February 12, 2009
Who Controls the Internet?
by Robert Kropp
Shareowner proposals challenge Internet Service Providers for greater transparency in decisions on
freedom of expression and privacy.
Back in 1996, at a time when only the most prophetic could have anticipated the degree to which the
Internet would become central to the fabric of contemporary life, John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issued a
much-circulated Declaration of the Independence of
Barlow's idealistic and confrontational broadside
stated, "In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying
to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. Your
increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in
America and elsewhere. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to
In the years since, efforts by governments and corporations to stem the flow
of free expression via the Internet have grown, and the right to privacy of a considerable number
of the world's population (in the US alone, it is estimated that 211 million people use the
Internet on a daily basis) has been eroded.
In China, for instance, where it is estimated
that more users access the Internet than in the US, "the government continues to refine its
technical filtering system while deputizing a range of actors to limit the ability of its citizens
to access and post content the state considers sensitive," according to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI). ONI has also found that "the number of
states that limit access to Internet content has risen rapidly in recent years."
of charges in 2005 of collusion by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo with the Chinese government in the
suppression of domestic dissent, a coalition of leading information and communications companies,
major human rights organizations, academics, investors and technology leaders launched the Global Network Initiative (GNI).
GNI was formed to resist efforts by governments that seek to enlist companies in acts of censorship
and surveillance that violate international standards.
In the US, challenges to freedom of
expression and privacy are rarely enacted in the name of suppression of dissent. Instead, such
challenges are often initiated by the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) themselves, in the name of
ordinary business practice. As a result of practices by ISPs that potentially would erode such
freedoms on the Internet, a coalition of investors led by the Open Media and Information Companies Initiative (Open MIC) has
filed shareholder resolutions with 10 US-based ISPs, requesting that their boards report on the
impact of network management practices.
The resolution, which asserts that "Internet
network management is a significant public policy issue," calls on the boards of the ISPs to report
on the effects of Internet network management practices on the public's expectations of privacy and
freedom of expression on the Internet.
"The resolution is the first to address the impact
of companies managing these public networks on freedom of expression and privacy in the US,"
observed Michael Connor, Executive Director of Open MIC.
Farnum Brown, senior portfolio
manager and research analyst at Trillium Asset
Management, an independent investment management exclusively devoted to socially responsible
investing, said, "As socially responsible investors we found it natural to raise these issues. We
understand that ISPs have a legitimate concern in network management issues. Let's make sure that
an ad hoc approach does not lead to exclusion of open communication."
"We as shareholders
are concerned about companies stumbling through a minefield of sensitive issues without developing
a strategic overview of what they are doing," Brown continued.
The ISPs targeted thus far
include including AT&T, Charter Communications, CenturyTel, Comcast, EarthLink, Embarq, Knology,
Sprint Nextel, Qwest Communications International, and Verizon Communications.
investor coalition includes the New York City Pension Funds and leading socially responsible
investment firms Trillium, Boston Common Asset Management, Calvert Asset Management, Domini Social
Investments, Harrington Investments and the As You Sow Foundation.
infrastructure is increasingly the defining infrastructure for the 21st century," said Brown.
"Publicly-held firms that were highly regulated telecommunications companies and cable companies
were transformed into companies with much more discretion over what passes through their networks."
The resulting ad hoc approach to network management issues led to a number of highly
publicized missteps by ISPs in 2008 which in turn contributed to the necessity of the shareowner
resolution addressing network management practices.
In August, AT&T censored its webcast
of a performance by Pearl Jam by blocking the audio feed of singer Eddie Vedder ad-libbing two
lines of lyrics critical of George W. Bush. The lyrics contained no obscenities, and in the face of
a viral online campaign critical of its decision AT&T announced a new policy that failed to address
First Amendment implications in most of its online business activities.
Verizon Wireless denied a request by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) to transmit
via the company's network text messages to people who had signed up to receive them. After
Verizon's action was publicized, the company reversed itself and permitted the transmission of the
messages. While Verizon continues to assert its right to determine if the transmission of text
messages through its network will be permitted, it has not announced a policy outlining the grounds
for such decisions.
In October, Comcast admitted that it delayed some Internet traffic on
its network after tests revealed that the company had actively interfered with the sharing of files
on peer-to-peer networks. The FCC subsequently found that Comcast's broadband network management
practices violated the agency's policy principles, and ordered Comcast to disclose how its
management practices affect its customers. Comcast has yet to publicize its network management
Referring to the AT&T incident, Brown said, "Trillium has been in dialogue with
AT&T for a year. I have said to a couple of its executives that this is an opportunity for AT&T to
take the lead in confronting these issues, to turn lemons into lemonade around the Pearl Jam
incident. They haven't seen the wisdom of that suggestion yet."
In fact, Connor of Open
MIC added, "The SEC granted a no-action letter to AT&T on the grounds that the privacy elements of
our proposal pertain to ordinary business practices. And while several ISPs have questioned our
proposal, none have reached out to the coalition to engage on the issue."
saying there should not be rules but if there are rules that they should be transparent," Connor
continued. "If you don't lay the groundwork for these arguments now a crisis can occur very
quickly, in which rules do not exist to protect privacy and freedom of expression."
added, "Socially responsible investors should realize that the issue of open digital communications
is an overarching issue that impacts upon all the ESG issues that we have worked on for so long. To
the extent that people are concerned about environmental and human rights issues, the success of
advocacy will be determined by the health of the information ecosystem."
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