Not Neutrality

Why are the Communications Workers of America opting out of the Save the Internet coalition?

BY Brian Cook

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Last year, the telecommunications industry did their best to build a tiered Internet that would have privileged the Web sites that paid companies like AT&T and Verizon an additional fee and degraded the speeds of Web sites that did not. But it was the advocates of “net neutrality”–the Internet’s long-standing design principle that prevents service providers from discriminating against any content, Web site or platform–who ended up with a string of impressive victories.

After the House overwhelmingly passed the Communications Opportunity, Protections and Enhancement (COPE) Act without neutrality provisions in June, a massive grassroots campaign erupted, scaring enough senators away from its companion version to insure the legislation died on the vine. Then, in a development described by Columbia University law professor Timothy Wu as a “milestone,” AT&T agreed in December to respect net neutrality for the next two years in order to have the FCC approve its merger with Bell South.

Much of the success can be attributed to the SavetheInternet.com Coalition spearheaded by the nonpartisan media reform organization, Free Press. The coalition is more than just a “big tent”; its 700-plus membership list of bloggers, church groups, academics, video gamers, small businesses and advocacy groups is so ideologically broad as to be laughably democratic. Here if nowhere else can lefty stalwarts like Feminist Majority, the ACLU and SEIU break bread with the Christian Coalition of America, Gun Owners of America and the American Patriot Legion, who in turn sit alongside the World Pantheist Movement, the Chocoholic Society and Legion of Death, whose Web site helpfully explains that its “number one purpose … is to recruit players of Chrome Hounds.”

But amidst this bevy of strange bedfellows, is one conspicuous absence: the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the union that represents 700,000 media and telecommunications industry workers. And the CWA isn’t just sitting on the sidelines. Last May, when the House was considering pro-neutrality legislation, CWA President Larry Cohen wrote a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, arguing that if such a bill passed, “investment in the physical infrastructure necessary to provide high-speed Internet would slow down, the U.S. will fall even further behind the rest of the world, and our rural and low-income populations will wait even longer to enter the digital age.” Meanwhile, at the state level, the CWA has vociferously opposed attempts, most notably in Michigan, to mandate net neutrality in the local and state franchise agreements with telecommunications companies that set up conditions of service quality and community benefit provisions.

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Representatives at Free Press refused to speak on the record about the CWA’s opposition to net neutrality. It’s easy to guess why: One of their branches is housed on the eighth floor of the CWA Building in Washington, D.C. But their reticence shouldn’t be solely attributed to fear of incurring their landlord’s ire. Despite the schism over net neutrality, the groups share a broad consensus on a variety of media issues, including many closely related to neutrality itself. Debbie Goldman, a research economist at the CWA, says, “We probably agree with 95 percent [of the platform] of those supporting net neutrality.”

Both the CWA and the SavetheInternet.com coalition agree that the current state of broadband in the United States is, in Goldman’s assessment, “abysmal.” In terms of the percentage of its population with broadband access, the United States has steadily fallen in recent years and now ranks 16th in the world. Meanwhile, the speed of the average broadband connection in the United States is between 1 and 3 megabits per second (mbps) for DSL and 3 to 5 mbps for cable modems; in Japan, 80 percent of the country’s connections are at 100 mbps. Even worse, Japanese consumers pay exactly the same as Americans for these connections.

All sides also agree on many of the steps needed to improve this situation. First, the FCC’s absurdly low definition of what constitutes broadband–0.2 mbps–must be revised upwards. Second, the FCC should create a national broadband map that would detail the geographical areas that do and do not have access to broadband. (ConnectKentucky–an alliance of local governments, universities and tech companies that did precisely this for that state–has developed an excellent model.) Finally, the FCC should subsidize broadband as well as phone services for low income and rural areas through its Universal Service Fund, financed by the fees that telecommunications companies charge their customers each month.

But where the two sides disagree is on the principle of non-discrimination. Neutrality proponents fear that, without it, companies like AT&T or Verizon could potentially degrade or outright block any Web site that they want. If legislators make net neutrality the law of the land, the potential for malfeasance disappears, because the non-discriminatory principle would be enshrined into the very architecture of the Web itself.

“Would Verizon or AT&T necessarily degrade or block any Web site that was critical of them or corporations?” asks Brian Dolber, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Illinois who studies the history of relations between labor and mass media. “I don’t know, but why not have it instituted into the law that they can’t do that? That’s what net neutrality protects and does.”

In theory, the CWA agrees. “Speed Matters,” its recent policy paper on U.S. broadband, states, “Consumers are entitled to an open Internet allowing them to go where they want, when they want. Nothing should be done to degrade or block access to any websites.” Instead of advocating for net neutrality, however, the CWA endorsed the anti-blocking provisions in the COPE Act. But neutrality activist derided those provisions as “toothless” and further decried that the act terminated the FCC’s authority to expand on them.

Neutrality proponents also note that any portions of bandwidth reserved by corporations for higher speed traffic will take away from bandwidth for all of the other, slower traffic. Thus, a tiered Internet could lead to de facto degradation through congestion, as the majority of non-paying users would be forced to make do with much less bandwidth.

“We want to make sure that independent, non-commercial information, dissent, news, innovation, women and minorities, people who are not part of the system now should not have to go onto the slow lane,” says Jeff Chester, a longtime media activist and author of the new book, Digital Destiny. He charges that “because the CWA wants to be able to preserve jobs at AT&T and Verizon, in essence they’re willing to sanction a gilded digital toll road, which would mean that most progressive content that sanctions CWA’s own values couldn’t make it through.”

Goldman says the union is simply more concerned with building out networks and increasing their speed, which she believes will render moot any concerns about congestion. “If we have 100 mbps, we’d have so much capacity that the whole issue [of congestion] goes away,” Goldman says. “The real goal is getting big, big broadband so that there isn’t an issue of congestion, which then raises concerns about whether there’d be different types of service. That’s the real goal: How do you get it built? How do you get to big broadband?”

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No one knows exactly how much it will cost to build out a universal, affordable, high-speed network, but most estimates suggest it will cost in the tens, perhaps hundreds, of billions of dollars. And Goldman notes that the political landscape in the United States is far different than in Sweden–where the government is simply building a universal high-speed network to individual homes–or even Japan, which has subsidized massive low-interest loans and allowed for accelerated depreciation.

“We’re America, where there’s capitalism, and companies invest where there’s a return on their capital,” she says. “How are the companies going to pay for this? Their business model, and our position, is that, in order to pay for the public good of the high speed network, these companies should be able to have a private video network.”

As Goldman notes, most neutrality proponents have no problem allowing private video networks. But they fear that if neutrality is scrapped, the telecommunications companies will begin to expand their business model around discrimination. They cite a 2005 Business Week article, in which the CTO of Bell South explained that his firm “should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.”

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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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