Occupy the Internet

[My latest for Huffington Post]

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.

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  • garymyrick

    Bob has a hell of a nerve to appropriate or use the word “occupy” about anything. A major reason that the Occupy movement exists in the first place is because President Obama turned a dead ear to their concerns. All with Bob gleefully reminding us that we have no choice but to support Obama and there is nothing we can do about it.

    Well, surprise, Bob. Obama has already been forced to move to the left because of the Occupy movement and he will continue to have to do so.

  • mrbrink

    Quote of the year, if not the century:

    “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.”

    – Bob Cesca

    I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately, and everyday I try to find a way to say what you said in what is probably the definitive articulation of concerns over internet freedom to date.

    But after reading the Protect IP Act I’m a lot less concerned about it than I am with relentless encroachments to net neutrality and any movement to obstruct the broadening of cheaper and more efficient access to more people. The Protect IP Act focuses on websites “dedicated to infringing activities” or websites operating out of the country engaging in the domestic selling of counterfeit goods and services. There’s even mention of websites that sell fake prescription drugs in the U.S. from out of the country. There are already countless evolving internet laws on the books that outline copyright law, intellectual property rights, usage, on and on, and they do serve a purpose in resolving claims of intellectual property theft, like in disputes brought by warring big time/small time software developers, or when Viacom sues YouTube. The Protect IP Act is probably a bipartisan bill for two reasons: You can see the Democratic influence in the text by way of establishing a let’s-talk-it-out process for litigation and judicial remedy– in regard to claims of “infringing activities.” You can see the Republican concerns expressed in alleviating any and all responsibility for content providers who provide IP addresses for websites found to be “dedicated to infringing activities.”

    • nicole

      You don’t agree that the PIPA is a threat to free speech? That blogs are likely to be heavily impacted? That we may end up with an internet which caters only to corporate speech?

      mrbrink, it is so rare to find myself disagreeing with you, but in this case, based on what I’ve read and heard only (I haven’t read the act), I have to disagree.

      • mrbrink

        You should read the Act.

        • nicole

          Will read it during the next few days, brink.

      • mrbrink

        And just to be clear, I wasn’t kidding when I said Bob’s responsible for the quote of the century– A hopefully much more democratic century with the greatest tool for democracy ever devised by human hands– the internet– leading the way, expanding and securing free speech with it. But if you’re looking for Protect IP Act to be the dagger in the backs of free speech, I just don’t see it with my own eyes. And with the growth of the internet and the ever-expanding realization of profitability, we’re going to see the expansion of laws implemented to protect against unauthorized use of other peoples’ property. It’s a market with unlimited growth potential, really, that we’re still growing into, and to say that we should do nothing to address and remedy the legal disputes and claims that arise along the way as a result is simply unrealistic.

        When I read the act, one of the first things I thought of was the spammer that shows up here and posts links to knock-off Nikes and the content providers that give the IP addresses.

        • Guest

          It’s one thing if congress is writing the laws with input from the citizenry only. But what we have here is totally something else. What we have here is scum like the Koch Roach brother’s lawyers and lawyers from mega multnational media conglomerates writing the laws, while the 99% is shut out of the legislative process. Get real man. You’re living in a fantasy world that doesn’t exist.

        • nicole

          mrbrink, you don’t agree that it will infringe on the free speech rights of average citizens? For example, bloggers such as myself or Bob, or Think Progress?

    • Guest

      This is the proverbial “slippery slope.” All it takes is inserting a few more words to shut the Internet off to the 99%.

      Anyone who knows how the Internet works should be very afraid if the 1% are able to pass laws like this.

      • mrbrink

        I don’t buy that.

        Title 17 is filled with this kind legalese and ass-covering. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, as well as countless other laws and statutes enacted since the rise of the internet sound far worse in their reading than Protect IP Act, and it doesn’t seem to have curtailed the spread of internet-organized democratic revolution around the world in recent years.

        I’m just saying.

        • Guest

          I agree. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is necessary to maintain a viable, fair, and balanced Internet. But when mega multinational media conglomerates and their telecom lap dogs start going around acting as gatekeepers, which is where any of this legislation will lead, we are all in trouble, even you mrbrink.

          The fact that the language in the law might sound benign is a smokescreen. Mega multinational media conglomerates have unlimited bank accounts and will pay lawyers to say things that judges, bought and sold by the likes of the Koch Roach brothers, like Thomas, Scalia, Alito, etc., will agree with no matter how in contrast to the language of the law, should be of concern to everyone.

          • mrbrink

            You could be right. You are right. But then again I think it’s a big deal that I can say the F-word on Bob’s blog and still say Clarence Thomas should be physically wrestled from the bench by the proper loony bin authorities without fear of repercussion, other than social outcast.

            I’ll stake my reputation on the fact that Al Franken, Pat Leahy, or Sherrod Brown are not selling us out to the Koch brothers, or AT&T.

  • nicole

    This topic makes me so nervous I generally try to avoid it. I know, I know. Stupid. Really stupid.

    I know what the consequences will be if that bill should become law. I think the problem is that too many don’t really understand how it will affect them, and the internet itself.

    We should be talking about this daily.

  • Bob Cesca

    Off to a roaring start, I can see.

    • nicole

      it’s just because it’s Friday, Bob. It is a really excellent piece.