|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 50||July 29, 1999|
A high-stakes debate is taking place in communities throughout the United States, and the outcome will determine how soon -- and under what conditions -- high-speed Internet access is offered via broadband cable. NetAction is launching a campaign to educate consumers about the advantages of competitive deployment of high-speed Internet access.
On one side of the debate is AT&T, which until 1984 was the nation's monopoly telephone company, and still controls more than half of the long distance market. On the other side is America Online (AOL), the nation's largest Internet service provider, allied with GTE and the Regional Bell Operating Companies. AOL is also financing No Gatekeepers, a coalition of consumer groups backing AOL's position.
As a longtime consumer advocate, I've seen my share of corporate posturing, but the unholy alliance of AOL, GTE, and the Bells raises hypocrisy to new heights. Under the guise of a call for "open access," these companies have launched a massive lobbying campaign to convince federal, state and local officials, as well as consumers, that AT&T should be forced to provide its competitors with access to the broadband cable network it is spending over $100 billion to deploy. In essence, AT&T's competitors want to benefit from the company's investment without risking their own capital.
It's a sweet deal for AT&T's competitors. And by couching this lobbying effort as a call for "open access," AOL and its allies have managed to convince a few local officials and consumer groups that it's also good for consumers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
GTE and the Bells are the very same companies that have maintained monopoly control of local phone service by using every regulatory and legal trick in the book to avoid opening their own networks to competitors - as they were mandated to do three years ago when Congress enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
And AOL is the company that recently declared its millions of customers "off limits" to instant messaging via software provided by companies other than AOL. If that's an example of AOL's commitment to "open access," consumers have good reason to be worried.
That's why Internet users who want competitive choices in high-speed Internet access should support the "hands off" approach to Internet regulation that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has used for nearly 30 years. As a recent FCC Working Paper pointed out, this "hands off" approach is working. See: http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/OPP/working_papers/oppwp31.pdf (in PDF format).
The Bells and GTE have for years had the technical ability to offer high-speed Internet access over the phone network via digital subscriber line (DSL) service. But they didn't start offering their own high-speed Internet service until competition began to emerge via broadband cable modems. Then, when competition finally developed, the telcos enlisted AOL's help in demanding that government regulate the new technology. This is nothing more than a ploy to slow down competition for both Internet access and local phone service.
NetAction does not believe regulation is necessary to ensure that consumers have choices in high-speed Internet access. Wireless technology is being developed, and competition from cable broadband is already motivating local phone companies to offer DSL service at competitive prices. The "forced access" being advocated by AOL, GTE, and the Bells will simply delay competition and effectively deny consumers the benefits Congress promised when it passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
That's why NetAction is launching Bring Us Broadband, an Internet outreach campaign to educate consumers about the advantages of competitive deployment of high-speed Internet access, and alert consumers to opportunities to speak out against proposals to regulate access to cable broadband that threaten to delay the introduction of competitive high-speed Internet service.
The Bring Us Broadband campaign, at: http://www.netaction.org/broadband/, includes background on the issue, information on how to speak up, and links to other resources. We are also inviting Internet users to subscribe to a new email alert list, Broadband Briefings. Subscribers will be alerted to opportunities to speak out before local, state, and federal officials as they consider this issue.
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A new player has emerged in the controversy over control of Internet domain name registration, with the goal of providing a voice for nonprofit organizations and other non-commercial Internet users. The Non-Commercial Domain Name Holders Constituency (NCDNHC) was formed in response to concerns raised at an international conference convened in Berlin earlier this year by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Despite all the controvery over ICANN, very little attention has been given to the internal governance structure being established. Large corporations like IMB and Bell Atlantic have descended on ICANN and are working actively to secure their commercial interests. Very few groups are working with ICANN to protect the values of free speech, the right to parody and criticize governments and corporations, and the right to hold domain names for non-commercial purposes that also happen to be trademarks (like TY.COM, a first name and also a Beanie Baby company; VERONICA.ORG, a first name and also a trademarked Archie comic book character; and POKEY.ORG, a nickname and also a cartoon character.)
The NCDNHC is intended to provide a voice and representation for organizations that serve non-commercial interests and provide services such as community organizing, promotion of the arts, children's welfare, religion, education, scientific research, human rights and the advancement of the Internet as a global communications system available to all segments of society.
The NCDNHC is asking non-commercial organizations to join as members and vote in its first election, which starts the second week of August. The individuals who are elected to represent NCDNHC will represent the group on the Names Council, which is part of ICANN's internal governance structure. It is important for non-commercial representatives to participate in the Names Council because it will be voting soon on a report issued by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which greatly expands intellectual property rights in domain names -- so much so that a trademark will trump political use, community use, and human rights use. This could effectively silence much of the free expression on political issues that has blossomed on the Internet.
Organizers of the NCDNHC include Kathryn Kleiman, founder of the Domain Name Rights Coalition (DNRC), and representatives of the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) Internet Governance Committee. They been working to draft an initial charter for the organization, and they are now soliciting members.
The draft charter, information on membership, and other background on this effort are on the web at: http://www.ncdnhc.org. There is also a low-traffic discussion list, and subscription information is on the website.
As we have reported previously in NetAction Notes, the software industry is pushing hard for changes in the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) that would allow companies to establish software licensing terms that consumers would be required to accept prior to obtaining the software.
The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) is meeting in Denver this week and will vote on the software licensing proposal TODAY, July 29, 1999. NCCUSL is funded by the state governments to draft model legislation and is very influential with most state governments. If NCCUSL approves the proposal, several states will probably adopt it by legislation within months.
Consumers are urged to contact their state's NCCUSL representatives at the Denver meeting. A list of representatives, contact information for the hotel, and sample letters are on the web at: http://www.badsoftware.com/.
Although the proposal was initially aimed at software, manufacturers of other consumer products, including car companies and Gateway 2000 computers, took out a full page ad in the July 23 USA Today asking for the same ability to hide terms from customers until after the sale. If the shrinkwrap licensing proponents are successful this year, there will be tremendous pressure to add similar anti-consumer provisions next year.
The Gilbert Center http://www.gilbert.org/gilbert has launched a new discussion list open to anyone interested in online fundraising. The list will initially be unmoderated.
Michael Gilbert, who publishes Nonprofit Online News, said he was initially reluctant to promote online fundraising, but decided to start the discussion list because people are beginning to make charitable contributions on the Internet.
"Many promoters were selling the Internet as a virtual 'money spigot' for non-profits," Gilbert said. "It didn't feel ethical for me to support these unrealistic fantasies."
But Gilbert said times have changed.
"People are now giving money online. Organizations are using the Internet to build better relationships with donors. The Internet is no longer mere hype when it comes to fundraising."
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