Not Neutrality

By Cook, Brian | In These Times, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Not Neutrality


Cook, Brian, In These Times


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

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 Internets longstanding 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.

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. …

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