Captive Audience

Title:                      Captive Audience

Author:                  Susan P. Crawford

Crawford, Susan P. (2013). Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

LOC:       2012024367

KF 2765 C73 2013

Date Posted:      March 17, 2013

I learned about Captive Audience from an interview with her done by Bill Moyers (Feb 8, 2013)[1]. Crawford is extremely knowledgeable and is an advocate for vastly increasing the availability of the Internet to the people of America. She points out that the US is in the middle of the pack regarding access to the Internet, after having been at the forefront in inventing it. She is concerned that major content and connection companies control access, price, and even make it virtually impossible for localities to set rules or provide fiber-cable access.

Timothy P. Karr posted an excellent review of Crawford’s book.

The Internet turned 30 last week [Jan 2012 date of post]

On January 1, 1983, engineers launched the basic protocol for sharing bits between computers, setting in motion the networked world we live in today. Susan Crawford’s book is published as the Internet enters its middle years, and it offers a timely diagnosis of the problems Americans face as we try to make the most of our digital age.

Crawford’s basic prognosis is this: Internet users can no longer take the network for granted. For too long we have allowed powerful phone and cable incumbents to dictate Internet policy in America. The result is reflected in international rankings of broadband access and services, which have the United States falling far behind other developed nations. The tendency among paid corporate apologists and shills . . . is to blame the American geography for this decline: We’re a rural nation that isn’t as easily connected as, say, Singapore, they argue. Another tendency is to put the regulators at fault: If only we unchained the invisible hand of the marketplace, then the American Internet would be Numero Uno.

The truth, as Crawford points out lies somewhere else—in our policymakers’ failure to put the interests of the nation before those of profitable companies. Lobbying powerhouses like AT&T. Comcast and Verizon have flexed their financial muscle in Washington to ensure that the billion-dollar spoils of the Internet access business are shared only among a few corporations. The policies resulting from this largesse have led to the destruction of a competitive marketplace. Most Americans buying home Internet access today have just two choices: the local monopoly phone company or the local monopoly cable provider. AT&T and Verizon dominate the wireless Internet access market and also control the critical infrastructure that smaller and increasingly irrelevant competitors like Sprint need. We have no choice but to do business with these dominant companies. If we think they’re ripping us off, we can’t vote with our feet—as there’s nowhere else to go.

This concentration of gatekeeper power has very real—and very negative—consequences. Americans pay far more for far less than people in developed countries whose policymakers have promoted competition instead of profits. Crawford rightly notes that it’s time our leaders in Washington, D.C., did the same.

The Internet is more than a cloud; it’s people, technology and physical infrastructure. As with any infrastructure, the Internet needs protection and maintenance to survive. Otherwise the wires and signals that send digital communications would cease to function. The online community also needs protections—to prevent our ideas from being blocked, our identities from being hijacked and our wallets from being picked.

To connect every American to a world-class Internet, we need to confront the market power of phone and cable companies and open the way for alternatives, such as the municipal broadband networks communities are building across the country. We need to do this not just to benefit Internet users but to regain America’s global standing in an increasingly networked world.

The good news is that in 2012 Internet users rose up en masse to protect these rights and keep the network open. When the entertainment industry tried to push an Internet-crippling copyright bill, more than 15 million people urged Congress to stop it. When governments used a U.N. telecommunications conference to propose new powers to censor the Web, Internet freedom advocates worldwide joined forces to scuttle the plan.

Politicians need to follow the lead of the netroots—to stop listening only to the corporate lobbyists from AT&T, Comcast and the like and start representing Internet users, who demand more open and affordable access in a marketplace with real consumer choice.

This approach seems obvious. But too often in Washington simple solutions are pushed aside in favor of a blind adherence to a cashed fueled philosophy of deregulation and profits above all else.

Crawford warns of dire consequences should policymakers follow the lead of corporate lobbyists alone. Tens of millions of children will not have the tools they need to succeed in the modern world. Millions of good paying middle class American jobs will never be created. Tomorrow’s innovative companies will not be created on our shores, but will be started in the garages of the countries whose leaders recognize the importance of public interest infrastructure policies and the need to protect our Internet freedoms.

As we celebrate 30 years of the modern Internet, we need to look to the future and figure out ways to make it better. There is a role for activism and advocacy, but also one for our government to promote the public interest by ensuring that every American can participate in a free and fair communications market.

Crawford’s book is our call to action.

[1] The interview with Susan Crawford is available at the link given in the text. Moyer’s is one of the few people who are honest about his role in the Johnson administration, and who is willing to report on things a lot of people would like to keep hidden. His programs are available at his website for free.