Access or Else
By Pat Aufderheide
The proposed merger between America Online and Time Warner could well transform surfing the Net into a paddleboat trip on a corporate pond.
Years of exuberant capitalism have expanded the potential of the Internet for democratic as well as commercial communication. But today's Internet rides on a phone system that cannot meet the needs of today's users, who want fast downloading speeds and video. AOL and Time Warner want to team up and offer instant Web access. But theirs is a Faustian bargain. In exchange for access to their high-speed cable lines, the company could powerfully influence what you can see and access on the Web.
Cable companies have been developing broadband (much faster) Internet service and want all customers to go through their service to reach other Internet service providers (ISPs), meaning customers would have to pay twice and competition would be killed off. AOL used to champion open access to the cable system, demanding that cable companies open up their broadband services to competing ISPs. Small entrepreneurs and public interest and consumer groups joined the crusade.
But the battle lines were redrawn in January, when AOL solved its problem with cash: It bought the country's largest cable company, Time Warner. AOL instantly dropped its demands for a public open-access policy, suddenly confident that the market would regulate itself.
The merger, the largest in corporate history, would create the biggest media company in the world and is now waiting the approval of the Federal Communications Commission. This new behemoth would have the unique potential to design the communications future in its own favor. Here's why: AOL is the largest ISP in the world, with 40 percent of U.S. accounts. Time Warner both produces programming (CNN, HBO, Cartoon Network, Warner Brothers) and distributes it via its WB broadcast network and its huge cable business. Time Warner also controls the second-largest broadband Internet service, called Road Runner.
Together, the two of them have every reason to tailor consumer Internet use to their own benefit. They could rig the speed of transmission so that their services come to you quicker, or store (cache) the Web sites they favor, so they load quicker than the competition. They could make sure AOL Time Warner services pop right up on the first screen you see on your computer. They could limit the ability to send video, so that users can't even dream of offering alternative programs or services. In short, AOL Time Warner could turn today's Internet users - people who can either create their own programs or choose what programs they view and services they use or offer - right back into yesterday's captive consumer audience. This would not only nip competition in the bud, but prevent entire new adventures in low-cost communication from getting off the ground. And that would be bad for democracy.
Consumer and public interest advocates, including the Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, Media Access Project and Center for Media Education, are outraged. Their unlikely ally is Walt Disney. A huge media conglomerate, which owns ABC, cable channels and a movie studio, Disney turned out to be the little guy in a contract dispute with Time Warner in May. To bring Disney to terms, Time Warner simply pulled ABC programs from the systems of millions of viewers. It was a chilling harbinger.
We must not become hostages to any cable company's broadband Internet service. The FCC should support the creativity, entrepreneurship and civic activity that a free and open Internet makes possible by preventing the merger of AOL and Time Warner. But if it fails to protect the public interest, open access to broadband cable will be a demand we must make heard on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures and before every city council that grants a cable franchise.
Pat Aufderheide is a senior editor of In These Times.