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Verizon and AT&T Accused of Being Threats to Democracy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Just two companies—Verizon Wireless and AT&T—control 60 percent of the U.S. wireless market. Four companies control 90 percent. A thriving marketplace this is not. And while the lack of competition partly explains why cell phone service in the U.S. is slower, less reliable and more expensive than in other developed countries, a perhaps more important reason is that the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency tasked with protecting the rights and interests of consumers, chose to neuter itself a decade ago.

Unfortunately, the stakes are higher for the U.S. than just lousy service and exorbitant bills. The current state of affairs threatens the ability of citizens to speak freely in a democracy.

Such was the consensus of a panel of legal and policy experts who here spoke at the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference this week. “AT&T and Verizon don’t really compete with one another—they copy one another,” said Parul P. Desai, the communications policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports magazine. As an example, she noted that AT&T recently began to place limits on the amount of data that consumers are allowed to download in any given month. “Then Verizon followed suit,” she said, “except with higher prices.”

Price isn’t the only principle in peril. People now use their phones to share information and news directly with one another, bypassing traditional big-media gatekeepers. Yet the power to censor news or information isn’t going away, it’s just shifting to the owners of the network. “The ways that we’re creating news or connecting with other is under the control of big quasi-monopolistic forces that don’t have the same interests as us,” said Josh Levy, the Internet campaign director of the non-profit advocacy organization Free Press. “AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are the enablers of free speech, and they can turn off the spigot if they feel like it,” he said. As an example, he cited Verizon’s 2007 decision to block text messages sent by a political advocacy organization to its members.

Perversely, speech over old-fashioned analog telephone service is far better protected than speech over the Internet, or any device (like a smart phone) that connects to the Internet. In 2002, the FCC under then-president George W. Bush decreed that the Internet wasn’t a so-called “telecommunications service,” and thus subject to federal laws protecting free speech and competition. Instead, it was an “information service,” much like a television channel. The owner of the information service determines what kind of information he would like it to host. In practice, this means that the companies that own the infrastructure—cell-phone companies and Internet service providers more generally—decide what content gets through. In a response to an audience question, Desai said that the FCC could perhaps reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service, a step that Scientific American has championed multiple times in the past.

But until then, consumers in the U.S. are subject to the whims of the wireless carriers. “I don’t know if there’s ever been anything so important to so many people that’s under the control of such abstract forces,” said Nilay Patel, managing editor of the technology Web site The Verge. Until the FCC decides to reassert its authority, consumers will continue to suffer. Let’s hope democracy doesn’t as well.

Photo by Ryosuke Takeoka on Flickr.

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Derick in TO 7:22 pm 03/13/2012

    Along the same lines, virtually all mass media in the US is owned by 6 huge, vertically integrated corporations. This includes every national news broadcast on TV and radio.

    As Thomas Jefferson said: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” When 6 big companies (whose key shareholders obviously have a vested interest in keeping the wealthy wealthy and the working poor and middle class in line), I’d hardly call the press “free”.

    Thank whatever god you do or don’t believe in for SciAm – owned by a mid-sized German publishing company.

    Achtung America! Democracy is under threat! The Germans should know – about 80 years ago a guy with a terrible mustache stole their democracy, and millions died as a result.

    Link to this
  2. 2. the Gaul 7:24 pm 03/13/2012

    Wireless markets are but one example of the wholesale loss of competition in the United States. There is NO competition among virtually any industry in the U.S.

    The corrupt Congress leads the way. The next time that you need an advantage, just buy a congressman or -woman. But what’s that you say… you don’t have a spare $million or two lying around? Well then, you really didn’t think Congress was for you, did you? Because it’s absolutely certain that if you don’t have the kind of “speech” that runs Congress, they won’t even acknowledge your existence.

    The America of our forefathers is gone, vanished. The edges are peeled away ever so slowly, often out of the sight of people. When someone finally looks, bars constrict freedom here in the so-called free-est country on earth. Keep telling yourself that…

    Meanwhile the Verizons and AT&Ts will continue to restrict what, and to whom you are free to speak. We call it censorship in China; what do you think it is here?

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  3. 3. mleighshook 9:06 pm 03/13/2012

    Very Interesting… How hypocritical of our beloved phone companies when their business of 900 numbers [operated today as 800 numbers - psychic readings, phone sex etc.] that generate 10′s of millions in revenue would I’m sure go uncensored.

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  4. 4. N a g n o s t i c 11:36 pm 03/13/2012

    Amazing title to this article.

    All I have to say is, start your own phone company if you don’t like what’s out there.
    Oh – it’s not so easy to do that, eh? I wonder why… could it be the GOVERNMENT that regulates these sorts of things likes things the way they are?
    And, does anybody actually believe nationalized and government-owned telecommunications would make us freer?

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  5. 5. Bops 11:39 pm 03/13/2012

    I never thought of phones as a source of censorship.

    National news broadcast on TV and radio I just “expect” to be tainted.

    Congress, as a whole, needs to be tossed out and re-formed with honesty rules and morals.
    Congress is accountable only for treason and slander!
    No problem if they poison half the US, they can’t be held personally accountable.

    People need to vote on issues, not packaged deals.

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  6. 6. Ar-Gregory 5:20 am 03/14/2012

    I have a once-Cingular now AT&T cell phone and I connect to the Internet with a Verizon Wireless service. This isn’t because I had no choice, they had what I wanted in service but the ability to manipulate prices may threaten what I have. They should be investigated if they are truly a threat to democracy.

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  7. 7. kahukiloia 6:08 am 03/14/2012

    Cricket Wireless – – Cricket Wireless is a leading cell phone provider, offering affordable prepaid cellular plans and no signed contract…

    I2P – – I2P (initially short for Invisible Internet Project) is a computer network layer that allows applications to send messages to each other pseudonymously and …

    Freenet – – Freenet is a distributed data store that is decentralized and resistant to censorship, as well as a suite of free software for working with this data store…

    Tor (anonymity network) – – Tor (short for The onion router) is a system intended to enable online anonymity. Tor client software routes Internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network …

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  8. 8. GeekStatus 10:06 am 03/14/2012

    The author is just scratching the surface.

    Patents are the root of all corporate evil in our country. A 20 year patent is protected monolopy. There really is no other way to put it. And now the government has been giving patents for vague and obvious things. For example, I saw a guy on TV that owns a patent that gives him the sole right to sell clothing designed for running wires through it – think headphones, tech devices. Why is that a protected “invention”? I tuck the wires into my clothes all the time.

    Also, these specific companies are raising their rates, primarily, because of Apple. Apple is squeezing them dry (and the consumer) by releasing these overpriced phones. The wireless carriers then “subsidize” the phones by charging less up front and more monthly.

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  9. 9. JamesDavis 10:13 am 03/14/2012

    AT&T and Verizon are two of the most greedy phone companies in America, and Frontier is a carbon copy of both AT&T and Verizon. I have cell phone service now with Wal-Mart and they charge me $45.00 a month for unlimited talk, text, and internet anywhere in America I want to call and to any phone. The same service with Verizon and AT&T would cost me $199.99, and with AT&T I would be limited to calling only other cell phones. The question I have: how the hell will you know if it is another cell phone you are calling?

    I have landline and internet service with Frontier and they charge me $60.00 for a 1.5 internet connection and $50.00 for unlimited landline service. I have my landline service cut down to local and with the internet service and local calling only, my bill is close to $80.00. Frontier, who bought Verizon out in West Virginia, will not allow any other IPS providers to come into the state. We are at Frontier’s mercy and they show you no mercy.

    It took me twenty minutes to download this article, and all of Sciam’s other articles downloaded in 3 to 4 seconds. SciAm, I think your article caused me to be throttled by my Internet Service Provider. You have information in this article that they do not want people to know about.

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  10. 10. MadScientist72 10:19 am 03/14/2012

    @ Nagnostic – “could it be the GOVERNMENT that regulates these sorts of things likes things the way they are?”
    I think it’s really got more to do with the buttloads of money you’d need to compete against the big boys. Of course, I’m sure the government does enjoy the kickbacks & bribes – Uh, I mean campaign contributions – they’re getting from the telecoms & ISPs.

    “And, does anybody actually believe nationalized and government-owned telecommunications would make us freer?”
    Of course not. I think it’s pretty clear with the FCC’s and President Shrub’s thoroughly unconstitutional attempt to dictate what is or is not protected speech. Last I checked the 1st Ammendment still started with the phrase “Congress shall make NO law….” That means the very existence of the FCC is a violation of their mandate.

    @ Bops – “Congress, as a whole, needs to be tossed out and re-formed with honesty rules and morals.”
    I doubt anything short of a new Constitutional Convention could accomplish that. And good luck getting one of those past Congress – they’ve got somewhat of a vested interest in not letting it happen.

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  11. 11. motamanx 3:05 pm 03/14/2012

    I was a kid then, but wasn’t America’s telecommunications handled by just one company? It was the finest in the world. Some senator (help me out here) I think it was Barry Goldwater, tried to break up At&T because of anti trust activity. He may have been right, but the phone company was never again as efficient or dependable.

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  12. 12. MadScientist72 10:48 am 03/15/2012

    @ motamanx – Up until 1984, there was a a telecom monopoly in the US. It was the original incarnation of AT&T, also called “Ma Bell”. The antitrust suit that broke up the monopoly was filed by the Justice dept. in 1974, but wasn’t settleed until 1982. The breakup was completed in 1984. Since then, reconsolidation of the “Baby Bell” companies has left us with 2 main players – the “new” AT&T and Verizon.

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  13. 13. snaidamast 7:13 pm 03/16/2012

    The fact that the major communication companies are throttling consumers with their cell-phone usage in my opinion is excellent news.

    Where do we begin?

    1) First off at least 5 major studies out of Europe have confirmed that cell-phone usage is carcinogenic and as a result, very hazardous to your health. (Yes, I know about prolonged use but whether it is prolonged use or just a lot of use the dangers are the same.)

    2) Cell-phone usage, especially in the United States has become a catastrophic sociological problem since it has wreaked major damage towards the natural interactions between people.

    3) Cell-phones and their tablet siblings, though excellent for emergency messaging, have become so abused in their use that people are using them as crutches for everything and anything turning their brains into mush.

    This type of mobile technology (among many other types) is making people in the US less intelligent and multiple in-depth studies have confirmed this.

    As far as I am concerned if the major communication companies in the United States want to self-immolate with their wireless plans more power to them. Maybe the entire country will be much quieter for it…

    Steve Naidamast
    Sr. Software Engineer/Military Historian

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  14. 14. grousehunter 8:52 am 03/22/2012

    Same here in Canada. With the CRTC playing watchdog for the big companies competition is almost non-existent. Unlike installation of the land line system of the past we still have larges areas of the country with no internet of cell service, albeit, huge profits for the companies involved. We went from providing equal service for all canadians to a blatant neglect of anyone who choses to live in a rural area. Where do people thing their food and lumber comes from?

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