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The Last Bastion of Free Speech: The Internet

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The Pentagon and corporate media empires want control of the Internet. This is a very, very bad idea.

While the net itself was developed by the Pentagon (with Congressional backing thanks to good old Al Gore), it is currently run through a system of government funded servers and the funds of users who pay a small fee per month to gain access to the network. Individual URLs are owned by individuals and companies. Consumers pay for connection services (through companies like AOL, MSN, and other available service providers), but once connected are able to access free email services and a nearly unlimited range of Internet sites. For instance, I pay about $25 per month for AOL, and for that I am able to send and receive as much email as I choose, access millions of pages of information and network with other progressive activists through forums, blogs, chatrooms, and alternative media outlets. The site you are reading this article on is an independently owned and operated website available for viewing free of charge to anyone in the world who chooses to view it.

The problem we are facing is not unique to the Internet itself. Privatization has been a major goal of the Bush administration for the past five years, and a major goal of the Republican Party in general for much longer than that. From healthcare to Social Security to reconstruction in Iraq, conservatives want control taken out of the hands of the US government (or in some cases, prevent it from falling into the hands of the government) and put into the hands of individual corporations that operate with little governmental oversight.

The issue at hand this time around is a potential strategic initiative, in my opinion, that could be highly effective in stamping out the recent buildup of alternative media outlets. Privatizing the net will have many immediate consequences. Among them, increases in price, pay-per-use email taxes (much like cell phone billing, where you pay for both outgoing and incoming messages), bulk email sender taxes, and corporate control over what information you can access online and when you can access it. Aside from these fairly transparent problems, this privatization effort has the potential to stall the progress of Internet-based political activism.

No one wants to pay more for their Internet service (as an overpaying AOL user, I can attest to this personally), that 's a given. But how would you feel if you lost the ability to freely and quickly access sites like this one, could no longer stream Air America Radio while washing dishes or eating lunch, and had to pay an additional charge every time you wanted to send a message to your favorite Yahoo! Group?

Personally, I use the net as a professional tool, a research tool (paying for some services, such as LexusNexus, and using other services free of charge, such as Google), and as a means to communicate with other like-minded individuals. I use it to donate to causes I consider worthy, and make contacts in the political and media arenas. I subscribe to several Yahoo! Groups in order to share information with thousands of other activists through a network that has become highly effective in the past few years. For twenty-five bucks a month, I consider this a good deal. But what if every time I wanted to Google someone or something, I were required to pay a nominal fee, maybe even just a few cents. Two things would happen first, I would become extremely cautious about what information I chose to pursue. This would, in effect, limit my access to potentially important information, thus causing me to become less informed and less capable of making well thought out decisions about political and social issues. Secondly, it would stand to reason that if I had to pay per use for services such as these, then these transactions would have to be recorded. This means that my information would be stored personal information, credit card information, and search criteria as well as results.

For instance, say I read a headline that says Osama bin Laden has been identified as the speaker on a new televised video tape speaking directly to the United States government. I am curious, so I hop over to Google and type in "bin Laden terrorist tape US. " Maybe the search engine spits out a bunch of CNN links and some other major networks, but since I don 't trust the mass media to give me accurate information, I continue to sift through the information for stories from Al Jazeera and other international news outlets. Because I am being charged for the search, this information is logged, and I am flagged by the feds as a possible terror suspect.

Of course, this is just one possible scenario, and assumes that search engines could be affected. A more concrete example would be the proposed AOL email "tax " that is being floated. I receive, between two email accounts, about 100 emails per day ranging from personal mail to reader feedback to email from newsgroups to daily newsletters from Salon and the Center for American Progress (amongst several others). I send an average of ten or twenty emails on an average day. While the "tax " is only proposed at this point for bulk email, it will not effect personal mailing, but it will effect email from newsgroups and subscriber services like those I participate in on a daily basis. The vast majority of the email I receive comes in this form from groups mailing to hundreds, and in many cases, thousands of accounts. The proposed amount for the tax is $.0025 per message. While this may sounds small, it is sizeable when multiplied by the number of messages sent over the course of a month. This money would not go to the government, as "taxes " do, but to the corporations which charge it.
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This is guaranteed to have a negative effect on free speech, as it will cut out low- or no-budget groups such as currently free Yahoo! Groups, Google Groups, and free newsletters sent out by thousands of media and activism sites. The corporations pushing for this fee argue that the email tax will discourage spammers, as they will not be willing to pay for the privilege of sending unwanted email. Ironically, the more likely effect will be that many spammers will choose to pay for the service, and once they do, no spam filter in the world will keep your mailbox free of their annoying messages. The burden will inevitably fall upon users, as smaller independently owned newsgroups and information resources will either have to begin charging members for their participation in order to pay their overhead, or these last bastions of democracy will be cut out because of their inability to pay up.

While these last two examples are based in corporate control, government control is closely intertwined. Our democratic government has become increasingly dominated by business interests in the past century, and the Internet has become an extremely powerful tool for those who continue to fight against this partnership.

If the Pentagon takes control of the Internet, power is taken away from the people. The long-opposed military-industrial complex will have an even stronger hold on what information is available to the public than it already does. Already, the Pentagon holds press briefings daily, deciding what (if any) information will become available about our country 's military aims and operations. The White House offers its own tidbits, and we are left to figure out most of the truth on our own. Without free control of the net, this information will become much more difficult to locate, if it is possible at all.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thinks that Pentagon control over the web is an important step in our fight against terrorism. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations recently, he said, "Consider that the violent extremists have established 'media relations committees ' --and have proven to be highly-successful at manipulating opinion-elites. They plan to design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communications to intimidate and break the collective will of free people. "

Loosely translated from Rumsfeldian Newspeak, letting the US military complex control the net will keep dissident factions from using the net 's versatility to communicate with one another. Of course, judging from this administration 's past in dealing with opposition, it is much more likely that these measures will be used to shut up dissenters inside the United States than keep terrorists from getting in touch with one another.
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Addressing Rumsfeld 's speech, Mike Whitney concluded that the Pentagon 's move will amount to complete dominance of the net: "The Pentagon is aiming for "full spectrum dominance " of the Internet. Their objective is to manipulate public perceptions, quash competing points of view, and perpetuate a narrative of American generosity and good-will. "

With the Pentagon coming in from one side and powerful media-dominating corporations squeezing in from the other, the only force that can stop this takeover from happening is the power of the American people. We alone, through organizing efforts and demands to our individual Internet service providers, hold the power to keep this from happening and changing forever the face of democracy in the United States.

The Internet is too important and too powerful a tool for the Pentagon to be allowed to take from us. Should Rumsfeld&Co. along with AOL, Yahoo!, and other powerful corporate interests succeed in their efforts to halt the free flow of information, all we have fought for will be lost.

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Katherine Brengle is a freelance writer and activist.

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