Saturday, June 5, 2010

Battle Royale

Susan Crawford, a former technology policy advisor to President Obama, issued a stark warning to civic activists and Internet technologists attending this year's Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan. "We are," she said Friday, "in a titanic battle for the future of the Internet in the United States" -- one that pits those who would keep open, high-speed Internet access available to all and those who would seek to change that.

Crawford, an Internet and communications law professor at the University of Michigan, said Web technologists and social media-for-social-good activists are "radically under-represented" in this battle and need to start getting involved so that online social advocacy and open government can evolve and thrive, unfettered by corporate controls and new pricing restrictions. She said that Web innovators and social media entrepreneurs should not take for granted the kind of low-cost, high-speed, open Internet access they now enjoy -- nor ignore Washington's telecom policy battles any longer.

Crawford, a member of the board of directors of ICANN from 2005-2008, opened her speech with a reference to Wikipedia Co-founder Jimmy Wales, who -- when asked on Thursday whether he thought free and open high-speed Internet access for all was critical to online activism, ducked the question. "I have no idea," he said from the PDF stage. "I build Web sites."

Crawford, picking up on Wales' comment the next morning, told PDF-ers the following:

"What Jimmy was saying is that 'Web sites mean government over there.' And I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint. I was brought up -- trained -- in the Internet Age by people who really believed that nation-states were on the verge of crumbling and that anything that a telephone company wanted to do, we could just geek around it --we could avoid it, and that these people were just irrelevant, essentially. So I feel as if, for the last seven years (of now working in and with policymakers in Washington) that I have been learning a foreign language and traveling in a foreign country, and so I'm here today to do a little translation (of Washington) for you.

...You might have thought we broke up AT&T in 1984. Well, I want to report to you that they've found a way to gather together once more. We essentially have two gigantic telephone companies dividing the country up amongst themselves. You also may not know that the cable providers have (divvied up the country in such a way) that no one (cable company) competes with another. So there is lots of merging going on and no legal limits on (broadband providers) and their ability to discriminate. And what I am really here to tell you today is that we are in a titanic battle for the future of the Internet in the United States; that the technology community is radically under-represented in this conversation and that Jimmy Wales' response -- 'I make Web sites' -- is no longer appropriate or sufficient."

Crawford then cited another co-keynoter at the PDF conference, U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra, who told conferees earlier that the government has what he called "a new role" -- opening up increasing amounts of government data to the public over the Internet, information that Chopra said has been, "until now, hidden within the bureaucracy." But there's a second big new role for government, Crawford said, "to provide a level playing field for Web innovators." She told conferees they need to worry about Web personalization -- the growing use of increasingly sophisticated filters by Web data aggregators such as Google to narrow and define the information people have access to online. People also "should worry about personalization at the network level," Crawford said, "because these (telecom) carriers are convinced that monetization of Internet applications content is the only way they are going to survive."

She then reminded conferees that "the Internet would not exist absent government regulation. ... The fact that telephone companies were required to allow computers and modems gave rise to the Internet. If those same phone companies would have understood the Internet (back then), they would have tried to monetize it. They didn't get the chance," Crawford said, but they're trying again now.

She said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's recent proposal to make high-speed Internet access a regulated service has triggered a furious round of lobbying by telecom companies and their lobbyists -- even though "high-speed access to the Internet (by all) is a central economic tenet of our age," Crawford said. She added: "Companies are arguing that they should have no oversight and not be regulated by any federal actor. So that's where we are. A titanic battle. And what's at stake? I saw some comments on the Twitter feed (at this conference) about the importance of rural America (having better access to the Internet). The FCC wants to be able to bring broadband to all Americans and they can only do this by classifying Internet access as a regulated service."

Just how intense is this battle on the Hill? Crawford said AT&T spent $6 million in the first three months of this year lobbying against any form of regulation, "attacking the FCC and (waging) a definite campaign of personal destruction. ... We need your help and the tech sector needs to be part of this conversation and it's not yet there. [The FCC] is doing its best to be constructive and do the right thing ... but I want to encourage you to find ways into this conversation and make sure that your voices are heard."

Crawford also asked those in the audience to speak up against further consolidation of broadband services as represented by recent merger talks between Comcast and NBC. She said the FCC is holding a public forum July 13 at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago on the proposed Comcast/NBCU/GE joint venture, and urged everyone in the audience to spread the word.

"Remember Jimmy Wales' comment, 'I make Web sites'?" Crawford asked the audience. Concluding her remarks, Crawford quipped that Wales should, instead, be asking: "Do I want to be able to make (Web sites) in the future?"

Crawford got a standing ovation.

What do you think? Is it time for the the technology, social advocacy and open government communities to get involved in this fight? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Photo: J.D. Lasica, on Flickr)

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