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October 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: When the internet first blossomed, I said to
myself, "If I were a person committed to corporate power as a
political philosophy, I would make it my first priority to get rid of
the internet." And now that's exactly what's happening. -- Peter

By Bill Moyers and Scott Fogdall

Bill Moyers is host of "The Net At Risk," a documentary special airing
Wednesday, October 18 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). Scott
Fogdall is with Films Media Group. Visit

It was said that all roads led to Rome. However exaggerated, the image
is imprinted in our imagination, reminding us of the relentless
ingenuity of the ancient Romans and their will to control an empire.

For centuries Roman highways linked far-flung provinces with a
centralized web of power. The might of the imperial legions was for
naught without the means to transport them. The flow of trade -- the
bloodstream of the empire's wealth -- also depended on the integrity
of the roadways. And because Roman citizens could pass everywhere,
more or less unfettered on their travels, ideas and cultural elements
circulated with the same fluidity as commerce.

Like the Romans, we Americans have used our technology to build a
sprawling infrastructure of ports, railroads and interstates which
serves the strength of our economy and the mobility of our society.
Yet as significant as these have been, they pale beside the potential
of the Internet. Almost overnight, it has made sending and receiving
information easier than ever. It has opened a vast new marketplace of
ideas, and it is transforming commerce and culture.

It may also revitalize democracy.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "You can't compare the Internet to the Roman
empire. There's no electronic Caesar, no center, controlling how the
World Wide Web is used."

Right you are -- so far. The Internet is revolutionary because it is
the most democratic of media. All you need to join the revolution is a
computer and a connection. We don't just watch; we participate,
collaborate and create. Unlike television, radio and cable, whose
hirelings create content aimed at us for their own reasons, with the
Internet every citizen is potentially a producer. The conversation of
democracy belongs to us.

That wide-open access is the founding principle of the Internet, but
it may be slipping through our fingers. How ironic if it should pass
irretrievably into history here, at the very dawn of the Internet Age.

The Internet has become the foremost testing ground where the forces
of innovation, corporate power, the public interest and government
regulation converge. Already, the notion of a level playing field --
what's called network neutrality -- is under siege by powerful forces
trying to tilt the field to their advantage. The Bush majority on the
FCC has bowed to the interests of the big cable and telephone
companies to strip away, or undo, the Internet's basic DNA of openness
and non-discrimination. When some members of Congress set out to
restore network neutrality, they were thwarted by the industry's high
spending lobbyists. This happened according to the standard practices
of a rented Congress -- with little public awareness and scarce
attention from the press. There had been a similar blackout 10 years
ago, when, in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress carved up
our media landscape. They drove a dagger in the heart of radio,
triggered a wave of consolidation that let the big media companies get
bigger, and gave away to rich corporations -- for free -- public
airwaves worth billions.

This time, they couldn't keep secret what they were doing. Word got
around that without public participation these changes could lead to
unsettling phenomenon -- the rise of digital empires that limit, or
even destroy, the capabilities of small Internet users. Organizations
across the political spectrum -- from the Christian Coalition to -- rallied in protest, flooding Congress with more than a
million letters and petitions to restore network neutrality. Enough
politicians have responded to keep the outcome in play.

At the core this is a struggle about the role and dimensions of human
freedom and free speech. But it is also a contemporary clash of a
centuries-old debate over free-market economics and governmental
regulation, one that finds Adam Smith invoked both by advocates for
government action to protect the average online wayfarer and by
opponents of any regulation at all.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that only the unfettered
dealings of merchants and customers could ensure economic prosperity.
But he also warned against the formation of monopolies -- mighty
behemoths that face little or no competition. Our history brims with
his legacy. Consider the explosion of industry and the reign of the
robber barons during the first Gilded Age in the last decades of the
19th century. Settlements and cities began to fill the continent,
spirited by a crucial technological advance: the railroad. As railroad
companies sprang up, they merged into monopolies. Merchants and
farmers were often charged outlandish freight prices -- until the
1870s, when the Granger Laws and other forms of public regulation
provided some protection to customers.

At about the same time, chemist Samuel Andrews -- inventor of a new
method for refining oil into kerosene -- partnered with John D.
Rockefeller to create the Standard Oil Company. By century's end
Standard Oil had forged a monopoly, controlling a network of pipelines
and railways that spanned the country. Competition became practically
impossible as the mammoth company manipulated prices and crushed rival
after hapless rival. Only with the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust
Act in 1890 did the public have hope of recourse against the
overwhelming might of concentrated economic and political power. But,
less than a century later a relative handful of large companies would
assemble monopolies over broadcasting, newspapers, cable and even the
operating system of computers, and their rule would go essentially
unchallenged by the U.S. government.

Now we have an Internet infrastructure that is rapidly evolving, in
more ways than one. As often occurred on Rome's ancient highways,
cyber-sojourners could soon find themselves paying up in order to
travel freely. Our new digital monopolists want to use their new power
to reverse the way the Internet now works for us: allowing those with
the largest bankrolls to route their content on fast lanes, while
placing others in a congested thoroughfare. If they succeed in taking
a medium that has an essential democratic nature and monetizing every
aspect of it, America will divide further between the rich and poor
and between those who have access to knowledge and those who do not.

The companies point out that there have been few Internet neutrality
violations. Don't mess with something that's been working for
everyone, they say; don't add safeguards when none have so far been
needed. But the emerging generation, which will inherit the results of
this Washington battle, gets it. Writing in The Yale Daily News,
Dariush Nothaft, a college junior, after hearing with respect the
industry's case, argues that:

Nevertheless, the Internet's power as a social force counters these
arguments....A non-neutral Internet would discourage competition,
thereby costing consumers money and diminishing the benefits of lower
subscription prices for Internet access. More importantly, people
today pay for Internet access with the understanding that they are
accessing a wide, level field of sites where only their preferences
will guide them. Non-neutrality changes the very essence of the
Internet, thereby making the product provided to users less valuable.

So the Internet is reaching a crucial crossroads in its astonishing
evolution. Will we shape it to enlarge democracy in the digital era?
Will we assure that commerce is not its only contribution to the
American experience?

The monopolists tell us not to worry: They will take care of us, and
see to it that the public interest is honored and democracy served by
this most remarkable of technologies.

They said the same thing about radio.

And about television.

And about cable.

Will future historians speak of an Internet Golden Age that ended when
the 21st century began?

Copyright 2006