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The Dem Congress Must Save the Internet

The debate over net neutrality pits the special interests of the few against a massive grassroots effort.
 
 
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As much as anything, last Tuesday's vote was also a call for Congress to end "business as usual" and return to governing in the public interest. Nowhere is this need more glaring than in media policymaking.

In the past 10 years, telecommunications, broadcasting and cable companies have spent more than half a billion dollars on campaign contributions, political action committees and high-priced lobbyists to push through self interested policies. These regulations -- offering massive tax breaks, relaxed ownership rules, and unfettered control of the public airwaves -- all come at our expense.

On the issue of net neutrality alone these companies spent more than $100 million last year -- pushing Congress to remove the longstanding nondiscrimination rules that enabled the Internet to become the greatest vehicle for free speech and economic innovation. Instead of a truly free market that encourages entrepreneurship and creativity, they're seeking special regulations that serve only to pad their bottom line.

In the coming weeks, major communications companies and their high-spending lobbyists will do everything they can to re-assert their control over Washington policymaking -- painting issues like net neutrality as "unnecessary government regulations" and dismissing the groundswell of public support for this issue as the handiwork of a few "liberal groups."

What these large media corporations don't say is that they have been the nation's biggest beneficiaries of -- and lobbyists for -- media regulations, just as long as they're written in their favor. The debate over net neutrality pits the special interests of the few against a massive grassroots effort. At SavetheInternet.com, more than a million people signed the petition urging Congress to maintain the free and open Internet. Thousands of bloggers have linked to the site -- many of them posting homemade videos to counteract the expensive misinformation campaign launched by Astroturf groups like Hands Off the Internet and TV4U that are funded by phone and cable companies.

This grassroots campaign -- which isn't backed by any corporate money -- has lifted the crucial issue of net neutrality from obscurity, throwing a wrench in the phone and cable giants' plan to overhaul our telecommunications laws behind closed doors.

The November 7 election results were a great leap forward in our efforts to save the free and open Internet.

Reps. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Ed Markey, D-Mass. -- both strong supporters of net neutrality -- will most likely take command of telecommunications policy when their party reclaims majority power in the House in 2007. In the Senate, all pro-net neutrality incumbent senators won decisive victories in their states. They will be joined by newcomers Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Jim Webb, D-Va., and Amy Klobuchar D-Minn., who have also come out in support of net neutrality.

The major telecommunications bill pending in the Senate is a massive giveaway to the phone and cable companies, and should be blocked during the lame duck Congress. It's time to start from scratch in 2007, and the new Congress should treat the net neutrality debate as the first part of a broad public conversation about what the future of the Internet will look like. Whereas the phone companies had been confident that Congress would simply sign-off on industry-written legislation, today no member of Congress can vote with the telecom cartel without full public scrutiny.

The broad coalition that has formed to support net neutrality is encouraged that many of the new faces of leadership in both houses have already announced staunch support for the issue.

It's time others followed their lead in 2007, and we began working with the public to save the Internet.

Timothy Karr is the author of MediaCitizen, a weblog about the future of America's media. He is the campaign director of Free Press. From September 2003 through February 2005, Karr was executive director of MediaChannel.org and Media for Democracy.

 
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