It is duplicitous to suggest that the incumbents represent the “free market” against “government-subsidized” municipal networks. Incumbents are incumbents precisely because they have had the weight and resources of government to back them up for years. Furthermore, they have had backing from those levels of government - the federal and state - which are least pervious to direct participation by local residents. Municipal networks, funded by the public and accountable to the public, represent a balance to the domination of telecommunications infrastructure by huge corporations which have long enjoyed substantial government subsidy. Banning or restricting municipal networks will end this effort to create a level playing field.
The Real Government Takeover of the Internet
If you aren't familiar with SOPA - the "Stop Online Piracy Act" or its companion in the Senate (called PIPA or Protect IP), you should be. This is legislation that would allow the US government to require Internet Service Providers block web sites without due process. Sascha Meinrath and James Losey from the New America Foundation explain the threat in Slate:
The interconnected nature of the Internet fostered the growth of online communities such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. These sites host our humdrum daily interactions and serve as a public soapbox for our political voice. Both the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA would create a national firewall by censoring the domain names of websites accused of hosting infringing copyrighted materials. This legislation would enable law enforcement to take down the entire tumblr.com domain due to something posted on a single blog. Yes, an entire, largely innocent online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority.
If you think this scenario is unlikely, consider what happened to Mooo.com earlier this year. Back in February, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security seized 10 domains during a child-porn crackdown called “Operation Protect Our Children.” Along with this group of offenders, 84,000 more entirely innocent sites were tagged with the following accusatory splash page: “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution." Their only crime was guilt by association: They were all using the Mooo.com domain.
From our point of view, what is most interesting is not who is pushing this bill (Hollywood and the usual suspects that tried to kill the VCR because it would obviously destroy the movie industry) but who is not resisting. After all, whenever the issue of network neutrality comes up, the big telecom companies pay a bunch of organizations like Americans for Prosperity to create astroturf movements to oppose a "government takeover of the Internet." Of course, network neutrality is the opposite - a set of rules where the government requires corporations not dictate how subscribers use the Internet.
But here we have a literal government takeover of the Internet. Should SOPA pass, the federal government would decide what sites are allowed to be accessed by Americans and which cannot. The evidence thus far suggests that more sites will be harmed by incompetence as opposed to intentional political censorship but the entire approach is troubling, to say the least.
To get a sense of which elected officials are supporting this legislation, here are the cosponsors for HR 3261 in the House and cosposors for S 968 in the Senate. More details on how you can be involved at Demand Progress.
Many of the organizations who have strongly fought for an open Internet with strong network neutrality rules are pouring resources into stopping SOPA. This includes Free Press's Save the Internet, Public Knowledge, and others. Some of the network neutrality opponents, like the Wall Street Journal and Cato Institute have also warned against SOPA but other groups -- like Americans for Prosperity have been fairly silent. The next time AT&T and Time Warner Cable-sponsored groups start fear-mongering around policies that threaten to bring competition against their corporate sponsors, we must ask them where they were when the future of the Internet was truly threatened.
The Future of Music organization has reviewed an alternative to SOPA that may be a much better approach.
Below is a video about SOPA.
Image credit: monkeyc on Flickr.