The GOP House leadership rejected calls Wednesday to preserve the Internet’s open and democratic nature in the United States. Phone and cable industry lobbyists breathed a sigh of relief as the House Energy and Commerce Committee defeated, 34 to 22, an amendment to a broadband communications bill (known as the Barton-Rush Act) that would require “network neutrality.” Under the proposal, developed by Massacusetts Democrat Ed Markey and others, phone and cable companies would have been prohibited from transforming the Internet into a private, pay-as-you-post toll road.
Over the past week, there has been a remarkable outpouring of public and corporate support for network neutrality. SavetheInternet.com, organized by Free Press and representing dozens of nonprofit groups and leading Internet experts, helped generate 250,000 signatures in less than a week for an online petition calling on Congress to protect the Internet and pass the Markey bill.
This new group, a collection of unusual bedfellows that runs the political gamut from Common Cause, the Gun Owners of America and the Parents TV Council to Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, also spurred many bloggers to take a strong stand (ranging from the liberal Daily Kos to the libertarian Instapundit).
Meanwhile, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Amazon, eBay and IAC, which make up the Network Neutrality Coalition, unveiled their “Don’t Mess With the Net” campaign, running ads in Roll Call and The Hill targeting lawmakers. MoveOn.org’s new Save the Internet campaign also generated many letters and e-mails to members of Congress.
It is puzzling, though, why Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and allies have not unleashed a serious–and very public–nationwide campaign in support of network neutrality. So far, these giants have worked cautiously, largely inside the Beltway, reflecting perhaps their corporate ambivalence about calling on Congress to pass Internet-related safeguards. Unlike the phone and cable efforts, there has been no saturation-TV or print-advertising campaign, something these deep-pocketed digital giants could eaily afford.
This growing pressure on the Democrats to stand up for an open Internet helped convince House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to formally support the call for network neutrality. Consequently, only five House Commerce Committee Democrats voted with the GOP majority to kill the digital nondiscrimination plan, including Edolphus Townes (New York), Albert Wynn (Maryland), Charles Gonzalez (Texas), Bobby Rush (Illinois) and Gene Green (Texas). Only one Republican committee member, Heather Wilson of New Mexico, voted in support of the network neutrality amendment.
Giants including AT&T (SBC), Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner have staked their business plans for the Internet based on being able to control and “monetize” the flow of digital communications coming into PCs, digital TVs and mobile services. The Federal Communications Commission–at the behest of the phone and cable lobby–recently overturned longstanding safeguards requiring the Internet to operate in a nondiscriminatory manner. The two industries are spending tens of millions of dollars to fight off any Congressional safeguard for the Internet that would restore the nondiscrimination principle.
Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have been the chief cheerleaders for the cable and phone lobby. On Wednesday, Barton derided the call for network neutrality, claiming that it’s “still not clearly defined. It’s kind of like pornography: You know it when you see it.” Barton and Hastert are expected, as early as next week, to successfully pass the bill in the House without a network neutrality provision. A showdown is now looming in the Senate Commerce Committee, which is about to take up its own broadband Internet legislation. A bipartisan network neutrality amendment, similar to what was just defeated in the House committee, will be offered by Senators Olympia Snowe and Byron Dorgan. Public-interest advocates and corporate allies plan to mobilize an even larger outcry of support for this proposal.
With midterm elections looming, GOP leaders will come under increasing pressure to make a choice. Will they continue to back their few phone and cable industry supporters and keep the open Internet safeguards off the table? Or will they recognize that a genuine digital-age protest movement is emerging that could further harm their party’s chances in November? The next few weeks will reveal whether the “smart mobs” can win over a tiny handful of communications monopolists.