Companies Win, Consumers Lose in McCain's Tech Plan

John McCain's tech plan it finally out, although not obviously so. Tech isn't listed as an "issue" under his home page issue list, nor is the plan found under the news or press release sections. It's buried here.

John McCain's Internet is a strange and wondrous world, not like the Internet most people experience. It's a place not for innovation and creativity, but one to be controlled by the telephone and cable companies. McCain's view of the Internet is an Internet is largely infiltrated by pirates and filled with dangers that require government protections and enforcement. His policy is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. That's not surprising, considering that he took a variety of policy positions on the crucial question whether his friends in the telecom business should have been given immunity for spying on Americans. At different times, he supported and questioned it, then skipped the crucial vote entirely. He was not alone in doing this, but it takes on added significance when combined with this policy plan.

As we expected, it's the product of a team of advisors that gives lip service to consumers, but when the rubber meets the road, it's the corporations that get most of the goodies. Somewhat like the McCain campaign more generally, it also contains some internal contradictions that muddy the waters that make this look like the product of a group that was trying very hard to make some attempts to appear consumer-friendly, when it's mostly corporate-friendly.

For example, there's this headline in the plan: "John McCain Has Fought to Keep the Internet Free From Government Regulation." A little further on down, there's this sub-head: "When Regulation Is Warranted, John McCain Acts." So some regulation is fine, but some is not. And therein is the key to McCain's philosophy of the Internet, such as it is, particularly when combined with a separate part of McCain's platform, on privacy and security. The philosophy is that business can do what it wants to control what happens online, but consumers are on their own.

McCain's "innovation" platform sets out four principles that his chief advisor, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, put forward as guidelines when he headed the agency. Consumers have the rights to access services and content, attach equipment and have a choice of service providers. When Powell was chairman, he never bothered actually to enforce any of those. He wanted them simply to be advisory. It was left to his successor, current Chairman Kevin Martin, acting with two current Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, to make those principles stick by acting against Comcast, which throttled consumer traffic and then lied about it.

Here's the biggest internal contradiction: "John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like 'net-neutrality,' but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices." Over the last 70 years, consumers were protected by law from telephone companies discriminating in the carriage of their calls and messages. Powell's FCC lifted those protections for the Internet. Restoring a well-established consumer-protection principle is hardly a new or unique concept, except for the telephone and cable companies, which want unfettered access to everything the consumers put online. Net Neutrality is not prescriptive regulation. It's consumer protection, the kind of thing McCain says elsewhere he likes.

The McCain/Powell construct also deprives consumers of true choice and prevents the "open marketplace." It's all well and good to say that consumers have a choice of providers, but if the choice is two, then that's not much. Thanks to Powell's FCC, that's exactly where most Americans are now: cable or telco are the only viable choices. The wireless services, cell and satellite, are slow and expensive by comparison.

McCain's plan would do little to improve the ability for consumers to have more choice, nor for new Internet Service Providers to start up. There is a sop to municipalities which want to try to fill in where the private sector hasn't found it profitable to go, but McCain's phone company allies have done all they can to stop those projects from getting off the ground. They are a last resort, and many areas can't afford it. True competition exists when new ISPs can start up, lease facilities from the telephone and cable companies, and improve on what consumers can get now. That won't happen under the McCain/Powell plan.

One big question is how far McCain would be willing to let his phone and cable company allies go in invading the privacy of consumers. Another part of his tech platform talks about protecting "the creative industries from piracy." There's nothing in here about consumer rights, but the industries will be protected, mind you. But in another, more prominently displayed section, McCain has proposed a plan to ensure "the personal security and privacy of Americans in the digital age."

"We must all feel confident that today's technologies can be used safely, securely, and in a way that protects our privacy," McCain says. There's the strong possibility this nicely phrased sentiment will conflict with McCain's intellectual property protection pledge. His allies in the telecom world, notably AT&T, want the right to search every packet of data every consumer sends online, looking for copyrighted content. They have talked about it for months. It's a clear invasion of privacy, and ignores that consumers have rights to use copyrighted content in certain ways without permission of the creator. It's called "fair use," and is a well-established principle.

Finally, McCain purports to be in favor of a "connected nation" with the benefits of the Internet available to all. Unless, of course, that connectivity interferes with some other policy goal of his. McCain was the chief proponent of cutting off Internet support funds to schools and libraries which didn't use his prescribed methods of filtering the content students and others see.

His solution to bringing broadband to more people is to adopt a variation of the program that couldn't get off the ground in the Kentucky legislature earlier this year when backed by the telephone companies - more tax breaks for big business to do what they should be doing anyway in serving underserved areas.

A McCain-appointed FCC that follows this program will only continue in the direction this country has been heading for the last seven years - down. As the telephone and cable companies get more and more control, our ranking in Internet connectivity continue to drop relative to the rest of the world.

But those companies responsible for the trend get all the goodies, from tax breaks to control over the Internet, while consumers are left with mostly empty promises -- except for the sinister ones that would surely be carried out in a McCain Administration.