Thursday, April 21, 2011

Astroturfing Net Neutrality

Free speech online has come under withering attack from the astroturf lobby -- corporate front groups that are determined to hand control of the Internet to companies like AT&T and Comcast.

They've joined the forces of the Tea Party with pro-corporate attack groups like Americans for Prosperity to urge weak members of Congress to betray the public interest by voting to strip the Federal Communications Commission of its ability to protect our basic freedom to access an open Internet.

And betray us is exactly what House representatives did earlier this month, passing a "Resolution of Disapproval" (H.J. Res. 37), which is designed to let phone and cable companies block any speech they don't like, charge users anything they can get away with, and hold innovation hostage to their profit margins.

If this resolution gets by the Senate and White House, there will be little anyone could do to stop these companies. The good new is that President Obama has already vowed to veto this resolution. (You can make sure that it doesn't get to his desk by urging your senators to kill H.J Res. 37).

The aim of the front groups supporting this industry agenda is to stoke partisan rancor and fear over a principle called Net Neutrality -- a basic rule that keeps service providers from deciding what content we get to see and share via digital networks.

A favorite line of theirs is to portray Net Neutrality as part of a Marxist conspiracy, dismissing the vast coalition of people of every political stripe who believe that an open Internet is a basic requirement of a healthy, modern democracy.

An article earlier this month at Andrew Breitbart's website Big Government painted Net Neutrality as "oppressive" and "leftists policies" and urged readers to phone up Democrats and urge their vote for a Congressional "Resolution of Disapproval" that had been embraced by Rep. Michele Bachmann and pushed by House Speaker John Boehner.

Americans for Prosperity, the industry-funded astroturf group with deep ties to the Koch Brothers and telecommunications companies, had asked its members to send letters to these and other congressional offices calling Net Neutrality "Obama's Internet takeover."

"Regulating the Internet under the banner of so-called network neutrality has been a far-left obsession for years," argues Americans for Prosperity VP of Policy Phil Kerpen.

Rhetoric aside -- it’s worth noting that companies like AT&T and Comcast have delivered truckloads of money to the re-election campaigns of most of those who voted against Net Neutrality. A recent report by illustrates the corrupting influence corporate donations have had in “convincing” members of Congress to turn against the interests of their constituents on this issue.

In the House, front groups' targeted Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire (PA-4), Sanford Bishop (GA-2), Leonard Boswell (IA-3), Jim Costa (CA-20), Henry Cuellar (TX-28), Reuben Hinojosa (TX-15), Tim Holden (PA-17), Rick Larsen (WA-2), Mike McIntyre (NC-7), Jerry McNerney (CA-11), Gregory Meeks (NY-6), David Scott (GA-13), and Heath Shuler (NC-11).

Of these, only two – Reps. Bishop and Scott – caved to industry pressure by voting for the resolution. But most every one has received considerable sums from the phone and cable lobby.

Now members of the Senate are hearing the same.

This push comes at a time when phone and cable companies have begun limiting our ability to connect with others and share information. Some like MetroPCS have already announced plans to block certain video applications via the mobile Web. Corporations like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are seeking to degrade access to competing services or sites that might threaten their bottom line; they’re also moving to penalize users who use their Internet connection for more data-intensive purposes than simple Web surfing.

Net Neutrality, like the First Amendment itself, is an issue that should transcend politics. It has received support from all corners -- from the socially conservative Christian Coalition to the rights advocates at ACLU, from librarians and educators to video gamers, journalists, musicians and even Harry Potter fans.

More than two million Americans have sent letters to the FCC and Congress urging leaders to "stand with the public by protecting Net Neutrality once and for all."

That's what real grassroots look like.

Just last week, Internet pioneer and die-hard Net Neutrality supporter Tim Berners-Lee said that access to the open Internet is a "human right" that we all have a "duty" to protect.

He’s right.

But that won't stop the hyperventilating among Beltway hacks intent on turning this into a divisive and politically charged issue.

Members of Congress without regard to party or ideology should ignore the astroturfing of a few to protect an open Internet that helps so many.

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