August 4, 2003
Stealing The Internet
With Blessings from the FCC and Congress, the High-tech Industry
Wants to Privatize the Internet. What Happens When you Have to Pay to
Join the Information Revolution?
by Jeff Chester and Steven Rosenfeld
Ever stop to wonder what is really happening to the Internet these
The crackdown by the music industry on illegal downloading tells just
part of the story. Even with the dot-com bust, the digital boom is
here, as high-speed connections, faster processors and new wireless
devices increasingly become part of life. But the thousands of
lawsuits are not just about ensuring record companies and artists get
the royalties they deserve. They're part of a larger plan to
fundamentally change the way the Internet works.
From Congress to Silicon Valley, the nation's largest communication
and entertainment conglomerates -- and software firms that want their
business -- are seeking to restructure the Internet, to charge people
for high-speed uses that are now free and to monitor content in an
unprecedented manner. This is not just to see if users are swapping
copyrighted CDs or DVDs, but to create digital dossiers for their own
All told, this is the business plan of America's handful of telecom
giants -- the phone, cable, satellite, wireless and entertainment
companies that now bring high-speed Internet access to most Americans.
Their ability to meter Internet use, monitor Internet content and
charge according to those metrics is how they are positioning
themselves for the evolving Internet revolution.
The Internet's early promise as a medium where text, audio, video and
data can be freely exchanged and the public interest can be served is
increasingly being relegated to history's dustbin. Today, the part of
the Net that is public and accessible is shrinking, while the part of
the Net tied to round-the-clock billing is poised to grow
One front in the corporate high-tech takeover of the Internet can be
seen in Congress. On July 21, the House Subcommittee on
Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing on the
"Regulatory Status of Broadband." There, a coalition that
included Amazon.com, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Disney and others, told
Congress that Internet service providers (ISPs) should be able to
impose volume-based fee structures, based on bits transmitted per
month. This is part of a behind-the-scenes struggle by the Net's
content providers and retailers to cut deals with the ISPs so that
each sector will have unimpaired access to consumers and can maximize
The industry coalition spoke of "tiered" service, where
consumers would be charged according to "gold, silver and bronze"
levels of bandwidth use. The days where lawmakers once spoke about
eradicating the "Digital Divide" in America has come full
circle. Under the scenario presented by the lobbyists, people on fixed
incomes would have to accept a stripped-down Internet, full of
personally targeted advertising. Other users could get a price break
if they receive bundled content -- news, music, games -- from one
telecom or media company. Anybody interested in other
"non-mainstream" news, software or higher-volume usage,
could pay for the privilege. The panel's response was warm, suggesting
that the industry should work this out with little federal intrusion.
That approach has already been embraced by the industry-friendly
Federal Communications Commission.
Meanwhile, in the courts, there has been a rash of new litigation
spurred by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)'s
pursuit of people who have illegally shared copyrighted music. The
music industry no doubt hopes to discourage file-swapping piracy, and
some big telecom companies, such as SBC Communications, have
counter-sued, saying they will protect their clients' privacy. While
that's good public relations, there's more to this story as well.
Telecoms, like most big corporations, don't want other businesses, let
alone the government, interfering in their operations -- so there's
plenty of reasons to counter-sue -- even if the record companies and
telecoms have parallel stakes in privatizing the Net.
But there's also a technologically insidious element to this side of
the story. The software now exists to track and monitor Internet
content on a scale and to a degree that previously hasn't been
possible. The RIAA is taking people to court because it has the
technology to track illegal Internet file swapping. This level of
content-tracking is the next-generation application of what's been
developed to keep children and teenagers from viewing porn at the
local library or home. Consider this typical bit of sales arcana from
the Web site of Allot Communications, which says its software can
track and filter Internet communications and use that analysis to bill
"Allot Communications provides network traffic management and
content filtering solutions for enterprises, IP service providers, and
educational institutions... Allot's QoS [quality of service] and
service-level agreement enforcement solutions maximize return on
investment by managing over-subscription [unintended uses], throttling
P2P [peer-to-peer, the music piracy software] traffic and delivering
tiered classes of services."
This new world of metering, monitoring and monetizing Internet content
has prompted new business ventures, such as cable firms exploring
partnerships with the videogame industry, where there's plenty of
money to be made in high-volume interactive uses. In fact, the reason
Hollywood has delayed the deployment of next-generation digital
television -- besides their fear of digital piracy -- is they have not
yet figured out how to impose their pricing model -- to extend their
current distribution and sales monopoly.
Of course, the last concern in corporate boardrooms and Congress is
how the privatization of the Net will affect free speech and the
public interest. Just as C-Span and public broadcasting were crumbs
thrown to the public the last time new communications technologies
were developed, there's been little talk about insulating
public-interest uses from a more 'metered' Internet.
There is undoubtedly a legitimate business case to be made for having
people pay for emerging high-bandwidth uses, but whether people will
be charged to see streamed videos of political candidates or public
meetings is another matter. Moreover, users need to know what part of
the Net will be public and accessible and what part will be billed to
credit cards -- and this is unclear.
While there needs to be a balance between private sector goals and
public policy needs, that's hardly a topic of discussion on the
Internet's frontline. Currently, America's media giants are planning
the equivalent of a 19th-century land grab in cyberspace to ensure
they will profit mightily in the 21st century. Metering data
transmissions and monitoring content is how they will get there. And
the tools and political climate to achieve this are here.
This century's new media giants are now working with Congress, Federal
Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell and their industry
partners to transform the Internet. The only open question is whether
the public will influence this transformation before it's too
Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital
Democracy. Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer