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DC Revolving Door, Comcast, and Campaign Finance Reform

One of the reasons community broadband networks face so many unique hurdles (often created deliberately by states in response to cable/dsl lobbying) is because of the many ways in which campaign finance corrupts our national and state governments.

Community broadband networks are focused on meeting community needs, not sending lobbyist armies into Washington, DC, and state capitals (though one of things we do at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is offer help to those that do push pro-community agendas in these areas).

To understand why DC is so focused on furthering the corporate agendas of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and others, is to understand the revolving door. (Also, understanding capture -- which we have explained previously.)

In short, many of the people who make decisions about telecommunications policy in DC have worked, will work, or are presently working for the massive companies that effectively control access to the Internet in most of America's communities.

The good folks at Geke.US have created the following Comcast Venn Diagram illustrating a small piece of the DC revolving door.

Comcast and DC's revolving door Venn Diagram

Reforming this system is a deep, seemingly intractable problem. But for those looking for answers, a good place to start is with the work of Lawrence Lessig. I just finished his Republic, Lost, which offers a grand tour of the problems resulting from the present system of campaign finance.

You can also see a number of his presentations here.

His organization, the Rootstrikers aim to get to the root of problems rather than being distracted by trying to fix symptoms of deeper problems. This is precisely what we do with our focus on community networks.

Many focus solely on resolving digital divide issues, improving rural access to the Internet, lowering the cost of broadband, or the various other problems that result from narrowly-focused private corporations owning and controlling essential communications infrastructure with inadequate regulations.

Solving the problem of ensuring all Americans have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet (a goal remarkably consistant with the FCC's supposed mission enshrined in law by the Communications Act), would be remarkably easier in a world where Congress and state legislators were not corrupted by the influence of the campaign finance system. This is why we emphatically support efforts (like those of Lessig) to reform that system.

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.

Video: