Monday, July 18, 2011

NetPolitik: A Primer - CH1 - TCA

Prelude and raison d'être

Responding to a volume of tweets and comments on some of my recent posts swirling around the Google+/#plusgate controversy regarding pseudonyms and mindful of remarks by botgirl questi and soror Nishi as to "some of us don't know this history," I am starting a series of posts that will revolve around the political landscape and battles for the control of this medium (the Internet, particularly the Web). I will be tagging these posts with 'netpolitik' although they are supported by my previous posts tagged "The Politics of Information" which can be searched on this blog using that tag.

These posts will contain many links to information in support of my position, hopefully being a resource and starting point for people to inform themselves on these issues and understand what is behind certain legislation, attitudes and memes regarding the use and abuse of the internet by corporate interests.

I am sure I will get a slew of TL:DR replies or comments about these posts. I am torn between writing small capsule paragraphs in today's micro-byte infostyle and providing an informational nexus and index. My position is that if you don't know the history and political context of the development of the Internet, you're going to be either blithely ignorant of the moves that Facebook, Google and other companies are making and the extent of collusion between government and the media conglomerates in the accessibility of information available on the nets, or you are going to get your butt caught in a slamming door because you aren't watching, and your future "internet" will be merely a one-way broadcast medium to push product at you, keep track of you and rifle through your personal information for the benefit of corporations - just a new television, run by soap companies.



The internet and the world-wide web are the modern equivalent of the printing press in terms of dynamic impact on the way society accesses and distributes information. Just as there were battles for control over the printing press because of its ability to permanently alter the structure of society and make available for wide distribution the thoughts and opinions of the common man, outside the Church and State's control, so there are now battles to contain and control the Internet. These battles have been ongoing and continue to accelerate as the power of this new medium of mass communication begins to show its strengths and weaknesses.

The separate vectors of this assault and campaign of control led by the forces of Corporate and Congress can be traced in the history of the creation and expansion of the internet.



This section/post will give some background to my later posts; terms, issues and focus.

The Web- A Short History

[Wikipedia - World Wide Web]
[Internet Society - A Brief History of the Internet]

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau had published the formal proposal to build a "Hypertext project" in 1990, working off Berners-Lee's original proposal in March 1989 for a system of marrying Hypertext to the then-existing Internet to create the WorldWideWeb [W3].

On August 6, 1991, Berners-Lee posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup marking the debut of the Web as a publicly available service on the internet.

ViolaWWW for Unix was the most frequenly used browser for the WWW until April, 1993 when the Mosaic browser was introduced [and yes, it was made possible by funding from the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 (HPCA), initiated by Senator Al Gore, which is why you hear all the jokes about Gore inventing the internet, although he never actually said nor claimed it]. 1993 also saw the release of several other browsers into wide use, including Cello, Arena and Lynx. Slipknot, released in 1994, was also very popular and there were at least a half-dozen other browsers sharing market space.

The World Wide Web Consortium [W3C] was formed in October, 1994 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Berners-Lee when he left the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The W3C was to be an international standards organization for the development and distribution of code standards for the W3 (world wide web). Netscape Navigator 0.5.6, a browser using large parts of the Mosaic code, was released at this time.

The Browser Wars

[Wikipedia - Browser Wars]

In mid-1995 the new World Wide Web had begun to penetrate the awareness of the general public. Netscape Navigator was the most widely-used browser at that time, beating out most of the others by virtue of its ease of use, integrated office suite functions (email, calendaring, HTML editor, etc) and its continuing expansion of functions, benefiting from its close relationship with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the original developers for the Mosaic codebase.

Many companies had licensed the Mosaic code for their own browsers. All the browsers at that time had agreed to adopt the standards and code regulations of the 3WC to ensure interoperability and the functional standards that made the web work.

Enter Microsoft. Although MS had released Internet Explorer 1.0 in August 1995 as part of the Windows 95 Plus Pack, it did not see wide distribution, as this was a monetized reworking of the Mosaic code and only available as a paid expansion pack for Windows 95. In November 1995, MS released Internet Explorer 2.0 as a free download.

At this time, Netscape Navigator and the rest of the Mosaic-based browsers were free for personal use, only charging for company and corporate licenses. Internet Explorer lagged behind Netscape and many of the other browsers in functionality and expansion ability; a problem MS will not be able to overcome until the release of Internet Explorer 4.0 in 1997.

The Browser Wars will play a part in later chapters of this material.


The Telecommunications Act of 1996 [TCA]

Signed into law on February 8, 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton, this bill purported to foster competition among companies sharing the underlying infrastructure of networked technologies. Buried in that legislation was an amendment - Title V - The Communications Decency Act of 1996 [CDA] - which proposed to "regulate pornographic material on the Internet". This amendment is the precursor to the Child Online Protection Act [COPA] of 1998; the Children's Internet Protection Act [CIPA] of 2000 and the current pending PROTECT IP Act as well as scores of bills passed in the intervening 15 years, using the specter of pornography (later switched to child pornography), terrorism and fear to push through legislation that favors media cartels and the government's interest in strangling the free flow of information.

[Section 230 of the CDA added protection for online service providers and users from actions against them based on the content of third parties, stating in part that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider". Effectively, this section immunizes both ISPs and Internet users from liability for torts committed by others using their website or online forum, even if the provider fails to take action after receiving actual notice of the harmful or offensive content. We'll return to this important proviso later.]

Promises, promises

The TCA was actually a deregulation of the 1975 FCC cross-ownership rules put in place to limit media concentration and monopolies in the radio and television space, preventing companies from denying accessibility of airspace and broadcast space to other companies through the conglomeration and consolidation of media and denial of the common carrier infrastructure built with US tax dollars as the telegraph and later telephone copper wiring.

The TCA was supposed to foster competition, fairly distribute the use of infrastructure paid for by the public and allow for the collection of a levy handed to the telcos to upgrade and improve the national backbone and fiber-optic cables, requiring "fiber to the curb" by 2006. The Bell companies — SBC, Verizon, BellSouth and Qwest, claimed that they would step up to the plate and rewire homes, schools, libraries, government agencies, businesses and hospitals, with a fiber (and coax) wire capable of at least 45 Mbps in both directions, and could handle 500+ channels... if they received financial incentives. This wiring was to be done in rich and poor neighborhoods, in rural, urban and suburban areas equally and would be open to ALL competitors, not a closed-in network or deployed only where the phone company desired.

[This was not DSL, which travels over the old copper wiring and did not require new regulations. This is not Verizon's FIOS or SBC’s Lightspeed fiber optics, which are slower, can't handle 500 channels, are not open to competition, and are not being deployed equitably. This was NOT fiber somewhere in the network ether or only on the intranets of the telcos but directly to homes. The FCC now defines broadband as 200 kilobytes per second in one direction — 225 times slower than what was promised in 1992]

In exchange for building these networks, the Bell companies ALL received changes in state laws that handed them excessive profits, tax savings, and other perks to be used in building these networks. It is estimated that $300 billion dollars in excess profits and tax deductions has been collected for this purpose.

(not) Built on lies

But there was a problem with this - the networks couldn't be built at the time the commitments were made. TELE-TV and Americast, the Bell companies' fiber optic front groups, spent about $1 billion and were designed to make America believe these deployments were real in order to pass the TCA.

Instead of spending the money on these promised networks, the Bell companies used the money to enter long distance markets, roll out wireless and inferior ADSL services: customers paid for a fiber optic wire and got ADSL over the old copper wiring with old and failing routers, switches and exchanges. Network capacity was lied about and the network was oversold.

[Verizon and SBC are rolling out new fiber optic services but want the laws changed again. These services are crippled, closed networks. FIOS’s top speed is only 35% of the Asian standard, and yet it cost $199 vs $40 for 100 Mbps in many European countries]

What the TCA really was about was deregulation and an open invitation to telcos, media conglomerates and lobbyists to swoop into the vacuum left by the breakup of ATT on antitrust grounds in 1982-1984. On the promises of the telcos, the FCC succumbed to lobbyist cash and sold out the protected common carrier infrastructure to corporations to use as they saw fit.


The Net Speaks Back

Written in outraged response to government's intrusion on the development of the internet through the passage of the TCA, John Perry Barlow, an early and influential voice on the web, published the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace on Feb. 8, 1996. Although anthemic and polemic, Barlow's opinion was shared by many of the top technicals, theorists and legal scholars of that time, who saw in the TCA and the embedded CDA the beginnings of censorship and control over the channels of communication the net was opening. They also saw the first attempts by corporations to use Congress and lobbyists to shape the net for the convenience and profit of the entrenched entertainment industry, who had already begun consolidating companies and muscling out new businesses built around the net with bagsful of cash to attorneys, congressmen and the FCC.

Barlow was not alone in his perception that something underhanded was going on. Articles began appearing online and in print media pointing to something rotten in all this quickly-moving legislation:

The Telecommunications Act of 1996:A Commentary on What Is Really Going on Here

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 - Mauer School of Law

Will The New Telecommunications Act Promote Monopoly? Yes, It Will

Digital Robber Barons?

... and countless others. Search "Telecommunications Act of 1996" for more information and some awareness that these rats were smelled early by many respectable journalists and newspapers.

Those few who protested and claimed the Act would lead to mass media consolidations were surprised by how quickly that consolidation happened. Within just a few years, radio stations, over the air TV stations, cable TV stations and telephone companies were eaten up by the larger, richer companies in a feeding frenzy that has resulted in the limited, false "choices" we are forced into today. Rather than "encouraging competition," the TCA allowed consolidation of the media and control of all information received by people to a small group of sources, all of them incestuously feeding content to their own networks in a war for eyeballs (and click-throughs).

Yes, we were called "paranoid" then too. Read some of those papers and ask yourself how many of those warnings and prophecies have now proven to be a very prescient foresight of the media landscape today.


The TCA still generates an tremendous amount of analysis and debate, being the foundation of the collaboration of media conglomerates with the FCC and Congress which affects us currently. The TCA not only opened the door for the abuses of duopoly/false choice that we have now but is the root of all the other internet regulatory bills and legislation passed in the last 15 years in style, tone, deceptiveness and false or broken promises. Far from being history, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 affects everything you do online today.

Some Further Reading on the TCA:


False Premises, False Promises: A Quantitative History of Ownership Consolidation in the Radio Industry

Lessons from 1996 Telecommunications Act: Deregulation Before Meaningful Competition Spells Consumer Disaster [Consumer Reports]

Fallout from the 1996 Telecommunications Act [PDF file - Common Cause]

Moyers on America . The Internet @ Risk . Resources . Timeline

Com101- Intro to Mass Communication: Media Economics [Cabrini College]

A Little Analytical Honesty Please...


Botgirl Questi said...

Great post. I love all the links and detail. I'm looking forward to you bringing this up to the present in future posts and seeing what type of action you suggest people to thwart the concentration of power you've chronicled and promote the democratization of the virtual commons.

Miso Susanowa said...

TY Botgirl... I don't know what kind of action to suggest. My thing is information. People cannot decide or act on anything without information.

These days, disinformation and data pollution are one of the reasons I feel that people are MISinformed about much and UNinformed about more.

This series is only to let people know that I, and many, remember the trail that has led to the current situation. Perhaps if they know, they can talk or do something about it... if they care about the net, as they profess to do, and understand how crucial the network is to their lives now.

Singularity Utopia said...

Here’s my blog-post about Google #plusgate

I’m glad people are outraged by the G+ censorship, but mainly the outrage is limited to people who’ve directly suffered Google-censorship. To really make a difference this issue needs to be taken up by everyone. People should not underestimate the importance of this issue.

Miso Susanowa said...

@singularity: Been great to watch this issue spill out over the walled-garden; news sites have been actively reporting on this story for a week or more now and it's spreading, thankfully.

Vaneeesa said...

Wow Miso! You have so much content here... it's making me question whether or not you can just get all your news from Facebook... or maybe we have to read other sources.


Rockin my world... again! :P