Free speech…it is one of the hallmarks of the American way of life. The ability to freely express oneself without fear of government reprisal is so fundamental that it is enshrined in the first amendment to our national Constitution. Yet despite this protection, there have always been restrictions on how free our speech really is, and in some cases, this is how it should be. We are not free to speak falsehoods that cause harm to others. Libel and slander laws address that issue. We are not free to speak in ways that incite fear or riots without cause. The oft used “yelling fire in a crowded movie house” illustrates that point quite well and we have laws against that too. Like any freedom, the freedom to speak requires a sense of responsibility by the speaker.

The issue of free speech has been all over the media in recent weeks, arising from the outrage of the Muslim world in protest to some caricatures of their religious prophet. It has also been talked about in the wake of the NSA wiretapping scandals and the possible effects that those actions may have on the U.S. government’s critics to express their views free of government eavesdropping and without fear of possible sanctions against them. In both of these cases, the ability to exercise the freedom of speech has been called into question, but in different ways. In one case, the ability to exercise free speech is being questioned by religious fundamentalists who don’t offer such freedoms to their own people. In the other, the use of free speech is being chilled by abusive governmental policies that increasingly seem to be targeted at political opponents. However, despite the serious implications of both of these matters, the topic of this essay is not to address those matters. Instead, I would like to discuss the efforts of American corporations to abridge the newest form of free speech in the world…namely, the use of the internet to get and share information and opinions in a way never before possible.

The internet has historically been an open medium, allowing innovation to improve the availability of information and the communication of people everywhere. This factor has led to the rise of many new businesses, including online shopping, online advertising, and of course, the sharing of news, information, and opinion. The internet has created a huge financial opportunity for businesses and individuals alike, but now it seems that some of the biggest providers of internet access want to change the rules and corner all those profits for themselves. The effects of this effort will not only consolidate the money making possibilities of the internet into the hands of a few giant and wealthy corporations, it will also have a chilling effect on the newest form of free speech, blogging.

With the internet today, all someone has to do is open an online account with a service provider and the entire world wide web is available with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks. You simply pay your $10 or $20 or $40 each month, depending on the speed of your service, and you can get literally all the information on any subject that you want. The explosive growth of the new electronic medium has enabled people to find out the time of the latest movie, download coupons, pay their bills, file their taxes, and organize political positions, to name just a few. You pay your provider fee and the content is free. And it has worked wonderfully. The biggest service providers get a lot of money in monthly user fees. The biggest content providers get a lot of money from online advertisers. And all the users get whatever it is they need or want from the experience. But what has been great for consumers, writers, and the curious citizen hasn’t been great enough for the biggest service providers in the game. Now they want you to pay not just for the ability to access the net, but also for the content you receive.

In recent statements to both the press and the U.S. Congress, the biggest telecom companies in the country think they deserve even more money, and they are actively seeking to restrict internet usage by trying to impose usage fees to content providers for using the infrastructure of the internet to disseminate information. By arguing that they own the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the network, they say that they should be able charge anyone who uses the network a user fee.

Bellsouth’s William L. Smith told reporters that he would like the Internet to be turned into a “pay-for-performance marketplace” where his company would be allowed, for example, to charge Yahoo for the right to have its site load faster than Google. (Washington Post, December 1, 2005)

Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg says that web applications (like search engines, online video, VoIP telephone) need to “share the cost” of broadband – broadband that’s already been paid for by the consumer. “We have to make sure that they [application providers] don’t sit on our network and chew up bandwidth. We need to pay for the pipe.” (TechWeb News, January 5, 2006)

AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre said: “What they [Google, Vonage, and others] would like to do is to use my pipes free. But I ain’t going to let them do that….Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?” (Business Week, November 7, 2005)


“I think the content providers should be paying for the use of the network…. Now they might pass it on to their customers who are looking at a movie, for example. But that ought to be a cost of doing business for them. They shouldn’t get on [the network] and expect a free ride.” (Financial Times, January 30, 2006)

What these men are really saying is that the more money you have to give to them and their companies, the more your right will remain to use and access the internet as you do today. Want to access 100 hundred sites a day with a high-speed connection? No problem, so long as you have the cash to pay for each site you visit, each page you view, and the faster you want to look the more expensive it will be. Effectively, they are trying to shut the door on the average person to utilize the great tool of information and commerce that is the internet. And for those who are willing to shell out a few more bucks, they are even trying to kick your personal websites into the slow lane by restricting high-speed infrastructure to their own content companies or affiliates.

But it’s not just the service providers that are trying to change the way we use the net.

America Online and Yahoo, two of the nations largest e-mail providers are taking a shot at getting an “e-mail tax” enacted in an effort to squeeze more money out of people who seek to communicate and share information via e-mail.

From the New York Times:

America Online and Yahoo, two of the world’s largest providers of e-mail accounts, are about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered. The senders must promise to contact only people who have agreed to receive their messages, or risk being blocked entirely. The Internet companies say that this will help them identify legitimate mail and cut down on junk e-mail, identity-theft scams and other scourges that plague users of their services. They also stand to earn millions of dollars a year from the system if it is widely adopted.

One wonders how soon it will be before they start d
emanding non-commercial e-mails be charged fees as well.

The successful effects of these efforts will ultimately spell the end of internet usage as we know it, and will shut the door on the freedom of speech that an affordable, open, and largely free internet offers us all today. These are issues that don’t just affect political bloggers either, though those of us who fall into that category will probably be the first to feel the loss. Ultimately, everyone who uses the internet for anything will feel the squeeze from these greedy, and already incredibly wealthy corporations. And while they don’t yet realize it, these measures will also kill off the revenue streams that these businesses already enjoy. When average citizens can’t afford both access and content fees, they will use the internet less and less. Advertisers will move away because their audience will have dried up. When the advertisers go, so too do all the profits. In what is often the case with unbridled greed, these guys are loading the gun they will be shooting their foot with.

Fortunately, it hasn’t happened yet. And it is possible for you to make it known that you want this nonsense to end. This is not a partisan or political problem. It will affect everyone of us who uses the internet.

To let the Telecom service providers know how much you oppose their actions, sign this petition.

To tell AOL that they need to keep their sticky fingers off of our e-mail, sign this one.