Hands off whose Net?

A new series of television ads warns of the dangers of Internet regulation. The real story: Telecom industry bickering.

Published July 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Looking for evidence that Internet access is fast becoming the biggest hot-button issue in the ever-combative telecommunications industry? Turn on your TV. A slick new ad campaign running in San Francisco and parts of South Florida
-- and likely to spread elsewhere -- is all the proof you need. When the
sound bites start coming at you during prime time, you know that big money
and big special interests are clashing.

Sponsored by a self-described "coalition of Net users" called "Hands Off
the Internet," the ads feature happy consumers sitting in front of their
computers while an ominous voice-over warns that corporations such as GTE
are "asking the government to slow competition down." The ads themselves
don't offer many clues about the actual issues, but a look at the Hands Off The
Web site puts the group's agenda into clearer focus.

The coalition of Net users turns out to be an oddball assortment of cable
companies, Net advertising concerns and a string of special interest
groups, such as the Small
Business Survival Committee
and Net.Action, an advocacy group most
known for its opposition to Microsoft. Uniting all the groups is the belief
that the Internet will flourish best if the government leaves it alone.

"The Internet's phenomenal growth stems from the ability of entrepreneurs
to expand consumer choices and opportunities without worrying about
government regulation," reads the Web site. "Tell the government to get its
hands off the Internet!"

The government regulation that Hands Off The Internet fears most would
force cable franchise operators to let competing Internet service providers
use their cable broadband networks. AT&T, which one critic says is
providing the bulk of the funding for the campaign, has already fallen
victim to this issue: AT&T owns the TCI cable company, and on June 4 was
ordered by a federal judge in Portland, Ore., to open up
access to its broadband cable network to competing Internet service

The Portland decision was hailed as a victory by consumer activists who
believe the government has a duty to ensure that access to the cable
broadband network isn't monopolized by any particular industry segment.
According to Jay Schwartzman, president of Media Access -- a public interest law
firm that focuses on how First
Amendment issues affect electronic media -- the "slowing competition down"
angle is actually a smoke screen for cable companies who want to enjoy the
local monopolies that they have built up over the years. Schwartzman, a
participant in another pro-regulation coalition calling itself No Gatekeepers, says
that vital free speech issues are involved with ensuring "open access" to
the cable broadband network.

Members of the Hands Off The Internet coalition, however, see groups like
No Gatekeepers as fronts for AOL, GTE and the regional Bell
telephone companies -- companies that they say dragged their feet upgrading
their systems and now want a piece of somebody else's network.

"AOL and GTE and others have frankly been misleading," says Hands Off The
Internet president Chris Wolf, a lawyer who specializes in Internet legal
issues. "The people who are advocating government intervention with respect
to broadband access have been misleading consumers with the suggestion that
this will give consumers more choices. But they will have no choices. If
the government focuses on cable as the preferred means of access and
requires cable companies to carry ISPs at their will, consumers will lose
in the end, because ISPs will have no incentive to look for different ways
to provide high-speed access."

"Internet access is the most wildly competitive industry in the country
right now," says Hands Off The Internet executive director Peter Arnold,
listing DSL, satellite and wireless technologies as alternatives to cable.

But Schwartzman believes that cable will eventually provide most people
with their Internet access -- and if open access to the network isn't
ensured, he believes the cable companies will have too much control over
the entryway to the Net.

"It's so easy to pass this off as a business-page story about a fight
between a bunch of big companies," says Schwartzman. "But what they are
fighting about is something that citizens and consumers have a huge, huge
stake in."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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