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.
The GOP--including the White House--is still pushing hard to kill network neutrality. For example, at a hearing last week before Stevens's committee on his renomination for another term, FCC chair Kevin Martin came out in defense of the big cable and phone companies. The FCC chair said  he thought it was fine for Verizon and others to begin charging extra fees to those content providers that want to be placed on faster Internet lanes. Martin, who was largely given an "easy ride" by senators from both parties in a recent hearing, said that without the ability to charge more, phone and cable companies wouldn't be able to offer the public new "products" such as broadband video. (The fact that Democrats aren't trying to oppose Martin's renomination--given his support for further ownership consolidation and opposition to net neutrality--illustrates the Democrats' weakness on public-interest and telecom issues.)
Such steadfast support from Stevens, Martin and others for their plans to transform the Internet sent an affirmative message to both the phone and cable lobbies. Two days after a recent Commerce Committee hearing, a BellSouth executive told a technology gathering that his industry's planned "innovative" pricing schemes for broadband would give those that could afford it preferential Internet treatment.
The broadband content most likely to benefit from the new "pay us the most to get the best service" Internet will be online programming from our biggest advertisers and media conglomerates. Take, for example, the recent announcement about the new online entertainment channel network called Bud.TV , in which Anheuser-Busch plans to use high-speed and interactive video to attract a new generation of steady beer drinkers. One Bud.TV show already in production--which will likely be able to enjoy the fruits of non-network-neutrality US Internet--is called "Replaced by a Chimp." According to an Anheuser-Busch executive, for each show they will "grab a profession, such as a waiter, or a bartender or a trial attorney and replace those people with a chimp, and film the reaction of the consumers who happen to be in the same environment as the chimp...at the end of the show, the consumer will vote on whether the chimp should stay and continue on the job."
Such dumbing-down of broadband is more likely in the absence of network neutrality rules. Expect media conglomerates and advertisers to flood our broadband networks with chimps selling beer and ketchup-colored clowns pushing fast food. Such deep-pocketed interests will be able to pay Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner to deliver their content with better video, faster processing and overall greater visibility, crowding out the unique programming that the Internet has been able to deliver to niche audiences. Given the "triple play" plans of the cable and phone industry, such digital favoritism will find its way not just via our personal computers but on digital television and cellphones as well.
It will take intense, continued pressure on both parties to effectively kill the Stevens bill this session. If such opposition is successful, a major new organizing effort must begin in January 2007 to develop a new media law that actually promotes the public interest in the digital media era.
Consumers should view the new announcement about Bud.TV as a kind of "early warning" alert. Without safeguards to insure the Internet evolves as an open, democratic network, our media system will continue to drive public culture down-market--as the late media scholar Neal Postman wrote, "amusing ourselves to death."
But regardless of what happens, perhaps we should recommend to the folks at Bud beer their first guest for "Replaced by a Chimp." I nominate the senior Senator from Alaska.