|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 16||March 31, 1997|
If local phone companies in the United States have their druthers, Internet service will be a lot more expensive. And consequently a lot less affordable and accessible.
Putting a new twist on a tired old tactic familiar to those who follow telecommunications issues, U.S. Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) are maneuvering to get their customers to finance their investments in new infrastructure. This time, they're blaming Internet users for burdening the networks, and attempting to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to impose access fees on Internet service providers. And you can bet that if the FCC goes along with this, Internet service providers will pass on those costs.
While the focus on Internet service providers is new, the strategy isn't. For years, telephone companies have attempted, with various degrees of success, to convince regulators that residential customers should finance their infrastructure investments. Typically, they have done this by arguing that the cost of basic monthly phone service is substantially higher than what customers pay for it.
Enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 should have put a stop to this, since the act opens the telecommunications industry to competition. After all, in a competitive market, companies turn to investors when they need cash to invest in new infrastructure. But the telephone companies have been playing "Monopoly" for so many years that it seems they just can't quit.
Some RBOCs complained so loudly about Internet users burdening their networks that the Federal Communications Commission opened a Notice of Inquiry to consider the phone company concerns and hear from the Internet service providers, Internet users, and others.
On March 24, NetAction filed comments on this issue with the FCC. The comments were filed jointly with the United Consumer's Action Network (UCAN), Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet) and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). The complete comments are on NetAction's Web site at www.netaction.org.
In these comments, NetAction argues that the telephone company claims of network congestion are unsubstantiated and do not justify imposition of access charges on ISPs. We also suggest that telephone company claims of network congestion are somewhat hypocritical since many phone companies are currently offering Internet access and other information services themselves, in competition with Internet service providers, and at the same flat-rate pricing structures they blame for network congestion. And we point out that the suggestion that ISPs should be responsible for adding capacity to what many consider already outdated circuit-switched network technology is incongruous with the fact that more advanced technologies exist today to make the telephone network "data friendly."
Although the issues raised in the FCC's Notice of Inquiry are fairly technical, the outcome is not. If regulators force Internet service providers to pay access fees to the phone companies, the phone companies will have a significant competitive advantage, and Internet service providers will be forced to pass the additional costs on to customers. This will make access to the Internet less affordable and consequently less accessible. And this outcome is clearly not what our policy makers promised us when they enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Last week's tragic and shocking mass suicide by UFO cultists had nothing to do with the Internet. But that didn't stop the media from suggesting that there was a link between the Internet and the bizarre Heaven's Gate cult, simply because cult members maintained a Web site.
Those of us who use the Internet regularly know that cyberspace is neither a breeding ground for cultists nor a garden of spiritual enlightenment. The Internet is a powerful means of communication -- nothing more. Some of us use the Internet to communicate positive, life-affirming ideas and values; others to communicate the darker side of life. In a free society, where there are no restrictions on speech, we must tolerate all of it.
While it would be easy to dismiss the media's distortions about the Heaven's Gate cult as uninformed, it would also be dangerous. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was enacted in part because of sensationalistic media reports about pornography on the Internet. Educated, well-meaning people believed those reports, and believed that restrictions on speech were necessary in order to protect their children from the cesspools of cyberspace.
There is a lesson in the CDA experience. It is not unrealistic to assume that educated, well-meaning people can also be persuaded that the Internet is a breeding ground for cults. Nor is it difficult to imagine Congress, or even some state Legislatures, enacting legislation to "protect" our children from cults in cyberspace.
It is very likely that the sensationalistic media reports linking the Heaven's Gate cult to the Internet will add fuel to efforts by the Christian right and other political and religious extremists to ban or criminalize the ideas and activities they disagree with. Those of us who value free speech should take the initiative to prevent this. There is a lot that we can do in our own communities, like writing letters to the editors of our local newspapers, calling in to our local talk radio shows, and asking our local television stations to air alternative viewpoints. We can also make sure that our friends and neighbors who are not online know that we are -- and that it has been a positive experience for us. We can even give our offline friends a "tour" of cyberspace by showing them our favorite Web sites.
By speaking out within our own communities, and putting last week's tragic events into perspective, we may be able to prevent the Internet from once again being demonized by those who fear the Internet precisely because it empowers the free and open exchange of ideas and information.
San Francisco Bay area residents will have two opportunities in May to learn more about how to be a Virtual Activist.
On Saturday, May 10, the Media Alliance is sponsoring another half-day Virtual Activist workshop. This is an advanced workshop intended for activists who are already familiar with E-mail and Web browsers.
It will be held at the Media Alliance office, 814 Mission Street, Suite 205, from 1-5 p.m. Cost is $55, with discounts of $10-$15 for members of NetAction and Media Alliance. To register, phone (415) 546-6491.
The workshop is co-sponsored by NetAction and the Institute for Global Communication, and is designed specifically for activists who want to learn how to make better use of the Internet for organizing, advocacy, media outreach, building membership, education, and fund raising. Participants will learn how E-mail, Web browsers, and more advanced tools of the World Wide Web can be integrated with other outreach and organizing activities.
I will be co-teaching the workshop with Michael Stein, director of special projects at the Institute for Global Communication.
Michael and I will also be teaching a one-hour workshop on May 20 as part of the Support Center's Non-Profit Day Conference. This workshop will only be open to registered conference participants. For information on the conference, phone the Support Center at (415) 541-9000.
Activists outside the San Francisco Bay Area who are interested in co-sponsoring a Virtual Activist workshop with NetAction should contact me for further information at , or by phone at (415) 775-8674.
Membership in NetAction supports continued publication of NetAction Notes, as well as a wide range of organizing and training activities. NetAction projects include helping grassroots organizations harness the power of the Internet as a tool for outreach and advocacy; helping activists who are already using the Internet do a more effective job of building a base of grassroots support for technology-based social and political issues; and promoting more widespread access to information technology by organizing hands-on demonstrations of the Internet.
Please join NetAction today by sending a check payable to NetAction/Tides Center to: NetAction, 601 Van Ness Ave. #631, San Francisco, CA 94102.
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Copyright 1997 by The Tides Center/NetAction. All rights reserved. Material may be reposted or reproduced for non-commercial use provided NetAction is cited as the source.
NetAction is a project of The Tides Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. NetAction is dedicated to promoting effective grassroots citizen action campaigns by creating coalitions that link online activists with grassroots organizations, providing training to online activists in effective organizing strategies, and educating the public, policymakers and the media about technology-based social and political issues.
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