Everyone Gets a Bonus from Obama's Net Neutrality Plan

Buried deep in President Barack Obama's American Reinvestment and Recovery Act is a line that should bring a smile to your face -- and a scowl to phone and cable industry lobbyists.

It requires that billions of dollars directed to connect more Americans to broadband be spent on services that meet "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations."

What this really means is the good guys have won one battle in the fight for an open Internet. According to Obama's plan, government must now require that the $4.7 billion in federal grants for high-speed services be spent the right way: building networks that abide by Net Neutrality.

In other words, this money -- your money -- cannot be used by powerful companies like AT&T and Comcast to implement plans to "manage," filter or re-route you whenever you traverse the Web.

They have been angling to do so since it became clear that people wanted to use the Internet for more than simple email, ecommerce and search.

No Blank Checks

The good news is that this stimulus money isn't going to be a blank check to big phone and cable. It comes with strings attached, requiring that all networks built with our money leave control over the Internet in the hands of the people who use it every day -- people like you and me.

AT&T and Verizon can't use our money to invest in content filtering tools similar to the Deep Packet Inspection software now being used by China and Burma to sift through Web traffic. Comcast and Cox Cable can't block file-sharing software or other popular and legal Web applications. None of them can use taxpayer funds to decide how and when we watch videos, from whom we purchase goods and services, and where we can or cannot go online.

The only bonus being handed out here is Net Neutrality, a benefit for the millions of Americans who rely daily upon the Internet to improve their economic status, better educate their children, connect with friends and family, and participate more fully in our democracy.

A Bid to Undercut Neutrality

But get this: Just as Washington is deciding how to spend your tax dollars on an open Internet, phone and cable company lobbyists are trying to water down the Net Neutrality requirements, and stamp out consumer choice.

They came out into the open during a public meeting Monday in Washington.

"The idea that we should lay additional and unknown regulations on top of the task of the people getting this grant money is, I think, troubling at best," said Jonathan Banks of the U.S. Telecom Association during a meeting at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

James Assey, of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said that Net Neutrality requirements could create "uncertainty" in the marketplace. Chris Guttman-McCabe, speaking on behalf of the largest wireless carriers, said openness rules take away from the central focus of the stimulus package, which is "creating the most jobs and helping reverse the recession."

The Internet's Bedrock Principle

Such misleading statements are designed to make people think its in everybody's interest to hand over control of the Internet to the same companies that pay the salaries of these three lobbyists.

But what Banks, Assey and Guttman-McCabe failed to note is that Net Neutrality rules have always governed their profitable clients, such as when AT&T agreed to run a neutral network as a condition of its merger with BellSouth in 2007; or in 2008 when the FCC decided to sanction Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer protocols such as BitTorrent.

The only "uncertainty" in this marketplace would result from giving mighty network providers new powers to fiddle with our content. To do so would undercut the level playing field that has always made the Internet a great engine for free speech and commerce.

Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott just delivered 15,000 letters to the administration demanding that this basic freedom -- the right to connect to anyone, anywhere -- remains the bedrock principle of any new networks built with federal funds.

The voices of Internet users are clear and unequivocal on this, Scott told the agencies in charge of distributing the Internet stimulus. If you want to use our billions, we need to know that we're getting online freedom in exchange.