With the announcement that the US has fallen to 14th in broadband penetration in the world, and that India is going to offer free broadband access to all residents by 2009, it's time to get our house in order. The reason we don't have an effective path towards a universal open internet, and why net neutrality is not in Speaker Pelosi's Innovation Agenda, is at least part because of the strategic choices of the Communications Workers of America. The more I delve into their politics, the less sense it makes, because CWA has a campaign that sounds like it's exactly what we want: SpeedMatters.org.
This is ostensibly a campaign pushing for universal broadband and an open internet. What's bizarre here is that CWA is pretty viciously opposed to net neutrality. They argue that Google, Amazon, and all of us are getting a free ride on infrastructure paid for by Verizon, AT&T, and the like. This is not true, and it's causing political problems. If India is planning to provide universal broadband for free, and America is fourteenth in the world in broadband access, we have a serious problem with our telecommunications infrastructure that has nothing to do with Amazon.com. And on a local level, when the rubber hits the road, the union is inconsistent on the issue of access, great in some states and terrible in others. Perhaps CWA's schizophrenia on openness comes from longstanding bitterness between them and the consumer movement. I'm not sure, but that's what I was told. I really hate these old fights that all of us had nothing to do with.
Anyway, this is coming up because last week, I blogged about CWA President Larry Cohen's strategic weakness in fighting against net neutrality. After a few prodding emails, he had Debbie Goldman of their Speed Matters campaign get back to me with an email I've published below. She's very polite and civil in the letter, and it's hard to disagree with what she wrote. The gist of it is that CWA believes strongly in an open internet and works against Verizon's viciously anti-labor and anti-consumer behavior; Verizon's Seidenberg is in fact the target for the AFL-CIO's shareholder activism campaign.
And this is true in certain areas. In New York State, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky is putting forward a very important bill, Assembly Bill 3980, that establishes net neutrality and goes far in establishing universal access. The bill is supported by CWA, media reform groups, and is opposed by Time Warner, Cablevision, and Verizon. Those are the right enemies to have, because those are the groups that want to redline, which means servicing only wealthy customers, and the groups that want to cut out PEG (educational) programming. This is a great fight because it can bridge the divide between most of the progressive movement on one side and CWA on the other in terms of net neutrality.
Hopefully New York can be a bridge, where we work with CWA on universal build-out and they work with us on net neutrality. Still, based on what I've seen and Goldman's letter, my read on CWA is that there's a bit of incoherence within the institution. If you read Goldman's letter, you'll notice that she didn't mention net neutrality even though that was the focus of the post. And while CWA is always pointing to their Speed Matters campaign, which ostensibly seeks to have states publish statistics on broadband penetration and an open internet that doesn't discriminate against content, it's not clear that the organization is fully aligned with the campaign. For instance, in Maryland, CWA representatives lied to legislators to defeat a bill that would have required publication of broadband penetration and had as a non-binding legislative finding net neutrality. The net neutrality language had no legal authority behind it, but that didn't stop CWA representatives from going after it anyway with the idea that it would put good paying jobs at risk. This was not true. And as Art Brodsky wrote, "CWA's witnesses somehow didn't get around to testifying that they endorsed the part of the bill calling for reporting of broadband deployment."
The bill in Maryland was consistent with Speed Matters and did not in fact threaten investment or jobs in the area, yet CWA representatives sought to crush it with disinformation. This points to something of a disconnect within the Communications Workers of America. I have heard that there are locals that do not understand why the union is opposed to net neutrality. In Goldman's letter below, she doesn't mention the issue, and hasn't dealt with this important statement from President Larry Cohen.
We need to provide incentives for build-out and not throw up legislative roadblocks. "Net neutrality" supporters want these companies to spend billions building the connection to households across the United States and then let other companies use the networks for free.
Pushing "net neutrality" are companies like Google, Amazon, E-Bay and others that aren't investing in infrastructure but are looking for ways to profit from the investments of others, by offering video streaming but supplying minimal if any investment.
What Cohen says here is simply not true. These companies pay for access, millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars in fact. But it's a lie spread by opponents of net neutrality, and frankly, I'm not sure why. What I hear from CWA local President Laura Unger in the comments is a deep-seated bitterness at internet company executives getting some sort of free ride. The problem is that the tens of millions of people who use the internet for our lives are in Google's boat. We pay hosting. We know that what Unger and Cohen isn't true. I can show them my bill if they want to see it for hosting.
Anyway, this internal division within CWA is quite confusing. CWA is making the case that their Speed Matters campaign is an organizational priority while avoiding the issue of net neutrality, and in some states, that seems to be the case. On the other hand, though they brag about going after Verizon, this is undercut in states like Maryland where their representatives are willing to misrepresent their positions and undercut their union's very own Speed Matters campaign for the benefit of Verizon's management.
I am going to send this to Larry Cohen and Debbie Goldman, because I think it's important that they understand that they are reducing their own credibility with their inconsistent approach to Speed Matters. They are also creating friction with every single American that pays for hosting by lying about us, and there are millions of us organizing for shared progressive values. There is no need for this distance or friction, that is a strategic choice by President Cohen.
The other problem here is that telecommunications industry management is becoming much more aligned with the right-wing that seeks to crush unions. That's no longer just a Verizon problem, but increasingly, an AT&T problem as well. AT&T CEO Ed Whiteacre is retiring, and while he is egregiously overpaid and gives a lot to Republicans, he was actually fairly good on labor issues and did contribute to a few pro-labor Democrats. Furthermore, Cingular is the only unionized wireless company, and AT&T works with their union. The new CEO of AT&T, Randall Stephenson, is a different kind of animal - he's given no money to Democrats, and a bunch to the most right-wing of the bunch, like Sam Brownback. Here's how he sees the internet.
We're going to control the video on our network. The content guys will have to make a deal with us.
Oh really? So the person who made the the Macaca video would have to go through a guy who gave to George Allen? That's a serious problem for both free speech and union organizing, and Larry Cohen is too smart not to see that.
Anyway, here's Debbie Goldman's letter. Read it and make your own judgments. I'm going to ask Goldman why CWA thinks that Google pays no hosting fees, and why I pay no hosting fees when in fact I do.