Despite growing opposition, Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens appears determined to pass his telecom giveaway bill this year. If Stevens and his pals in the telecom and cable industries prevail, expect the free flow of online content to be replaced by corporate infotainment like Anheuser-Busch’s lowbrow broadband Bud TV.
Stevens is using his considerable political clout to get at least sixty senators to agree to bring the flawed measure to the floor. Stevens has acknowledged that his rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act now faces an uphill battle, primarily due to the controversy generated by public-interest groups over network neutrality, the guiding principle of the Internet, which guarantees all users have equal access to content and services.
Over the summer, Savetheinternet.com, Common Cause, USPIRG and many others worked to firm up support for network neutrality rules. As a result, six senators have come out in favor of Internet freedom–Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords and five Democrats (New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman, Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, Iowa’s Tom Harkin, Massachusetts’s Edward Kennedy and New York’s Chuck Schumer). There is also growing corporate and academic support for network neutrality–from Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft to the mainstream American Electronics Association.
The intense battle over the Internet’s openness, Stevens acknowledged, “may well lead to total defeat [of the telecommunications bill] this year after nineteen months of work.” But Stevens, long accustomed to wielding immense power due to his seniority (he’s president pro tem of the Senate, as well as chair of the Commerce Committee and a key appropriations subcommittee), doesn’t plan to give up easily. It remains highly likely that some kind of backroom deal will be struck during the lame-duck session after the November elections. Stevens and his pro-big media Senate allies might also attach key parts of his bill in “must-pass legislation” such as in budget or national security laws.
The Stevens bill not only proposes to scuttle network neutrality rules but also undermines key policies designed to insure community influence over how broadband networks serve the public interest–including the ability of American soldiers stationed overseas to phone home. In a section titled “War on Terror,” instead of legislation that insures maximum freedom of expression, the telecom rewrite thinks first about protecting corporate cash flow. Lawmakers could have ordered the FCC to insure that members of the military have unlimited free calls, but the Stevens bill actually prohibits the FCC from regulating any rates to do so. It simply requires the federal government to promote a “reduction of such costs” by cutting taxes or fees on phone service.
Stevens’s talking points are actually being scripted–and paid for–by phone industry lobbyists. On Monday the Senator’s Commerce Committee released a “bipartisan poll,” which purported to show the public cared little for network neutrality. All the public really wants the Senate to do, the survey results suggested, was to support the Stevens bill as it’s currently written. But neither the poll nor the press release issued by Stevens revealed, as the Wall Street Journal did today, that Verizon had paid for the study. The role of Verizon is not surprising, given that the poll was developed by the Glover Park Group lobbying shop (along with Public Opinion Strategies). Glover Park–which is run by such high-level Democratic Party advisers as Howard Wolfson, Joe Lockhart and Carter Eskew–has been helping Verizon in its efforts to scuttle broadband policy safeguards since 2005.