Civil Liberties

Unliberty Bells

Phone guys-fascists or fellow-travelers?


The least surprising thing about the Bush administration's massive domestic surveillance operation is the role of America's phone companies as junior partners in the mission. In fact, the welfare-warfare state has seldom had such a good ally as Ma Bell and all her rapidly in-breeding progeny.

I do not think I'm channeling my inner Dr. Sidney Schaefer when I say the phone companies are among the most contemptible actors on the American socio-political stage today. Like the recording industry, the Bells seek to preserve a particular business model via intrusive government regulation. This regulation is purchased with heavy campaign contributions on both the state and federal level, not to mention loyal toadyism in any government official's War on Whatever. (Qwest's refusal to comply with National Security Agency requests is the exception which proves that rule.)

From there the phone companies proceed as if technological change is somehow unjust, as if the value of owning switches and wires should never be rivaled by the value of the content those wires deliver. This explains the Bells' hostility to Net-centric upstarts like Google, Yahoo!, and iTunes using "their pipes" to deliver content to the phone companies' own paying customers. From this we get the drive to create a "tiered" Internet, which in theory might have a function, but with the Bells calling the tune would merely result in technological stagnation and higher costs for consumers—a Bell hallmark.

After all, the Bells had a decade or so to do something creative with their pipes besides convincing public utility commissions that a 10-cent "beep beep" circuit merited a $6 per month "call waiting" charge. In the past few years the phone guys have duplicated their 70s-era PUC spiel for a conservative state and national think-tank audience, merely replacing "public good" and "community need" with "market" and "property right" along with some donations to the cause. The results speak for themselves: Right now, somewhere, there is a "conservative" legislator being convinced that Adam Smith, Yankee Doodle, and Jesus Christ all want him to impose socialistic Universal Service Fees on everything that connects to the Internet.

A reach? Check out how the tiered Internet/Net neutrality debate is being spun by the Bells as a "Nationalized Internet" on Capitol Hill. The American Spectator writes:

"You have to wonder when conservatives will wake up and realize what is happening here," says a House Republican leadership aide. "You have this unholy alliance between Google and MoveOn and groups like the Christian Coalition. I mean how is it the Christian Coalition can help a company like Google, which makes money off of online pornography?"

True, most GOP staffers these days would not know a free market if it jumped up and bit them on the firm, young, searchable ass, but this is still very telling.

The Bells have also trafficked in fear of the unknown. Contrast the button-down Bells to those hippy-drippy ISPs and Web sites who insist on seeing some kind of judicial demand for customer info before handing it over to government interlocutors. How much more efficient it is to have three or four corporate partners in surveillance the government can count on to comply with every request for information.

And the charade continues. Congress leans on the Federal Communications Commission to lean on the phone companies to "investigate" the wiretap matter. It is a neat little exercise to bleed off public outrage and otherwise distract the easily distracted Washington press corps. Look! Shiny thing! Actual market reform—which would involve shuttering the FCC, a vestigial Bell symbiote, and ending all telecom cross-subsidies like the Universal Service Fund—is not on the agenda.

In the meantime, are phone execs actually brownshirts? No, of course not—that would clash with the tasseled loafers. But they are indifferent to their customers' rights and positively hostile to meaningful and ongoing market-driven change to America's telecom sector. That does not mean they are out to get to you, but I'm pretty sure they are out to get me. Remember, it is not paranoid if they really are listening.