took office.

And with good reason: reimposing the Fairness Doctrine might sound like a decent idea given the above history. But there are some major reasons not to:

  1. It won’t accomplish much. Cable and broadcast television shows already give alternative views on controversial issues. They might present one side much better than the other (think Hannity and Colmes) but they give the other side a platform as well. Listeners to conservative talk radio today choose to listen to right-wing nutjobs who don’t try to balance their opinion with facts over more serious sources of news. They have other options if they want them.
  2. It would endanger the important goal of net neutrality. Conservatives are already calling net neutrality a “Fairness Doctrine for the internet.” This is a ridiculous claim – but it will gain some credence if those who support net neutrality also support the Fairness Doctrine. The right continues to push this meme [pdf] and has been having some success in polarizing the support for net neutrality, picking off those right-wingers who are most gullible. As I wrote earlier about this campaign to link these two very different policy ideas
  3. [T]his propaganda campaign [to link net neutrality and the Fairness Doctrine] does not seem directed to the public at large, but at conservative activists. The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling. But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners. And although these groups are not large enough to force their way, they are large enough to derail the political conversation and make it harder to enact this obvious policy.

  4. It would also endanger other goals such as breaking up media monopolies. In terms of other issues, Rush Limbaugh in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed began to lump in rules about “local content” and “diversity of ownership” as the Fairness Doctrine by other means. Rush Limbaugh here is clearly carrying water for Clear Channel Communications who recently gave him a $400 million contract and who would be threatened by rules regarding local content and diversity of ownership as they already own such a large portion of America’s radio stations. Byron York followed Limbaugh’s lead repeating the same talking points in a recent column.
  5. It will provoke a backlash. Right now, aside from the musings of a few prominent liberals and impassioned editorials from liberal talk radio hosts themselves, there is no serious effort to push this idea forward. Liberal ideas are out there – on newspaper editorial pages, on political opinion shows, and most of all on the web. The people most excited by the revival of the Fairness Doctrine are the conservative talk radio hosts and the right-wing movement they lead. I follow this matter closely – reading most articles published on it – and almost every article I read is from some conservative publication or blog hyping the threat to free speech and all that is good and holy that is the Fairness Doctrine. Which is why the Heritage Foundation has this piece of trash written by Rory Cooper insisting that the White House is “rushing” to the Fairness Doctrine – despite the aforementioned opposition by the White House. (A propaganda outlet such as Heritage has not patience for such “subtlties” as facts.) Which is why Senator Inhofe is promoting the view that the Fairness Doctrine as yet another assault on the Christians. Which is why Bryon York recently penned a column linking the Fairness Doctrine to breaking up media monopolies as assaults on “media freedom.” Which is why the World News Daily has distorted Senator Sherrod Brown’s comments to claim he supports the Fairness Doctrine. Which is why Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the talking heads can’t shut up about it. This is a fight the right wants – and for good reason. It plays into the liberal stereotypes conservatives promote – especially the idea of a nanny-state attempt to control free speech. It makes the right look important; it makes the Democrats look petty; if the right loses, they will be able to claim the mantle of victimhood that conservatives seem to relish as much as any other group. 
  1. The Fairness Doctrine was actually created earlier, but it was not incorporated into FCC guidelines until the late 1960s. []
  2. It’s worth noting that all of these more recent comments were made by politicians on liberal talk radio – and only after being prompted by their hosts. []

Bringing Back the Fairness Doctrine

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Marin Cogan in an investigative piece in The New Republic has trouble finding any media-reform liberals or Democrats who are actually want to bring the Fairness Doctrine back or are trying to do so.

As Kevin Drum points out at The Washington Monthly:

Given the collapse of the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes, folks like Limbaugh and Michael Gerson have to create a rallying cry, and there’s no better way to whip up the Republican base than to make far-right activists feel like victims. “Liberals are coming to take away your talk radio!” is, obviously, pretty effective.

At the same time, a conservative effort is underway to label legislation protecting net neutrality (which prevents the internet from being structured to favor certain sites over others and was one of the founding principles of the internet) a “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet,” which may be the only chance the big corporations who oppose net neutrality have to stop it – as Adam Reilly of The Boston Phoenix pointed out, citing me.

It seems the Fairness Doctrine is one of the key components conservatives will be using to keep their partisan backs up in the coming lean years – as well as being a potential fundraising tool.

Adam Reilly Argues Against the Fairness Doctine

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

This blog has a new favorite newspaper – the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix which I actually used to read while I went to college in Massachusetts.

Adam Reilly, media critic for the paper, recently fashioned an argument against the Fairness Doctrine – including the specter of it being used against Net Neutrality:

Regarding Net Neutrality, McDowell asked, “Will Web sites — will bloggers have to give equal time or equal space on their Web site to opposing views, rather than letting the marketplace of ideas determine that?”

This is a stupid question. The Fairness Doctrine involved government mandating, in certain cases, that specific content be added to a particular media entity. In contrast, Net Neutrality doesn’t involve intrusion into content; it only dictates absolute freedom of (virtual) movement. It’s the opposite of what McDowell seems to think.

But as Joe Campbell, author of the blog 2parse.com, recently noted in a post linking Thierer’s paper and McDowell’s remarks, this is about tactics, not logic. If conservative Net Neutrality supporters come to see it as the Fairness Doctrine 2.0 — something that’s more easily done if the Fairness Doctrine is already on everyone’s brain, as it is today — they might rethink their support. Given Democratic gains in Congress and Obama’s support for Net Neutrality, Campbell argues, “This is the big corporations’ only chance to squash Net Neutrality.”

Now that’s a scary prospect. The Web is the future of news media. (It’s also a battleground where, at the moment, Democrats are totally dominating Republicans.) Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine is a dubious proposition, period. But if doing so could jeopardize the success of Net Neutrality, it’s downright reckless.

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