by Jeff Chester and Steven Rosenfeld
Ever stop to wonder what is really happening to the Internet these days?
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 marketing purposes.
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 exponentially.
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 profits.
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 consumers.
"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 late.
Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (http://www.democraticmedia.org/). Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com, where this article first appeared (www.tompaine.com)