Memo to AT&T: The Debate Over the Internet’s Future is Not Just “About Movies”

In a revealing comment last week, AT&T lobbyist honcho Jim Cicconi told journalists that the battle over network neutrality was “all about movies.” That AT&T would see it that way is understandable, since their “vision” for the future of the Internet is basically a souped-up version of pay television (with endless embedded “rich media” interactive ads). The Bells and the cable industry want to control the pipeline into our computerized devices so they can reap the profits from such downloads. They believe that the proponents of network neutrality only want to also provide the public with video programming, including films. Reflecting their narrow view of our broadband futures, it was reported that AT&T and Verizon would be happy to offer others access if they receive enough bags of dough. CNet’s Marguerite Reardon wrote that the two Bells “would simply like to offer content companies, such as Google and Movielink, virtual pipes directly to consumers over their broadband connections that would allow these content companies to make sure users have a good experience accessing their content.”

In other words, get ready for a multi-tiered, metered and toll-boothed Internet. Big companies with big bucks in the fast and direct lane. Everyone else—sorry, you’re stuck on the Jersey Infopike.

But, of course, the real issue is whether the U.S. will have a democratic digital media system. We need an open pipeline not for Hollywood films, but for the never-ending bandwidth intensive content that will be an important part of our lives. From advocacy videos to streaming media about art; from broadband community health wiki’s to new public affairs channels owned by persons of color—our broadband future will be diverse. But we must ensure that everyone has fair entry into the PC, the IPTV, and even mobile devices. We need a robust public lane for all, with guarantees that everyone can have ready access to content. The debate over network neutrality isn’t about whether the Cable and Bell giants will block website access. It’s really over whether Americans will be treated fairly—so they can enjoy the bounty of content that can help enrich their families, communities and our democracy.
PS: Ironically, when lobbyist Cicconi represented the old AT&T (in 2001) he called on Congress to support safeguards that would require his boss today (the former SBC) and other Bells to operate open broadband networks. I suppose who ever pays the lobbyists piper gets to call the tune of the day.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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