What's Really at Stake with Net Neutrality

Whenever new legislation in Washington threatens the bottom lines of Fortune 500 companies, they unleash a full-scale war for the hearts and minds of decision makers and the public. Half of the battle is winning the ear of elites. The other half is fought in the field of public opinion: mass-emails, paid advertisements, blogs, op-eds, and coalitions.

Corporate-driven campaigns engage an established set of high-priced lobby shops, PR firms, rolodex-for-hire firms, and pollsters. "Astroturf" campaigns are launched to create the illusion of grassroots support. Often enough, the combination of legislators addicted to campaign contributions and the sheer power of multi-million dollar campaigns "flood the zone" and win the day. More corporate-friendly legislation at the expense of real public input.

The current fight for Internet "Network Neutrality" now raging in Congress is different. As predicted, the cable and telephone companies have lined up their PR henchmen and "Astroturf" campaigns in an attempt to muscle through legislation that hands them control of the Internet. But they're now facing a formidable opposition in the form of a public that's fed up with business as usual in the nation's capital.

At stake here is the future of not just the Internet, but nearly all media that provide news and information to the public. Cable and phone companies deliver broadband to 98% of the U.S. market. They want to be able to ration it out with a premium tier, fast service to content providers that will pay handsomely for the service. Opposing them are real public interest groups and the Internet companies - Google, Yahoo!, Ebay, Amazon, Intel - that want to keep the internet a neutral platform -- as it always was until the courts and FCC loosened net neutrality regulations last year.

Former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry has been a PR flack for corporate interests in Washington for years, and is getting paid to side with cable and telephone companies and against the public interest on the net neutrality debate. Many Democrats and liberal bloggers are up in arms that McCurry sold out Internet freedom for a fat paycheck. He's now obediently spinning the issue and spreading lies on behalf his bosses at AT&T and Verizon.

In his Huffington Post piece on Monday, McCurry attempted to paint net neutrality supporters - a left-right coalition of consumer groups, public advocates, small businesses, Internet gurus and bloggers -- as ranting lefties seeking to smother the Internet with regulation. "The Internet has worked absent regulation," McCurry claimed, "and now you want to introduce it for a solution to what?" McCurry's revisionist history has been well-refuted and needs no further mention here.

The reality is that both the Democrats and Republicans have been bad on media policy for decades. The Clinton administration supported net neutrality, but the president also signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which gave away billions worth of spectrum, lifted radio ownership caps, and "deregulated" cable, only to drive cable rates up 50% nationwide. The GOP is even worse, having become a party of by and for Big Media.

Broadband will soon deliver nearly all television, radio, phone service - and of course the Web - to most Americans. This transition is our big chance to do an end run around 24-7 lapdog journalism, low-brow entertainment, celebrity gossip, and rampant commercialism that has left the public in a fog of Brangelina, windbag pundits, sound bytes and little knowledge about what's happening in the world and what our elected officials actually think or stand for.

If we lose this net neutrality battle, we lose the greatest opportunity of our lifetimes to get critical journalism and diverse media into living rooms across the nation, as the largest cable and phone companies turn the Internet into modern cable TV: they control what you see and how much it costs.

Fortunately, the cable/telco power grab is coming to the attention of the American public, and they're letting their elected officials know that Internet freedom should not be sold out. Last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee members defeated an amendment by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass) that would have protected net neutrality, but it coincided with a remarkable shift that occurred on Capitol Hill prior to the vote.

An unlikely coalition of over 500 organizations and bloggers banded together at SavetheInternet.com and sent more than 500,000 letters to Congress. Thousands of bloggers heaped scorn upon any McCurry and any member of the House who dared side with companies like AT&T and Verizon. As the legislation moves to the House floor and Senate in the coming weeks, every member of Congress has been put on alert by an awakened and angry public.

Whereas before, the big telephone companies and their hired guns were confident that Congress would simply roll over, today, no member of Congress can vote with the telecom cartel without suffering repercussions. As Free Press' Tim Karr recently stated,

"That McCurry has emerged from behind smoke-tinted glass to throw punches at groups representing the public's interest is testament not only of the success of www.SavetheInternet.com, but also to the utter bankruptcy of his over-funded position."

While it's too optimistic to predict that this one campaign marks a loosening of big business' chokehold on policy making in Washington, momentum is turning against the machinery of Big Media that has laid waste to quality mainstream journalism, and compromised our democracy for too long.