Wednesday, March 17, 2004

On the power of cable
Farhad Manjoo (whose written a number of good articles over the past few years examining media culture industries, particularly digital media technologies) has a new article up at that examines the growing power of cable companies/cable modem, particularly number 1 cable provider Comcast. The article highlights the growing moves towards the erosion of the neutral network and the dangers of so much power in so few hands-- which of course would only be exacerbated if Comcast acquires Disney.

The traditional reasons to worry about a Comcast-Disney merger -- it may raise your cable bill, and it could give Disney's content an advantage in your lineup of channels -- are compelling enough. But tech-savvy media critics these days are talking about a more theoretical, even scarier, proposition: If Comcast buys Disney, they wonder, will we get a Mickey Mouse Internet? Comcast has already demonstrated a willingness to circumscribe what customers do online. It has not only attacked high-use customers but, in the past, has also curbed virtual private networks (a popular way for corporations to integrate telecommuters into the company intranet) and, according to some customers, has limited traffic on Usenet, the oldest (and most unregulated) of all the Net's discussion forums. The company's terms of service also prohibit users from running file-sharing applications (among other things), and it has a less-than-clear policy on whether running a Wi-Fi network in your house is OK.

Such restrictions have prompted people to wonder what the company might do when it owns a vast stash of content. Will Disney's content -- its Web sites, its streaming movies and music and TV shows -- get pushed through at quicker rates to Comcast's broadband customers? Will other content, whether from a rival media giant or from your friends and family, get pushed through at all? And will the underlying architecture of the Internet subtly shift, over time, to accommodate the kinds of applications that media giants like Comcast want us to use, rather than the ones that come from the bubbling innovation of the Internet itself -- like the Web, or e-mail, or peer-to-peer file trading?

One cable company to rule them all


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