The full Los Angeles City Council is scheduled to decide soon the critical issue of whether it should require cable giant Time Warner to allow consumers to gain access to the Internet via any responsible provider the consumer selects. Time Warner, not surprisingly, wants to limit the provider--to itself.
The City Council needs to stand up on behalf of consumers on this issue, which is not an arcane question of law or a dispute among techno-geeks but an important matter of free competition and free speech.
It may seem like there are a lot of choices for consumers. We have dozens of channels to choose from on cable TV. And we can log on immediately to the Internet to buy things, communicate with others or be entertained.
Yet if one corporation can decide what channels we see or what kind of access we have to the Internet, those choices can be blocked or filtered at the will of the provider.
An Internet service provider, whether it is America Online, Road Runner or whatever, can prioritize our messages or flood us with their own messages. It can control the gateway in and out of the Internet.
Because of communications mergers and acquisitions, consumers in Los Angeles and most of the nation no longer have a choice among cable providers. For most of us, it is either Time Warner or AT&T, which now control or have a substantial interest in more than 70% of the cable systems nationally. Combined with their Internet access operations, these two firms represent one of the major price-unregulated monopolies in the U.S. This allows them to make profits without the traditional "fair rate of return" limitation that other utilities must live by.
The same issue of open Internet access that is now before Los Angeles also faced Portland, Ore., two years ago. That city made the right choice, which was to say that, because the city provides the rights of way for cable wiring, the cable companies must allow consumers to choose their own Internet service providers, which come through those wires. Portland correctly contended that AT&T was enough of a gatekeeper in feeding its signals to consumers on cable TV. It insisted that AT&T must ensure competition in consumer access to the Internet in return for having a monopoly on the city's cable franchise. AT&T has sued over the decision, which is now before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, Time Warner, the other cable behemoth, has absorbed many of Los Angeles' cable companies (some of which have kept old names so it seems we have many different ones).
Time Warner, which currently is being acquired by America Online, prefers that all of us in the Los Angeles area use AOL for our Internet access. But that should not be our only choice.
The change in ownership of Time Warner has one silver lining: The cable franchise is changing hands, and thus must come up for review by the Los Angeles City Council. The council should just say no to Time Warner and AOL on the Internet-access issue. It should keep the gateway clear so we--not they--have control over the flow of our business, political and personal communications.