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Suckered by Astroturf

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USA Today joins the illustrious list of news organizations to be taken for a ride by Astroturf.

In an article earlier this week, the paper's media beat reporter David Lieberman writes that the end of the Internet is nigh. It will start crashing down around us by the year 2010, he adds, citing a recent "study" by Nemertes Research.

Fake Grass Roots

The Not-So-Real Thing

The reason for our demise? We dastardly Net users have gone too far. According to Nemertes, we're not just sending email and surfing Web sites but also downloading and uploading data rich files like video and music. Net Neutrality would further unleash this unruly mass upon the Internet grinding the network to a halt.

"The Web will start to seem pokey," Lieberman writes, "as use of interactive and video-intensive services overwhelms local cable, phone and wireless Internet providers."

Saving Us from Ourselves

The underlying message is this: By taking control of our own media, users are straining the Net to the limit. The only way to save the Internet from the coming "exaflood," the report concludes, is to pay more federal money to the likes of AT&T and let them gut Net Neutrality protections so they can fix the problem.

The real problem here isn't the looming demise of the Internet, but USA Today's failure to question the motivations of its sources.

In their ceaseless efforts to become the gatekeepers to what we do online, the phone and cable companies funnel money to unscrupulous think tanks, which, in turn, churn out research, painting a picture of Internet Armageddon that can only be averted by giving the telcos exactly what they want: more money and control.

The Roots of Astroturf

In this case, Lieberman might have told readers that Nemertes is a research group funded by the Internet Innovation Alliance, an "Astrtoturf" group underwritten by AT&T.

"The IIA has been pushing the idea of a looming 'exaflood' for some time, with the primary goal being industry deregulation," writes Karl at Broadband Reports. "The argument being that if these companies don't get exactly what they want from lawmakers in Washington, the entire Internet collapses and we're back to using soup cans and string."

The USA Today story leaves readers with the impression that Nemertes reached its conclusion for the good of the public interest and not simply by following a script that was pre-ordained by the telcos.

Digging Beneath the Surface

Lieberman might also have cited the several other reports and studies that claim the opposite.

Analysts at the D.C.-based market research firm TeleGeography, call "foolhardy" the idea that an exaflood "is going to break something or kill something." Video traffic and demand growth have been accounted for, he told CIO Insight, and "the network operators know how to scale." TeleGeography research shows average global utilization of core Internet capacity in mid-2006 was only 34 percent, with peak utilization of 47 percent of available capacity.

Greg Collins, director of network and data center engineering for Earthlink Inc., added, "I don't see anything specific in the way of capacity problems today, and my job is to manage capacity and growth in our network."

Recent research notes that investment in backbone upgrades is exploding, with just about every network operator already working on upgrades or planning to do so in the next year or so.

Recent figures from Infonetics Research find that telecom global capital expenditure will exceed $220 billion in 2007. "Carriers are obviously not short of money, but rather than spend it on new infrastructure, many are looking at less capital-intensive strategies to reduce the strain, such as bandwidth shaping," writes Dave Bailey of ITWeek. "This is carrier-speak for putting the brakes on your broadband connection, which is unlikely to go down well with most customers."

Michael Masnik of Techdirt sums it up: "If there's real demand for more capacity, there will be business models to support it, whether or not network neutrality is in place."

Duped and Duplicitous

These types of studies often boil down to pure posturing and polemic against Net Neutrality, bought and paid for by AT&T. When researchers stumble across inconvenient points, such as the current boom in infrastructure investment, they dismiss them in favor of doomsday scenarios and call for an end to the one rule that allows online users to innovate without permission.

USA Today is not alone. Reporters and editors from the New York Times, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal to Xinhua have been snared in Astroturf , taking at face value data from coin-operated research groups without digging into their bank accounts to sniff out the payola.

Journalists should know better. These corporations claim that lawmakers should grant them control of Internet to safeguard the best interests of all Americans. But since when was AT&T elected to determine what is best for us?