03.27.11 AT&T + TMobile = Threat to Democracy
Commentators are bemoaning the effect of AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile, combining the second and fourth largest cellular providers to become the undisputed number one. As they point out, the elimination of T-Mobile as the lowest-price carrier will certainly bring higher prices to consumers coast to coast. But the greatest cost to the US public comes not in the form of higher prices, but rather in a further constriction in freedom of access to information.
Cellular consolidation is directly related to the unfortunately named “Net Neutrality.” I say the term is unfortunate, because non-techies’ eyes tend to glaze over when they hear it. I’d rather call the issue “internet freedom.” For those of you who have taken an interest in net neutrality, the issue has tended to be painted in economic or convenience terms (just as with the AT&T/T-Mobile merger). True, one hazard of allowing huge corporations to discriminate against content based on its source might be higher prices to get access to certain content or longer download times for content that the given corporation wants to disfavor because a rival produced it.
Much more chilling is the idea that huge corporations will simply prevent you from ever seeing anything they disagree with. This has already happened at least once. In September 2007, Verizon blocked NARAL (the abortion rights group) from sending text messages to its supporters. Why? Because Verizon disagreed with NARAL.
A commitment to — and legal enshrinement of — internet freedom would prevent the corporate elite not only from discriminating against the movie studio or TV channel their rival owns, but also against free speech that they just don’t like. Late last year, the FCC took an apparent step in that direction; however, the “compromise” put forth by the agency applies only to internet access coming through wires (e.g., cable, DSL, FIOS). It totally exempts wireless connections, i.e., those you get through mobile devices. Guess which kind of connection is the future of internet access. You got it: the wireless kind.
So, how is the technology industry reacting to the FCC’s feckless compromise? With absolute fury. Verizon, Google (that old “don’t be evil” motto means nothing) and every Republican in Congress believe that rights of corporations trump those of citizens. To them, any restriction on corporate freedom — including the right to keep you from consuming whatever content you want on the internet — is to be combatted with all their considerable might.
To make matters worse, this entire spectacle is taking place in the context of enormous media consolidation. As daily newspapers disappear from towns and cities nationwide, broadcast news is now more or less reduced to CNN and Fox. Don’t let the latter’s right-wing ranting blind you to CNN’s ideology. Both networks are pro-corporate, militaristically nationalistic, sensationalist, and superficial.
I have long considered the internet to be the last bastion of freedom and democracy. While decrying the fact that most Americans get their news from an ever-narrower list of sources — all of which buy into the pro-corporate status quo, I have also celebrated the fact that those of us looking for balanced perspectives and independent voices were free to find them. As imperfect as our democracy is, the threat of government censorship has remained negligible for a very long time.
But it is not government censorship we have to fear in the United States. Rather, the biggest threat to meaningful freedom of speech and access to information comes in the form of corporate censorship.
Even under the most rosy scenario for net neutrality, the only three remaining cellular providers (AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint) will be exempt. Sure, they’ll disagree with each other on this or that. But, they will be in full cahoots with the Koch brothers, the rest of the US corporate leadership, and the US Congress (their nearly wholly owned subsidiary) to make sure that revolutionary thinking (even the unarmed kind) just can’t be found.
This fits precisely with the corporate elite’s purposeful program to dumb down the US public education system: a functionally illiterate populace lacking in analytical ability and spoon-fed an ideology of false freedom won’t have the means or desire to notice its invisible chains. And corporate control, along with further enrichment of the ultra wealthy, will the unquestioned law of the land.
©2011 Keith Berner