Saturday, February 25, 2006

DANGER: Your internet freedoms are on death row.

Network neutrality, a principle that ensures the free flow of ideas online, appears dead on arrival in Washington as big media once again wield influence over our elected politicians.

The numbers tell the story. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, AT&T and other telephone and cable companies are among the top contributors to the re-election campaigns of a number of house Telecommunications Subcommittee members, including Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who has received more than $12,000 from AT&T executives, employees and their family members. Comcast associates tipped in an additional $10,000 equaling Upton's contribution from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

And hands aren’t clean on the other side of the aisle either. AT&T, Comcast and NCTA have tipped more than $100,000 into the campaign war chests of Telecommunications Subcommittee Democrats as well.

The corporate largesse is paying dividends. Sources inside the House of Representatives revealed earlier this week that all language pertaining to network neutrality has been struck by subcommittee from the latest draft of the Telecom Act.

According to the National Journal, the Telecommunications Subcommittee is likely to drop all references after lawmakers failed to reach consensus on the issue. If the Journal report is correct, the DC bottleneck is the net result of the full-tilt lobbying by AT&T, Comcast, BellSouth and Verizon.

In addition to the money spent to fill campaign coffers, they have funneled tens of millions of dollars to lobbying efforts, industry friendly think tanks and political junkets, waving a strong hand over all sectors of the political process -- at the local, state and federal levels.

By lining their pockets with telco dollars, certain lawmakers have opted to turn their backs on network neutrality and abandoned their posts as guardians of our public commons. They've decided that committing a crime of omission is better than standing up to the corporate powers that be.

A Telecom Act without network neutrality would hasten the Internet's demise -- effectively ridding our online experience of the governing principle that until now fostered the free flow of ideas and made the Web a beacon for democratic ideas and business innovation.

A Telecom Act without an enforceable rulebook would leave this democratic medium to the whims of predatory telephone and cable companies. The stage is now set for these conglomerates to play gatekeepers to all online content and services -- turning our net freedoms into their net revenues.

If the nation's largest ISPs are allowed to discriminate against the flow of web traffic, The New York Times editorial board wrote on Sunday, "the Internet providers, rather than consumers, could become the driving force in how the Internet evolves."

The profit motive of a few corporations would supplant the freedoms of all users, determining which innovations end up shaping our digital future. The threat is real. These companies could block us from viewing a favorite podcast or blog, cut off net phones unless we use the company service, or force us to download MP3s from their company store while slowing access to other music sites.

AT&T, Bell South, Comcast and Verizon make massive campaign contributions. They're used to getting their way in the halls of Congress. And they don't want network neutrality to stop them from getting their way online.

Only a public outcry can restore this founding principle, before it becomes a footnote in the history of the Internet’s fall.

It's time Americans who feel strongly about an open and free Internet told our elected representatives to reverse course. Net neutrality is an issue where the public's interest cannot be outflanked by massive telcos and their well-oiled politicians.