Congress is about to return to Washington this week after taking a long summer break for campaigning and before taking a long fall break for campaigning.
During the brief period of governing that will be wedged into the month of September, a lot of damage could be done -- particularly to "The First Amendment of the Internet": the principle known as "Net Neutrality."
Net Neutrality, which has until now been the guiding principle that preserves a free and open Internet, ensures that everyone who logs on can access the content or run the applications and devices of every site on the world wide web. The neutrality principle prevents telephone and cable companies that provide internet service from discriminating against content based on its source or ownership.
As the "Save the Internet" campaign [www.savetheinternet.com], a broad coalition of groups fighting to maintain open access to all sites on the web, explains: "Net Neutrality is the reason why the Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and free speech online. It's why the Internet has become an unrivaled environment for open communications, civic involvement and free speech."
Telecommunications firms salivate at the prospect of eliminating Net Neutrality requirements and setting up systems where websites that pay for the service will be more easily reached than sites that cannot afford the toll. And U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who has for many years been a dominant figure in communications debates on Capitol Hill, is determined to change the rules so that Internet gatekeepers such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner, can create an "information superhighway" for those who pay and a dirt road for those who fail to do so.
A sweeping overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that is being promited by Stevens does not include Net Neutrality protections and would effectively clear the way for the telecommunications giants to colonize the Internet.
Stevens, the chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, wants to see action on the measure before Congress breaks for the remainder of the election season in early October. But rewriting the rules to favor the telecommunications conglomerates may not be as easy this year as it was in 1996. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has placed a hold on the overhaul legislation and says he will not lift it until Net Neutrality protections are written into the measure.
Activists across the country used the August break to urge senators who had not taken a stand to line up in favor of net neutrality. Rallies in late August targeted Congressional offices in 25 cities nationwide, and they had an impact. A number of senators -- including New York's Chuck Schumer, Minnesota's Mark Dayton, Iowa's Tom Harkin and Vermont's Jim Jeffords -- pledged their support for net neutrality.
But Stevens -- and too many of his allies in both parties -- remained unmoved as September started.
As the return of Congress loomed, however, the Alaska senator took a poke from the largest daily newspaper in his state, the Anchorage Daily News, which bluntly declared in a September 4 editoral that: "Net Neutrality is a good idea. Sen. Ted Stevens should support it."
"Sen. Stevens has said he doesn't see an immediate problem that requires regulation. In other words, he's reluctant to have the government set the playing rules until more companies are caught cheating. Apparently he thinks competition can be counted on to prevent any abuses," explained the editorial. "Only problem is, local Internet service is not a fluid, totally free market with a lot of competitors. Many markets are served by only one or two high-speed Internet companies. Switching providers is not as easy as driving to the next gas station or grocery store. Special expertise and special equipment are required to switch. Many consumers may not even be sophisticated enough to know when their Internet service is playing favorites in sending content."
The Anchorage Daily News concluded that, "Net Neutrality is hardly a heavy-handed government intrusion into the free-wheeling world of the Internet. It is a simple antitrust rule that protects consumers by keeping Internet companies from exploiting their control over connections. Congress should get ahead of the curve and ensure net neutrality before abuses begin to spread."
That's the right position. And it is summed up by a measure that the Senate should pass before its members go out and ask Americans for their votes this fall: The Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Sponsored by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan the act would provide meaningful protection for Net Neutrality.
While the machinations in the Senate this month are troubling, they also provide a critical opening for the debate that America should be having on media policy. No incumbent senator or candidate for a senate seat should be allowed to make it to November without addressing the issue of Net Neutrality and the broader question of whether media policy in this country should serve a few telecommunications giants or the the great mass of Americans and the great potential of American democracy.