Talk about a coming digital divide. No, make that a digital stomp. When half of Indian country is still having a hard time getting on the Internet, American megacorporations are once again trying to figure how to privatize the keys to the greatest techno-tool of knowledge liberation ever invented by humankind. For most Native families and organizations, this might not just to be left behind in the information super-highway, as Mohawk artist Richard Hill once coined: “If we don’t watch it, Indians may just be the roadkill in the information highway.”
A threat is now posed by the “privatize everything” crowd to divvy up parts of the Internet and begin charging for faster grades of service and breadth of access. The freedom-to-access tool we have come to appreciate for the rapid communications and byway to knowledge it gives us could be changed forever.
Admittedly, many Indian people have been loath to join the computer revolution, preferring to stay out of the all-encompassing virtual world. This is understandable and even supportable, particularly when the isolation or “downfending” strengthens cultural practices that are nearly always private and nature-connected. There is great spiritual value in silence and in sustaining a separate pace of existence – private from the world so intensely commandeered by the white brother.
But for those who chose the path of engaging society with the many tools and tribulations of the modern world, computers – and particularly the powers and freedoms of the Internet – are a gift. For one thing, its availability and circularity greatly help to level the playing field for the small peoples and communities struggling to survive and prosper. A free and unencumbered Internet is the major technological tool of access for small and relatively small American Indian communities, geographically remote and mostly lacking in adequate resources for a proper self-governance.
Internet networking, with its rapid, real-time messaging, its ability to multi-communicate, its reach into the hearth in a technology that allows families and all manner of clan and tribal networks to be in touch and even to sustain common narrative can put Native peoples (and all manner of publics) on a par with government agencies and even major corporations.
With the world increasingly wired, a consortium of companies has supported the further privatization of services. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Bell South are among the cable and telephone communications giants lobbying to be allowed to charge fees for most services online. The Internet is thus destined to become a medium for corporate marketing. It would cease to be effective as a means for quick global civic-related networks.
The political strategy of the phone and cable lobbyists is to change communications policy laws. The communications giants want greater control over broadband. They want to eliminate the concept of “common carrier,” which implies a covenant with the public that requires a non-discriminatory approach. But the fact of government regulation of phone lines is what guarantees the Internet as a democratic medium that truly helps to level the playing field. By privatizing the use of cable and phone lines these companies could operate Internet services as mega private networks, giving preferential treatment to their own “applications” and near monopoly influence over the communications services that provide all video, audio and data that comes into our computers, televisions, phones and iPods. These companies are considering how to meter individual subscriber usage by application, tracking individuals’ online travels are tracked and billed.
All our cyberspace information, of private or public nature, will thus be tracked for comprehensive analysis useful in developing directed marketing strategies. Such controls will further facilitate tracking of the citizenry already in progress via the National Security Agency. Among the ideas of industry planners are new subscription plans that would define different levels of service relative to amount of email that can be received and sent, numbers of downloads, media streaming and other activities we presently enjoy in a free and unencumbered fashion on the World Wide Web.
We hope it does not happen; and for it not to happen, Internet users who value the freedoms of the Internet must call and write their U.S. senators this week. Let them know the wrath of the violated if they would dare to vote for the attempt by Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants to acquire big chunks of the now free and nondiscriminatory global service. This would mean users would have to pay fees for virtually all services now offered freely for use, something like “virtual tollboths,” in the words of analyst Jeff Chester, writing in The Nation.
The debate is heating up on Capitol Hill. The key issue to support is “Internet neutrality.” This is the one where the public interest forces – the people and companies that fully support the present Internet model of open access by all – are converging. As usual, Sen. Daniel Inouye is the champion of the people on this issue.
Along with Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Inouye continues to argue over the latest draft of a sweeping communications bill, called the “Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act,” to guarantee Internet neutrality – “to ensure that consumers and content companies have the ability to use the Internet without interference or gate-keeping by the network operators,” Inouye said.
We urge our readers to support Inouye’s effort for a free and unencumbered Internet.