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The End of the Blogosphere?

March 1, 2006
By Mitchell Szczepanczyk

Blogs have gained a growing cultural and political impact in the United States and worldwide. In the United States, they've been credited with playing a key role the resignation of a U.S. Senate Majority Leader and the public repudiation of a longtime TV news anchor. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of the English language deemed "blog" its word of the year in 2004. The Technorati website boasts that it keeps track of some 28 million blogs worldwide.

Undeniably, blogs and their collective identity known as the "blogosphere" have become an extraordinary phenomenon. And no matter what topics they may discuss or what political leanings they may espouse, they are all under grave and immediate threat.

The threat involves the issue of "net neutrality" the idea that those who manage the virtual roads for internet and digital communications don't discriminate who travels on those roads and why. But America's major cable and telecommunications companies are heavily lobbying Congress now to change that.

Companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast want to abolish net neutrality and set up the virtual equivalent of tolls on the internet. The idea would be to set up separate tiers of internet access - the digital equivalent of a ten-lane superhighway alongside a single-lane dirt road. If you want to access the superhighway, you'd have to pay AT&T or whomever extra fees through a virtual toll for that access - a source of fantastic profit potential for the would-be tollkeepers on the internet. But those who can't afford the superhighway can still take the dirt road, right?

Here's the problem for bloggers and other alternative and independent media producers who distribute media via the internet: Those who can't afford that privileged access will far outnumber those who can, and the result would be, as Ben Scott from the media activist organization Free Press put it, to "banish hundreds of thousands of bloggers to the slow lane".

As a result, that digital dirt road will be endlessly clogged and more than likely face considerable delays to try to access media content on the internet. And that access isn't just simple webpages but also other media like television and radio which are becoming and will become digitized and thus rely on the internet as the major means of transit.

This will then lead to a Catch-22 for bloggers. Either pay the telecom companies hefty ongoing fees which you may or may not afford, or face the digital equivalent of a black hole where you can't easily or readily access independent media content. Either way, the abolition of net neutrality will dissuade a great many online media producers and consumers, thereby striking an effective death blow to the blogosphere and the variety and diversity currently on the internet. The advantage would thus go to already wealthy and entrenched media producers.

In the federal government in Washington, the main legislation concerning the media in the United States - the Telecommunications Act - is being rewritten, and the fate of net neutrality (and perhaps the future of the internet) rests in the balance. Unfortunately, Net Neutrality clauses have been struck out of the most recent draft of the Telecom Act.

Now the blogosphere may face its greatest challenge: saving itself.

Fortunately, there are recent media-related victories that can be drawn upon for inspiration. In 2003, activists across the political spectrum joined in widespread protest and outrage against the FCC as it tried to implement a series of controversial media ownership rules. That response fueled a successful emergency court order and subsequent lawsuit which rolled back the rules for the time being.

When the dust settled, some three million people responded to the FCC against its controversial rules - a response unprecedented in the FCC's history. The same or larger scale of response to Congress will be needed to preserve net neutrality. And the blogosphere, with its millions of active folks online, hold that very potential to rally widespread awareness of net neutrality and keep the internet free.

If you have a blog or independent media website, consider learning more about net neutrality, discussing it on your website, linking to some of the net neutrality campaigns already underway like Net Freedom Now by Free Press (www.freepress.net) or Protect Net Neutrality by Common Cause (www.commoncause.org), and contact your representatives in Congress to encourage them to preserve net neutrality. One group I work with, Chicago Media Action, has made available a series of net neutrality banner ads to use on your website to promote the issue, online at CMA's website (www.chicagomediaaction.org).

The blogosphere has been rewriting the internet. Whether it will continue to do so depends on whether or not it steps up to help preserve net neutrality.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk (www.szcz.org) is an organizer with Chicago Media Action, a contributor to Chicago Indymedia and Third Coast Press, and the host of a weekly radio show on WHPK, the radio station of the University of Chicago.

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