There's a bizarre irony in the fact that we're so absorbed and immersed in an online universe, we're not really paying attention to the slow but steady corporate takeover of the very thing that's the center of our nearly constant attention. There's a cold war of attrition being fought for the right to own the Internet, its content and its technology, and you're losing.
For more than a decade, corporations and special interests like the telecom, recording and film industries have been systematically making it impossible to carry on with free speech in the only venue left for us to exercise that right.
This war is so intense and so complicated, there aren't any clear "sides" in Washington. Both the Democrats and the Republicans (frankly, it's mostly Republicans) appear to be joining forces against the rest of us -- whether we're writing about important issues of the day or producing mash-up videos involving talking cats, anime sex and grape stomping, we're all in this together. And if the wrong laws are passed, we could very well lose, and losing would irreparably roll back our last ability to freely express our ideas to large audiences without genuflecting to corporations.
In every session of Congress, net neutrality comes this close to being irrevocably destroyed, allowing Big Telecom to take over and determine which blogs, websites and streaming content will make it to an audience and which sites get killed. In other words, if net neutrality is revoked, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon will get to decide how much bandwidth you will be able to access for your site. That means an almost entirely democratized digital universe will cease to exist -- replaced by a corporatocracy.
The outfits that are prepared to pay for fat tubes through which to pump their corporate crap will win the day and you, specifically, will get whatever is left over, dooming your voice and, in many cases, your livelihood to strangulation and death. In other words, while the Internet was the great equalizer, allowing any content of merit to succeed, corporations are using massive financial and political resources to transform all of this into a television/film model in which a chosen few decide what content makes it to the masses.
Meanwhile, America's access to broadband is embarrassingly awful. We're 15th among other nations in broadband reach, and, unforgiveably, 26th in terms of speed. If you want killer download speeds, you'd might be better off in South Korea or Romania. Put another way, the Republican presidential candidates are releasing YouTube videos in which they hoot and fist pump about American Exceptionalism... at download speeds slower than Greenland (No. 19) and Lithuania (No. 1).
It's no wonder. Advocacy groups like Wireless for America are attempting to ameliorate our pathetic ranking by pushing for a widened broadband spectrum, but they've been thwarted at every turn by special interests and, naturally, puppeteered Republican members of Congress. For example, a company that calls itself LightSquared is attempting to start up a new wireless network, but Big Telecom -- or Big GPS in this instance -- has decided that there's no room for more wireless competition so they're using Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Tom Petri (R-WI) to block the startup. You know, because Republicans are all about competition in a free market, right?
It probably won't shock you to learn that Trimble and John Deere, the "Big" in Big GPS, are huge contributors to both Grassley and Petri. To paraphrase an infamous Grassley line, the senators are sucking from GPS teat. Trimble and Deere insist that LightSquared's network will interfere with their GPS signals even though the FCC has entirely debunked the complaint. Additionally, LightSquared executives think that negative press about its operations have been planted by the GPS industry.
Once again, not unlike the story of the Tucker car, the process of innovation is thwarted by government intervention from politicians who raise money by talking about how government should get out of the way. Strange how that works.
But possibly the biggest threats to free speech in our lifetime are worming their way through both chambers of Congress almost undetected.
The Protect IP Act is being fast-tracked through the Senate, and its counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA, is gaining momentum in the House. Each law will allow the corporate media to literally shut down your domain name if it determines that you're illegally exploiting intellectual property (IP). In technical terms, it will give corporations the power to control the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS). Under the celophane-thin cover of attempting to smoke out content pirates and 12 year-olds who share Justin Bieber songs, massive media conglomerates will be able to -- in yet another way -- silence free speech. Anyone who is believed to be a competitor in the game of delivering content to an audience could be targeted and destroyed without ever having a shot at competing in the actual online marketplace. The Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America haven't blinked when it comes to prosecuting kids for illegal downloads, and they surely won't blink about doing the same to a blogger who embeds a video clip or spy photo of a movie on their site.
If you're targeted as a threat to corporate media's market segment, you can and will be destroyed.
Oh, and it's worth mentioning that the roster of co-sponsors of the Protect IP Act is confounding. The bill is sponsored by liberal Democrat Pat Leahy, and the co-sponsors include some extraordinarily strange bedfellows. Sherrod Brown and Chuck Schumer are standing alongside tea party Republicans like Marco Rubio. Saxby Chambliss and David Vitter are right there with Al Franken. Thank goodness Ron Wyden is trying to block the bill from coming to a vote -- a vote, by the way, that would pass.
I've been working in online media since the middle 1990s, and this is easily the most dangerous turn of events so far.
The only way the Internet will remain truly democratic and the only way this informational democracy will prosper is if we're as diligent about protecting it as we are about contributing to it. How do we achieve this? Perhaps the time is right to Occupy the Internet.