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Internet Access Rumor Won't Go Away

Dateline: 01/20/99  Update: 03/01/99

Even though it's been debunked by just about everybody, the rumor rages on via forwarded email alerts:  the U.S. government, we are told, is on the verge of enacting legislation that will raise our Internet access costs by allowing calls to ISPs to be charged at long-distance (i.e., per-minute) rates.

The rumor is false, as I will explain shortly.

It is nonetheless popular, exemplifying a genre of Internet folklore dating back to the "modem tax" legend of the early '90s. The rumor then was that the FCC was about to approve a surcharge on all phone lines connected to computer modems. A grassroots email campaign resulted in a flood of protests to the FCC, in spite of the fact that it had no such ruling under consideration.

In similar fashion, the latest rumor has generated hundreds of thousands of email complaints from "well-meaning but misinformed people" over the past two years, says the FCC.

Much like the issue of computer security, which has given rise to a body of lore including virus hoaxes, hacker alerts, and rumors of privacy invasion, low-cost access is and will likely always be a "hot button" topic among Internet users, hence fertile ground for rumormongers. False rumors often paint a true picture of a community's deep-seated fears and concerns.

Here's a typical email rendering of the current one:

Date: Tuesday, January 05, 1999 7:50 PM
Subject: INPORTANT!!! PLEASE READ!!!!!!

THIS IS NO JOKE !!!

CNN stated that the Government would in two weeks time decide to allow or not allow a Charge to your phone bill equal to a long distance call each time you access the internet.

The address is
http://www.house.gov/writerep/

Please visit the address above and fill out the necessary form! This is not a joke....but REAL. We all were aware that the Government has been pressured by the telephone companies to consider such a charge and now it's reality.....

If EACH one of us, forward this message on to others in a hurry, we may be able to prevent this injustice from happening!

The irony is that similar messages warning that the government will make a decision "in two weeks" have been circulating since early November, more than two months ago.

The earliest of these coincides with news reports about a ruling under consideration by the FCC (not Congress) pertaining to "reciprocal compensation" arrangements between local telephone companies. The ruling (still pending at this writing) will decide whether calls to ISPs should be regarded as interstate transactions, since Internet traffic is not, strictly speaking, local. It would only affect the rates phone companies charge each other for the use of local lines to complete such calls. (See the FCC Fact Sheet on this issue for a more thorough explanation.)

In some quarters, including news organizations such as CNN, this was misinterpreted as having an impact on the rates phone companies charge ISPs, and thus on consumer access fees. As CNN ominously reported on November 7, "The cost of going online could go up significantly if the Federal Communications Commission decides that dialing your local Internet provider is a long-distance call."

It was an erroneous assumption. FCC chairman William Kennard had announced the opposite just the day before: "The FCC has repeatedly stated for the past decade – and is stating again today – that it is NOT repealing the ISP exemption that [prevents] Internet service providers from paying per-minute charges to local telephone companies."

Unfortunately, the rumor was well underway. Even now, in spite of plenty of information to the contrary on this site and elsewhere, people persist in believing the email alerts and continue forwarding them hither and yon with righteous indignation.

Two days ago, the Arizona Republic reported that Congressman Ed Pastor had received no fewer than 85 messages of protest since November, the bulk of them during the past two weeks. Pastor's office responds to the protests by kindly denying the rumor and handing out the address of the FCC Web page listed above. Other members of Congress are doing the same, and likely will be for quite some time to come.

"Internet misinformation resembles one of those fires that start up in huge piles of tires," observed the author of the Arizona Republic article. "You can knock them back, but never really put them out."

The FCC can vouch for that. Come to think of it, so can I.

Update:

For more information, see:


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