Debunking some Telco Disinformation.

Given the success of recent pro-net neutrality videos, it comes as no surprise that the telcos have launched their own. You can watch their cartoon on the Hands Off the Internet website (direct link here).

As one might expect from an org primarily funded by cable and telco groups, it contains a few exagerations, misstatements, obfuscations, and the occassional outright lie. My friends at Mediacitizen have written this rebuttal. Savetheinternet.org has also posted a page on the telco anti-NN cartoon, with a link to this point by point response.

But, for those readers seeking more indepth analysis of just how much nonesense the “dontreghulate.org” cartoon dishes out — combined with the trademark snarkiness you’ve come to expect here at “Tales of the Sausage Factory” — please read below. Takes me back to my old days watching Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I’ve set out a basic transcript and indicated what the image is. The text of the “Don’t Regulate” cartoon is marked with “>”.

>1 — Image of thought bubble with “Is the Internet in Danger?”

> Is the Internet in Danger? Does the Internet need saving? It keeps getting faster. We keep getting
>more choices and pretty soon homes will be connected to
>the fiber optic backbone.

Harold here. Yes, we keep getting more and more choices because the FCC imposed solid rules to block the phone companies from interfering with internet content (well, what would ultimately become known as “internet” content) MORE THAN 30 YEARS AGO! These rules continue to exist, in fact, for the next several months — unless Congress passes either the COPE Act or the Stevens Bill.

Straw man telco heckler: What do you mean they had these rules more than 30 years ago? There wasn’t even an internet 30 years ago.

Harold again: While what we now call the internet didn’t officially get called that until much later, the first FCC proceeding that would make the development of the internet possible started in 1966. You can find a comprehensive timeline here on Bob Cannon’s Cybertelecom cite (Bob is scrupulously neutral on his site, since he wants it to be an information resource).

Briefly, in a series of orders called the “Computer Proceedings,” the FCC required AT&T (at that time the only telephone company) to stay completely out of offering “enhanced services” on its telco network in 1971, and to allow any commercial rival access to the network (AT&T had to sell them connections) and prohibtting AT&T from messing with the content in any way. We now call this “network neutrality.” This called the Computer I Order.

AT&T complained that it should be allowed to get into the new data processing and transmission business, and “electronic publishing” and other such “enhanced services” as well. So the FCC in 1980 said that if AT&T used a completely separate affiliate, and continued to sell connections to any rivals without regard to what content or services the rivals wanted to offer, AT&T could get into this line of business. Again, the FCC prohibitted AT&T from doing anything to mess with content or charge differential amounts based on content or who the third party offering the content was. (i.e., network neutrality). This became known as the Computer II Order.

Finally, in 1985, after the AT&T break-up, the FCC softened the separate affiliate rules a bit. But it maintained the absolute iron-clad “net neutrality” rule it had first established back in 1973. We call this (I bet you can spot the pattern by now) the Computer III Order.

Well, the internet grew and prospered under this regulatory regime. From 1985 to passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, these Net Neutrality regulations fostered a world of rapid deployment, incredible innovation, and intense competition. On the free speech side, Net Neutrality created a medium “as diverse as human thought” (in the words of the Supreme Court). Not bad for the awful heavy hand of government.

Cable straw man: But that never applied to cable!

Harold again: Granted the history of cable is a little more complex. The Republicans took over Congress in 1994. Cable started to deploy broadband in a serious way around 1997. While telcos had clearly defined rules (including network neutrality), cable companies existed in this bizare limbo. folks kept asking the FCC if cable modem service was a cable service (subject to certain kinds of regulation), a telecommunications service (subject to different kinds of regulation), or an information service (subject to no regulation except what the FCC might impose). But the FCC wouldn’t say if cable modem was a cable service, a telecommunications service, or an inforrmation service, or how they might regulate it whatever they decided. In fact, when you tried to press the FCC to issue a decision, it would stuff its institutional fingers in its ears and go “LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I’M NOT DECIDING! NOBODY ELSE DECIDE, BUT I’M NOT DECIDING. LA LA LA LA.”

If you asked the FCC, they’d tell you they were studying the matter and didn’t want to rush into things. If you asked me, I’d tell you that the FCC got the stuffing kicked out of it in the late 1990s by the Republican Congress if they even thought the word “internet” too loudly. Also, as I’ve observed before, until Chairman Martin came in, the FCC has largely seen itself as the cable industry’s happy little lap dog. So while network neutrality regulations existed, no one actually applied them to cable.

Nevertheless, the existence network neutrality rules kept the cable companies in line, because the cable companies worried that they might get applied to them — which was where the Democrats on the FCC were going.

I’ve outlined the rest of this in my Network Neutrality Primer. Suffice it to say that when the Republicans came in, they declared in 2002 that cable modem was an unregulated “information service” and announced they would remove the longstanding network neutrality rules from the telcos as well. The Supreme Court upheld their right to do so in the Brand X case in 2005.

So, on August 5, 2005, the FCC issued a comprehensive order removing the network neutrality rules that had existed since 1973.

So yes, the internet keeps getting faster and we keep getting more choices — because we had Network Neutrality. If Congress eliminates network neutrality, all that good innovation and competition and free speech stuff goes flush down the old public policy toilet with other nasty regulatory things, like defined benefit pensions and bankruptcy protection for individuals.

Straw guy: Wait, you said the network neutrality rules were still protecting the internet. We’ve had nine months and nothing going wrong! What about that!

Harold: In fact, THESE REGULATIONS STILL PROTECT THE INTERNET. When the FCC eliminated the network neutrality rules in August 2005, it created a one year “phase in” period. The FCC also announced it would enforce four “principles” protecting basic network neutrality, albeit much less so than before. (These principles were imposed for two years on SBC/AT&T and Verizon/MCI as part of the merger orders a month later, making them more easily enfroceable against AT&T and Verizon).

So the old regulations are still in effect, unless Congress takes them away.

Back to the video (sorry that took so long).
>2 — Image of businessman and consumer with a briefcase
>full of cash and corporate logos on right

>Transcript — Building the next generation of the
>Internet is going to take a lot of work and cost a lot
>of money. And some big corporations can’t wait to use it.
>. . . They’re going to make billions. But they don’t want
>to pay anything. Instead they want to stick consumers
>with the whole bill.

Harold here: Actually, total expenses from major content and service providers to expand network capacity and their transport totaled about $10 Billion last year.

That’s right, BILLION.

Some free ride.

Where did the money go? First, any website or service you use on the internet has already paid money to a provider to reach you, just like you pay money so you can send email to friends or upload files. My employer, Media Access Project, pays a company called HIS to host our website and provide us with basic email services. They, in turn, pay a bigger company (like Verizon) to carry MAP’s content (and all other content hosted on HIS) to the “internet backbone” — a series of huge-capacity lines carrying data all over the world. These huge lines get paid by the carriers like Verizon (that charged HIS, that charged Media Access Project) (assuming Verizon doesn’t just use its own backbone) to carry the bits to your broadband access provider (like AT&T or Comcast). Your access provider delivers the Media Access Website (or content) to you.

Along the way, the bits might cross a bunch of different networks. After all, the great innovation of the internet is that it breaks information into packets and sends the packets by the quickest, most efficient available path and reassembles the information on the other end. So some “parts” MAP’s webpage may travel along one network, while other “parts” travel along the another. But everyone along the way either gets paid money or agrees to swap traffic of equal value (called “peering”). Believe me, NO ONE moves bits for free. There ain’t no packet fairy, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and, as usual, you can read more about it at Bob Cannon’s Washington Internet Project here.

Where else does this $10 BILLION paid by the content providers (and everyone else) go? It pays for new networks for companies that want to “push more faster.” It pays for special services that take traffic off the main networks (like Akami) and move them through private networks or stores (caches) them close to people. (As some of you may recall, I call this “provider provisioning”.)

Bottom line, nobody moves bits for free or gets a free ride anymore than the person calling you from one phone gets a “free ride” into your phone. You both paid at your ends. Same thing here.

Back to telco cartoon
>3 — Image of bureaucrat standing next to stack of
>’regulations’ and a net guy at computer

>Transcript — These Corporations are asking Congress to
>create volumes of new regulations to control how content
>is delivered over the Internet. Should politicians and
>bureaucrats replace network administrators? It will be
>the first major government regulation of the Internet and
>it will fundamentally change how the Internet works.
>These big corporations and the Save the Internet >campaign want the government to take control of the
>Internet.

Harold: Not quite. Remember how I said above the FCC kept network neutrality alive on life support? The phone companies don’t like that. And, unlike Terry Schiavo, the Internet is apparently not part of the culture of life. So THE TELCOS pushed Congress to pass a law that would STRIP THE FCC OF ITS AUTHORITY TO PROTECT THE EXISTING RULES.

As explained in my Network Neutrality Primer, the COPE bill pending in the House would limit the FCC to enforcing its “four principles.” The bill strips the FCC of its existing authority to issue any new rules if it discovers that bell and cable cos are abusing their control of the lines. The Senate version, introduced by Senator Stevens, goes even further. The Stevens Bill, prevents the FCC from taking any kind of action even if someone can prove massive abuses by telcos and cable cos.. The only thing the FCC can do is send a report to Congress detailing what is going on. And even then, the Stevens Bill outlaws the FCC from even suggesting possible regulatory fixes — like restoring the existing rules.

Naturally enough, a lot of folks have gotten upset. If Congress is going to take action (not a bad idea, given the FCC’s decision to abolish the old rules that worked so well), it should take the right action — KEEP THE EXISTING RULES IN PLACE, not gut the rules even further to benefit the telephone companies.

To add insult to injury, the same bill also includes other provisions that make the bell and cable monopolies stronger and kills important consumer protections. But no time for that now ….

Back the the cartoon (you can see why Savetheinternet used a shorter version)
>4 — Image of Canadian Mountie on Moose

>Transcript — They say [net neutrality] is to prevent
>websites from being blocked. But they can only cite two
>examples of Internet providers who have blocked websites.
>And they were both in Canada

Harold: Because if it happened in Canada it can’t happen here, right?

More seriously, the “there’s no problem so don’t worry” argument should raise a lot of alarm bells. For one thing, as I described extensively above, we don’t have problems because we still have rules that protect us — and will until August 2006. Meanwhile, the telcos and cable cos remain on their best behavior, because if Ed Whitacre (CEO of AT&T) shooting his mouth off about how he plans to mess with people can set off a firestorm, imagine what actually messing with people will do.

Even with rules in place and companies trying to behave themselves, you still end up with companies blocking rivals and degrading service. For example, Comcast blocked the antiwar site Afterdowningstreet.org. AOL blocked emails that criticized it’s “certified mail” program. Some time back, a rural telephone company called “Madison River” blocked competing voice over IP services.

And this is what happens when we have rules! What happens when the rules go away? Or worse, what happens when Congress strips the FCC of any authority to stop these kinds of abuses?

The cablecos & telcos say that outrage over such conduct will cause people to switch providers, so they will never do it. (Assuming they even have a choice.) Haha. While I think my blog rocks, I don’t see any of my readers switching back to dial up (which was also deregulated, btw) just so they can get Wetmachine.com.

Yes, if anyone does anything as unsubtle as blocking email from someone as big as moveon.org, you get a fuss. But how many people would have dropped Comcast if they continued to block afterdowningstreet.org? Heck, how many people would have known about it.

We had a story today in the Washington Post about a local kid who died from rabies, contracted when a rabid bat bit him. We can usually cure rabies in humans with immediate treatment — a series of painful vacination shots in the tummy. So people don’t like rabies treatment. But by the time rabies symptoms show up in humans, it’s too late. The time for treatment has passed. So when someone gets bit by a wild creature, it’s smart to get rabies treatments and not wait to see what happens. Because a painfull shot in the tummy you might not need is a heck of a lot better than a very, very ugly death because you waited to see if we had a real problem.

As I’ve written before ad naseum, I care about this because I feel our democracy is at stake. We’ve seen the “no problem exists, so deregulate” argument in media ownership. So now we have a very concentrated media that covers what the few people who own the media outlets want covered. We went from “no problem” to “almost too late” in just a few years, and only pulled back from the brink (if we have) by massive grassroots effort.

So too with network neutrality. We can wait and see if a “problem happens,” or we can take a few precautions now to keep ourselves free. When do you want to get vacinated? Before you get measles, or only after you’re “sure there is a real measles problem?”

Last cartoon slide
>5 — Image of ‘Who Controls the Internet’ with question
>marks

>Transcript — The net neutrality issue is a fundamental
>question about who should control the Internet: The
>people or the government? And it’s a fight about who’s
>going to pay: multi-billion dollar corporations or you?

Harold: Well finally a frame I can agree with! This is the absolute rock bottom question — who gets to decide?

If Congress passes COPE or the Stevens bill, abolishing the existing rules that protect free speech and competition on the Internet and either eliminating or sharply limiting the power of the FCC to take action against abuses, the phone and cable companies that brought you the above slide show will run things. And believe me, you will pay big time. Because if companies have to pay extra to get through to you, despite paying $10 Billion already to reach people, you can bet they will take it out of your hide.

And you will pay in other ways, because the cable and telco companies will own your fanny. They will take all your personal information that passes over their networks and sell you to the highest premium customer. That’s what AOL’s “certified mail” does. It lets AOL override your spam filters to give “premium access” to whoever wants to pay for it. It’s what Verizon wireless and Cingular (owned by AT&T and Bell South) did with your cell phone data.

True, they don’t do it with your telephone or cable data, but that’s because we have laws on the books that protect people from that. But the whole reason the Bells and cable cos tell you to support COPE and the Stevens Bill is to get government OUT of protecting people because that interferes with the free market. Right?

So, since they’ve done it before, why do you think they wouldn’t do it again? If COPE or the Stevens Bill pass, why wouldn’t AOL or AT&T or Comcast sell your personal data, or special access to your computer, to whoever they want to without your consent? That’s the “free market,” right? We wouldn’t want to let the nasty bad, bad government protect your from the market, would we?

So, as the frame asks, who gets to decide? The people, or the telco lobbyists manipulating the government? And who will pay? Will everyone pay as they go for the services they use — what happens now under legacy net neutrality rules — or will the phone companies and cablecos get to charge you coming and going?

Stay tuned . . .

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6 Comments

  1. michael says:

    Check http://saveaccess.org and send a letter to Congress to stop the COPE legislation.

    Also – next Wed. May 24th many cities are staging protests at Telco offices. Get involved at:
    http://saveaccess.org/protest

  2. Doug Alder says:

    Given the telcos cooperation with the NSA I’d be very concerned about what sort of deals are being cooked up with congress right now. What if the GOP cuts a deal to toss away all regulations on neutrality in exchange for say all progressive sites suddenly disappearing from the net in 2008 because they could not afford an exhorbitant charge for priority packeting and strangely enough their unprioritized packets only reached the bit bucket. Sorry chaps, best effort and all that eh wot!

  3. Russ Nelson says:

    Harold, you really should find out more about Goodmail Systems before you make a worse fool of yourself. MoveOn and EFF has totally botched their case against Certified Email. Lending them support with your uncritical links does NOT support the case for Network Neutrality. It undermines it. People who understand Certified Email look at your links and say “Geez, he’s linking to cranks” and then wonder about other portions of your argument.

  4. Peter says:

    Russ,
    Harold never linked to MoveOn or EFF when he mentioned GoodMail. You obviously have something to gain from defending GoodMail and falsely chiding a poster. (Your benefit from GoodMail I supect is probably monetary. Things like that usually are. Like when Wal-Mart paid a conservative blogger in Iowa to defend the corporation in the local mass media).
    Somehow I doubt people who clicked on the links would confuse news.com for MoveOn or EFF.
    But I could be wrong; conservatives, especially those who are being paid, do have blinders on.

  5. Jim Lippard says:

    Correction: AT&T was not the only U.S. telco in 1971. They had 100M customers to 25M customers for all the independents put together, but there were independents such as Rochester Telephone in NY. There were also a couple parts of the Bell System that AT&T only had a minority stake in–Cincinnati Bell (which briefly owned IXC Communications, changed its name to Broadwing, and sold it to Corvis, which took on the Broadwing name) and Southern New England Telephone (acquired by SBC and now part of “at&t”).

  6. Harold says:

    jim Lippard, good point. But there is only so much I can squeeze in to a post.

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