Bill Moyers: Why U.S. Internet Access is Slow, Costly and Unfair
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BILL MOYERS: You’ve heard me before quote one of my mentors who told his students that “news is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity.” That’s why two books are rattling the cages of powerful people who would rather you not read them. Here’s the first one. Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age by Susan Crawford. Read it and you’ll understand why we Americans are paying much more for internet access than people in many other countries and getting much less in return. That, despite the fact that our very own academics and engineers, working with our very own Defense Department, invented the internet in the first place.
Back then, the U.S. was in the catbird seat – poised to lead the world down this astonishing new superhighway of information and innovation. Now many other countries offer their citizens faster and cheaper access than we do. The faster high-speed access comes through fiber optic lines that transmit data in bursts of laser light, but many of us are still hooked up to broadband connections that squeeze digital information through copper wire. We’re stuck with this old-fashioned technology because, as Susan Crawford explains, our government has allowed a few giant conglomerates to rig the rules, raise prices, and stifle competition. Just like standard oil in the first Gilded Age a century ago.
In those days, it was muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens rattling the cages and calling for fair play. Today it’s independent thinkers like Susan Crawford. The big telecom industry wishes she would go away, but she’s got a lot of people on her side. In fact, if you go to the White House citizen’s petition site, you’ll see how fans of Captive Audience are calling on the President to name Susan Crawford as the next chair of the Federal Communications Commission. “Prospect” magazine named her one of the “top ten brains of the digital future,” and Susan Crawford served for a time as a special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation. Right now she teaches communications law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law here in New York City and is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Susan Crawford, welcome.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Thank you so much.
BILL MOYERS: “Captive Audience?” Who's the captive?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Us, all of us. What's happened is that these enormous telecommunications companies, Comcast and Time Warner on the wired side, Verizon and AT&T on the wireless side, have divided up markets, put themselves in the position where they're subject to no competition and no oversight from any regulatory authority. And they're charging us a lot for internet access and giving us second class access. This is a lot like the electrification story from the beginning of the 20th century. Initially electricity was viewed as a luxury. So when F.D.R. came in, 90 percent of farms didn't have electricity in America at the same time that kids in New York City were playing with electric toys. And F.D.R. understood how important it was for people all over America to have the dignity and self-respect and sort of cultural and social and economic connection of an electrical outlet in their home. So he made sure to take on the special interests that were controlling electricity then who had divided up markets and consolidated just the way internet guys have today, he made sure that we made this something that every American had.
BILL MOYERS: But we are a long way from F.D.R., the New Deal and those early attitudes toward industry. What makes you think that's relevant now when you come to the internet?