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June 2, 2006
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NOW Transcript - Show 222
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Transcript - June 2, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. There was a time when many people at the cutting edge of the Internet revolution would look at that capitol dome behind me and say it had little to do with their work.

There was a sense in the silicon valleys and silicon alleys of America that the whole yahoogle universe. The whole World Wide Web extravaganza operated in a Wild West frontier, relatively free of government meddling.

Well, it doesn't. Congress has the power to redesign the future of the online world and some power players in this town are working right now to do just that...and not necessarily to your benefit. If you think the internet can be a force for enlightenment and democracy, you need to pay attention.

William Brangham produced our report.

BRANCACCIO: Our story about the fight over the online world begins here: the offices of a New York City startup... As you can see, the corridors are not yet bustling... but it's just possible this could become home to 'the next big thing' on the internet.

HUDACK: "we run the risk of being undercut by like a google video?"

BRANCACCIO: These four have started a website called blip-dot-TV... They're hoping to ride the latest dot com boom: the making and sharing of videos on the web.

The videos on blip dot-TV-tend to be home-made... you can watch this man's tour of public housing in New Orleans... Or there's this cooking show done by a young couple in their apartment. And over here, politics... footage from a recent political rally in Boston

It's like a video flea market and there's no doubt the reason a company like this even has a chance is that the internet gives anyone connected a level playing field. You can watch a video from blip just as easily as online video from a giant like

Blip's founder Mike Hudack says sites like his are doing an end-run around big media.

HUDACK: we live in the golden age of democracy, the golden age of small "d" democracy, if you like. Because anybody can create a piece of video or a piece of audio or even text that reflects their thinking and they can get that out to millions of people and potentially influence millions of people without having to go through any filters at all.

BRANCACCIO: But Hudack is worried that 'small-d' democracy is about to get clobbered.

Right now, congress is being pressured to let the telephone and cable companies rewrite the basic rules of how the internet works. The companies insist these changes are needed if the internet is to continue its meteoric growth. But critics say these changes could destroy the internet's most important benefit to society: the easy flow of new ideas.

Craig Aaron is with 'free press' - a media watchdog group in Washington - they're part of a diverse chorus that's sounding the alarm about the what they see as a frontal assault on the free and open internet which we have today.

AARON: One of the beauties of the internet is that it's been open to views across the political spectrum. And if you hand the control of the information so that some can be preferred over others, you're gonna be handing back that control to the big media companies that already control our television, airwaves, radio, you name it.

Give me a moment here to make the current architecture of all this perfectly clear:

There is you on your computer (sexy devil). In most cases, the web flows into your computer through wires that are controlled by a handful of big telecom companies. The bells like AT&T and Verizon... Or the cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner.

The companies control these 'pipes' and they charge fees to anyone who wants to use them. But the deal is, they can't mess around with what flows through the pipes. They're supposed to be impartial, hands-off middlemen. You want to email grandma? Well, knock yourself out. You want to build a website called ""? Go for it. Everyone's websites are treated the same, whether it's owned by little old you, or owned by tycoons like bill gates or Rupert Murdoch.

This has been one of ground rules of the internet since day one... Some call it "net neutrality."

AARON: I think network neutrality is just sort of a fancy engineer's word for 'internet freedom.' It's basically the idea that all data is treated equally, and the user makes the decisions as to which data they download, what websites they visit, what they watch and read online.

BRANCACCIO: Aaron says big telecom companies have declared 'open season' on net neutrality. He says that for the first time, the cable and phone companies want to step in and dictate which websites will run better than others.

How would they do that? The companies want to set up a guaranteed fast lane on the internet. But that fast lane wouldn't be for everyone: only the websites that pay a hefty fee get the speedier service.

AARON: what the cable and telephone companies are proposing is essentially erecting a toll booth right in the middle to direct traffic, create an express lane for the products and services that they own and leave everybody else on a winding dirt road.

BRANCACCIO: Aaron doesn't begrudge the telecom industry for wanting to make money. And it's fair to say consumers would very much like to get TV shows and movies via the web that look sharp and are bigger than a business card on their screens.

But their chosen business model for this upgrade requires the telephone and cable companies to drive a stake through the heart of network neutrality.

And the industry has deployed a small army of lobbyists here in D.C. to do just that. They've spent millions of dollars covering Washington in recent weeks with ads ridiculing this 'neutrality' idea.

COMMERCIAL: See pastoral country road, camera pull back to reveal a tangle of conflicting traffic signs "no left turn", "one way" "stop", "u-turn only" "this way ahead" etc

Hear voice: "regulate something that hasn't been built? To solve a problem that doesn't exist? Why would we do that? ..."

BRANCACCIO: They argue that some of neutrality's strongest supporters - web giants like Google and yahoo and Microsoft are going to continue making a fortune off the internet -- but are trying to skip out on paying to upgrade the network.

FLASH MOVIE AD: "...They're gonna make billions. But they don't want to pay anything. Instead, they want you the consumer to pay for it. And they call their plan net neutrality?"

MCCURRY: The problem is that the internet that we built to date is getting a little creaky. And without significant new investment we're not going to be able to manage that traffic. So the question is as we build this internet of the future, whose -- whose going to pay for it?

Mike McCurry... yes, that Mike McCurry. Bill Clinton's former spokesman is now explaining things for the telecom industry. His PR firm helped setup this group -- called 'hands off the internet' - they made those ads... They argue that net neutrality is standing in the way of progress.

MCCURRY: It's just, by the way, the same reason why we take 18 wheeler semi trailers and make them pay more in federal highway taxes than someone who drives their family in a mini-van because they are putting more load onto the infrastructure, and therefore, should pay a higher rate.

But Democratic congressman Ed Markey says this is about a lot more than just money.

MARKEY: This is really a debate over monopoly, over control, versus the ideas of even the smallest person being given access to every person in our country.

BRANCACCIO: Markey says the money issue is a red herring -- you think the Googles of the world don't pay heavily to connect to that pipe? And what about what you pay every month to get that pipe into your house?

MARKEY: So the bells simplify this argument as though it's between them -- and some other very large company. But it's not. It's really about -- them -- the bells -- and millions of companies and individuals around the country -- who have used the web as a way to reinvent not only the economy, but free speech as it's expressed in our country

BRANCACCIO: Markey's greatest concern is that once the telephone and cable companies can to pick and choose who gets through those pipes the quickest, and who doesn't, they're in a position to potentially shape who the winners and the losers are in everything from political debates to competing technologies. He says net neutrality can stop that from happening...

MARKEY: Net neutrality is an essential part of the constitution of the internet. It was built into -- baked into -- the very fabric of the internet from day one. And now the bells are trying to amend that constitution. And that's too dangerous. That's too high a price for the whole country to have to pay.

BRANCACCIO: And Markey is not alone... a group called "save the internet" has become the umbrella organization for a growing chorus defending net neutrality. And it's quite an umbrella: left-wing bloggers and progressive voices such as along side -- are you sitting down? Gun Owners of America...and just recently...the Christian Coalition.

All these varied groups have expressed that fear: if you give mostly unchecked authority over the internet to a few corporations, who knows who's data -- or who's ideas - will be allowed through?

I asked Walter McCormick -- the head of the U.S. telecom association - about that fear.

BRANCACCIO: There are a chorus of critics who are very concerned that // the people who own the pipes who pass this internet data through would be able to discriminate against some websites, for instance, or be able to push others, promote others.

MCCORMICK: We have said that in our industry we will not block, impair, degrade content, applications, services. So the experience that a consumer has today with the internet, a consumer will have in the future.

BRANCACCIO: McCormick says the companies he represents are in the business of making money and if consumers want to visit a given website, the telecom companies have every interest in letting that website through...He says the idea that they'd somehow restrict access to certain websites is overblown.

MCCORMICK: It's -- it's very difficult to deal with -- with "what ifs" and hypotheticals. There are enough problems in the country for congress to deal with that are real problems as opposed to worrying about "what if" scenarios.

BRANCACCIO: But it's not all hypothetical:

In 2005, a small phone company in North Carolina blocked their internet customers from using a rival web-based phone service. The federal communications commission said iks-nay, and fined them $15,000.

That same year, the Canadian telephone giant Telus blocked their web customers from seeing a site that was supportive of union workers who had a beef with Telus.

And just this year, America Online was accused of blocking emails from a group that were waging a campaign critical of AOL.

McCormick argues these are isolated examples...and he points out that we already have a watchdog in Washington - the FCC -- that's promised to make sure these kinds of problems are rooted out.

MCCORMICK: The Federal Communications Commission has said that it has sufficient authority to disallow any company from blocking, impairing, degrading any kind of application or service.

BRANCACCIO: But advocates of net neutrality say websites don't have to be blocked or degraded to suffer from second-class treatment. Give the newest, fastest online service to a select few websites that have paid for the privilege goes the argument, and what you build-in is an unfair advantage for the richest, most powerful companies.

AARON: If they're allowed to get rid of network neutrality, then they can favor Verizon video or AT&T phone service or the new Comcast search engine over anything that I come up with, even if my product is better, even if I'm offering it for a lower price. By manipulating what happens over the network, they're allowed to favor their own content and those of their partners. And that means everybody else is left behind.

MARKEY: It's really not about the Googles, and the Yahoos of today. It's about the Googles and the Yahoos of the future. It's about the next Serge Brin. It's about the next Jerry Yang. It's about the next Bill Gates.

BRANCACCIO: Remember Mike Hudack and his fledgling video sharing company called blip-dot-TV? He doesn't have the cash yet to hire big lobbyists but he believes his big idea's only chance of flying is if he gets the same crack at the internet as his competition, big or small.

HUDACK: Without net neutrality, there's a good chance that a lot of small businesses will have very slow web pages. It won't be their fault, but the consumers at the end of the day won't know that. They'll just think that the business doesn't have -- doesn't have their act together.

AARON: Big telephone and cable companies have made very clear that they intend to do this. All of their CEO's have come out and said we are going to build our model on discrimination. They've said it again and again and again, and yet they want us to believe that they're not going to do it.

BRANCACCIO: Internet activists haven't given up yet - they've been holding rallies to show congress that net neutrality has popular support. But this year industry has momentum in its favor, with lots of friends in congress, and a well-oiled campaign to push legislators in their direction and away from net neutrality.

Back to blip.

At the end of last week, blip-dot-TV folks were having some growing pains. They'd just signed up some environmental groups to post their video on blip's site, and the sudden surge of traffic overwhelmed their own computers. An embarrassment of riches, in a way.

But they got it fixed in time... And other riches came their way: investors came through with some much needed cash. Perhaps blip-dot-TV has a chance.

HUDACK: Historians will look upon this era as a time when power and discourse are moving from a few centralized locations, controlled by a few companies, to everyone. And it's a beautiful thing. And without net neutrality, we run a very serious risk of losing that.

BRANCACCIO: can find out more about the battle over the future of the web over on our website, pbs-dot-org.

Here's some irony in the headlines this week. On Tuesday, congress held a hearing titled: "did the Saturday night raid of congress trample the constitution?" The congressional leadership is outraged by the FBI's search of the office of Representative William Jefferson as part of a bribery investigation.

The leadership didn't seem as worried about the constitutional issues when it passed the patriot act four years ago. Back then, when rights groups raised the specter of federal agents snooping around your local library, the leadership dismissed those concerns as either paranoid or alarmist.

Well, here's some new information and you can be the judge: at a press conference this week, George Christian and three other Connecticut librarians talked about the patriot act provisions that prevented them from discussing - you guessed it -- FBI requests for the library records ... a federal court has lifted the gag order so George Christian can talk about some of this.

BRANCACCIO: Well, George Christian, thanks for joining us.

CHRISTIAN: Thank you for asking me, David.

BRANCACCIO: So take me back to this memorable day, Windsor, Connecticut, last summer. What happens?

CHRISTIAN: Two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed up, sort of a good guy-bad guy thing. One very mild-mannered in a business suit, the other more casually dressed and -- and beefier. With a letter demanding records from our organization -- we're a library organization -- and an intimidating letter, a national security letter that said right up front that I could discuss the fact of receiving this letter with no one.


CHRISTIAN: No one. Period.

BRANCACCIO: For how long?




BRANCACCIO: That's a big deal for you. Someone comes by, wants information on what the library patrons are interested in looking at?

CHRISTIAN: It -- it's a very big deal for me. Libraries exist in this country as free public libraries for citizens to go and inform themselves about the issues of the day, whether they're political issues or health issues or whatever they're curious about. And the idea that big government would be looking over their shoulder is -- is chilling. I -- I think it would inhibit people from conducting the kinds of investigations that is their right under our constitution.

BRANCACCIO: This is a big thing when you get a letter like this. Was it signed by a judge?


BRANCACCIO: Prosecutor?


BRANCACCIO: Maybe a grand jury?


BRANCACCIO: So an FBI field agent, presumably pursuing terrorism, wants your library records and can just show up with this thing?

CHRISTIAN: Absolutely.

BRANCACCIO: Who were they looking for in this letter? Was it a terrorist?

CHRISTIAN: I can't discuss the specifics of the letter. I can't even give you the date that I received it. All that's happened in this case is that the order gagging me from saying that I was the recipient of the letter has been lifted.

BRANCACCIO: So you're in this situation -- you get the letter. Who can you turn to if it says don't talk to anybody?

CHRISTIAN: You can't turn to anyone. And I -- I took a chance by consulting an attorney. And once the attorney agreed that -- that we had a case, that we could go forward with it and -- and protest in court, complying with the security letter, I realized I couldn't commit in good conscience, my organization to doing this. So I consulted with the executive committee, a group of three individuals who are also library directors. That also violated the letter of the law. But at least I felt that, okay, if we're going to sue the Attorney General of the United States, then I have the authority to do that. I'm not acting on my own whim.

BRANCACCIO: But, George, your other colleagues, your family must have thought you were acting weird?

CHRISTIAN: It -- it was surreal all the way around. The staff obviously noticed that these two guys came in and said they were from the FBI, and they hand me a letter. We have a polite conversation. They leave. And I look at them and say I can't talk about it. And then when through the government's own ineptitude, we became known, because they failed to properly cross our names out of the documents that they filed in -- in court, the phones were ringing off the wall.

BRANCACCIO: What, the press figured this out?

CHRISTIAN: Yes, the press figured this out.

BRANCACCIO: You still couldn't talk, even though a newspaper knew who you were?

CHRISTIAN: And I just had to tell my staff, don't answer the phone. Let it go to voice mail. And if it's a reporter, don't call him back. And -- and we exist to serve our -- our member libraries. The -- the whole idea of not answering the phone is so antithetical to the way we do business.

BRANCACCIO: Do you think the existence of these national security letters in these terrorism investigations presumably, has -- do they have any practical effect? Are you worried about something changing within the libraries?

CHRISTIAN: Yes. I'm -- I'm worried that if we have to give in, that patrons will stop using libraries, as freely as they do now. I -- I think whether it's someone who wants to go and find out about the Middle East because they're going to travel there or do business there, and they're worried that maybe the government will interpret their interest as terrorist related, or -- or whether it's a woman who -- who really wants to find out more about breast cancer, without letting the entire community know that this is a concern of hers. There should be no inhibition on -- on people using libraries the way they want to.

But you must remember on September 11th and the days leading up to it, Mohammed Atta and company, some of the 9-11 hijackers, went into a library in Maine and, looked up some information. It would have been nice if that clue were passed on to the government.

CHRISTIAN: I'm not opposing the fact that the government has a right to investigate terrorists. I would feel it my patriotic duty to cooperate fully with them. But as long ago as Benjamin Franklin observed very famously that those who would sacrifice liberty in order to gain security end up with neither. There are proper ways for the federal government to investigate. They can get a warrant. They can get a subpoena. They can have a judicial review. And that's really the heart of this process: there was no judicial review.

BRANCACCIO: From some of the press accounts of this there's an estimate that maybe 30,000 of these letters go out in a given year. You're about the only one we could find that has spoken about this. What does that say to you?

CHRISTIAN: I'm in disbelief. 30,000 letters -- if you don't count Sundays, that's about 100 day. And to my knowledge, my organization and another small organization in New York are the only two that have ever said wait a minute. And I don't think we've done anything extraordinary. I thought we did what should be done.

BRANCACCIO: So with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, your consortium sues so that you can speak out about the letters. It goes to appeal, but finally you're able to speak out. So we're speaking, you and I now, in Washington, D.C. Why not going up Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress and express your feelings?

CHRISTIAN: It's a little too late. The government has renewed the Patriot Act.

BRANCACCIO: So that debates already finished? The Patriot Act is with us for a few more years.

CHRISTIAN: It's like being -- calling the fire department after the building has burned to the ground. What -- what good is that?

BRANCACCIO: Before we go, have you turned over this library information to the FBI, as those letters requested?

CHRISTIAN: No. We're still protesting the -- the compliance with the national security letter.

BRANCACCIO: Well, George Christian, Thank you very much.

CHRISTIAN: Thank you, David, for the opportunity.

BRANCACCIO: George Christian is executive director of the Library Connection, a consortium of about two dozen libraries in the State of Connecticut.

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