Lured by huge checks handed out by the country’s top lobbyists, members of Congress could soon strike a blow against Internet freedom as they seek to resolve the hot-button controversy over preserving “network neutrality.” The telecommunications reform bill now moving through Congress threatens to be a major setback for those who hope that digital media can foster a more democratic society. The bill not only precludes net neutrality safeguards but also eliminates local community oversight of digital communications provided by cable and phone giants. It sets the stage for the privatized, consolidated and unregulated communications system that is at the core of the phone and cable lobbies’ political agenda.
In both the House and Senate versions of the bill, Americans are described as “consumers” and “subscribers,” not citizens deserving substantial rights when it comes to the creation and distribution of digital media. A handful of companies stand to gain incredible monopoly power from such legislation, especially AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon. They have already used their political clout in Washington to secure for the phone and cable industries a stunning 98 percent control of the US residential market for high-speed Internet.
Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens, the powerful Commerce Committee chair, is trying to line up votes for his “Advanced Telecommunications and Opportunities Reform Act.” It was Stevens who called the Internet a “series of tubes” as he tried to explain his bill. Now the subject of well-honed satirical jabs from The Daily Show, as well as dozens of independently made videos, Stevens is hunkering down to get his bill passed by the Senate when it reconvenes in September.
But thanks to the work of groups like Save the Internet, many Senate Democrats now oppose the bill because of its failure to address net neutrality. (Disclosure: The Center for Digital Democracy, where I work, is a member of that coalition.) Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan have joined forces to protect the US Internet. Wyden has placed a “hold” on the bill, requiring Stevens (and the phone and cable lobbies) to strong-arm sixty colleagues to prevent a filibuster. But with a number of GOP senators in tight races now fearful of opposing net neutrality, the bill’s chances for passage before the midterm election are slim. Stevens, however, may be able to gain enough support for passage when Congress returns for a lame-duck session.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Thus far, the strategy of the phone and cable lobbies has been to dismiss concerns about net neutrality as either paranoid fantasies or political discontent from progressives. “It’s a made-up issue,” AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre said in early August at a meeting of state regulators. New Hampshire Republican Senator John Sununu claims that net neutrality is “what the liberal left have hung their hat on,” suggesting that the outcry over Internet freedom is more partisan than substantive. Other critics of net neutrality, including many front groups, have tried to frame the debate around unsubstantiated fears about users finding access to websites blocked, pointing to a 2005 FCC policy statement that “consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.” But the issue of blocking has been purposefully raised to shift the focus from what should be the real concerns about why the phone and cable giants are challenging federal rules requiring nondiscriminatory treatment of digital content.