GOP vs. Free Speech Online

Random Lengths News | July 5, 2006
“Net neutrality” may not yet be a household word, or a political hot-button issue, but it’s getting there—fast. Three months ago it was invisible on Beltway radar screens. Today, it’s bringing things to a screeching halt on Capitol Hill, and could help determine the outcome of November’s elections.

What is net neutrality and why does it matter? Consider:

Within hours of Colin Powell’s famous speech to the UN General Assembly, laying out the Bush Administration’s case for going to war against Iraq, British researcher Glen Rangwala had published a detailed rebuttal of all of Powell’s main points. Although uniformly ignored by corporate media, Rangwala’s rebuttal went up on the World Wide Web, and was read by people all around the world. That was in February, 2003. By the end of that same year, a previous unknown on the national stage—former Vermont governor Howard Dean—had rocketed to front-runner status in the Democratic presidential race, based in large part to his anti-war stance and his cutting-edge internet presence.

Rangwala didn’t stop the war, and Dean didn’t get the Democratic Party nomination, but both made a significant impact that would have impossible without the internet, in the otherwise corporate-dominated media environment of today. What makes the internet different is the “common carrier” regulatory standard under which it arose, the governing principle of the telephone networks over which internet connections were first made. Put simply, it means that anything sent out must be treated equally—no preferences or censorship allowed—neither for money nor for content. That’s “net neutrality”—also known as the First Amendment of the Internet.

“It’s extremely important,” said Tom Dorsey, owner of “Without net neutrality the internet as we know it will just become another media empire in the United States.”

That’s why, on June 28, within minutes of the Senate Commerce Committee approving a major telecommunications bill (S 2686) without net neutrality protections, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden took to the Senate floor, and placed a hold on the bill, promising a filibuster to stop it—an almost unheard-of move by a Democratic Senator in recent years.

What’s more the bill’s sponsor, Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, admitted he lacked the votes to bring it to the floor. "We have to get 60 votes, we don't have them right now," Stevens said.

Wyden decried the lack of net neutrality as “a license to discriminate,” and went on to say, “Without a clear policy preserving the neutrality of the Internet and without tough sanctions against those who would discriminate, the Internet will be forever changed for the worse.”

“It’s very important that free speech is maintained on the net, and that corporations don’t have the ability to cut off speech that they don’t like,” Dorsey chimed in, adding, “It will put the United States at a distinct disadvantage against other countries where there is net neutrality.”

That’s because free speech matters as much for technical innovation as it does for political freedom—as reflected in the broad support for net neutrality from a wide range of users, including non-profits as diverse as and the Christian Coalition, as well as content providers and innovation advocates, ranging from venture capitalists to major figures in the development of the internet, such Vincent Cerf, who designed the internet’s basic protocols and Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web.

Net neutrality is under threat from telephone companies and some cable providers, who see it standing in the way of potential mega-profits, and who initially seemed to hold all the cards in an effort to rewrite the rules in Congress this year. They won a lopsided, 23-8 sub-committee vote that took place just as net neutrality supporters were first beginning to gain traction. That vote, defeating a net neutrality amendment offered by Massachusetts Congressmember Ed Markey, reflected the enormous lead the telcos and cable companies had built up in lobbying Congress, and pouring money into re-election coffers. But Markey’s Amendment faired much better in the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 26, losing by a much narrower 34-22 vote, and raising hopes that net neutrality could be saved in the Senate—or at least preserved by blocking legislation.

On June 28, the Senate Commerce Committee deadlocked 11-11 on the Snowe/Dorgan net neutrality amendment, with Republican Olympia Snowe (ME) joining the committee’s ten Democrats, and all other Republicans voting net neutrality. Wyden announced his hold shortly thereafter–– a majority vote was needed to pass.

Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, an expert on Internet law, recently wrote, “One clue to this Net Neutrality debate is to watch what kind of souls are on each side of the debate. The pro-NN contingent is filled with the people who actually built the Net –– from Vint Cerf to Google to eBay -- and those who profit from the competition enabled by the Net –– e.g., Microsoft. The anti-NN contingent is filled with the entities that either never got the Net, or fought like hell to control it -- telecom, and cable companies.”

The telco/cable company mega-providers say they need to be able to charge for premium service, in order to build capacity. But they’ve done a terrible job compared to providers in other countries that show no signs of abandoning net neutrality. The US lags far behind other countries in the percentage of broadband users—less than half of world leaders South Korea and Hong Kong, and well behind a number of other Asian and European countries as well, including supposedly stodgy old social democratic welfare states like the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. We dropped from 16th to 19th place from 2004 to 2005.

They have two other main arguments—first that companies like Google are enjoying a “free lunch,” and second that government regulation is bad, and the government should keep its hands off the internet. But Google—like all other content providers—already pays for its internet presence.

“There’s nobody riding for free,” Dorsey notes. “I pay for high speed lines for the servers I have here.”

It’s the telcos and cable companies, acting like public highways trying to convert to toll-roads, who are looking for a free lunch, critics charge.

As for the anti-regulation argument, science fiction writer and long-time blogger Cory Doctorow put it this way: “It's high-minded and nice-sounding, but there are few industries that owe their existence to regulation as much as the carriers. These companies are gigantic corporate welfare bums, having received the invaluable boon of a set of rights-of-way leading into every basement in America.”

Other issues connected to citizen activism are also involved in this bill, including public access tv, and low-power FM radio, both of which have become increasingly important for local activists as corporate media consolidation has shrunk local public affairs programming to the vanishing point.

“By putting all of these different provisions by the telecom companies and the broadcast industry fighting for all of these provisions to be on one bill, they're trying to divide us,” explained Hannah Sassaman on Pacifica’s Democracy Now! on June 27. Sassaman is program director of the Prometheus Radio Project, which helps local activists build low-powered community-based FM stations.

“But we have proven that we can clearly articulate to our senators that we want to fight for low-power FM on Senate Bill 2686 and we want to fight for meaningful net neutrality provisions on the bill, as well as locally determined, municipally controlled public access television,” Sassaman continued. “We're a sophisticated group of folks across the United States, who understand why media consolidation affects us.”

In fact, said Sassaman, “The FCC, I would say, is frankly afraid of us. We have so clearly articulated how their rules -- they don't help our democracy, they hurt it. They prevent us from having access to our city council hearings. They prevent us from knowing about different issues that are happening in our towns.”

When then-FCC Chair Michael Powell (son of Colin) tried to push through a massive deregulatory rule change, that would have vastly increased media consolidation, and undermined local service, options and control, an astounding three million of Americans responded—mostly via email—with 98% opposition. Now, the FCC is trying again, Sassaman noted, with a new round of rule-making.

“We have until October 21 to tell the commission that we want no more consolidation from the Clear Channel Corporation, which owns almost 1,300 stations across the United States. We have until October 21 to say that we don't want one corporation to own the major daily newspaper and a broadcast TV station and to say that we don't want one corporation to own both CBS and NBC in one town.”

The net neutrality fight is intimately connected to the fight against media consolidation being pushed by the FCC. Both pit corporate mega-profits against the free speech of ordinary citizens of ordinary means. And both seem to be pulling the Democratic Party back toward its populist roots—as the near-party-line Snowe/Dorgan vote showed. The political dynamics of corporate media consolidation may be about to change across the boards. Net neutrality is front and center now, but the FCC rule changes will come to a head just weeks before the November election.

Stay tuned.

Random Lengths News

Founded in 1979 as a counterbalance to the conservative, corporate- owned daily paper, Random Lengths News draws on the rich history of the Los Angeles Harbor Area. The name harkens back to a description of the lumber that used to...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1300 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro, CA 90731
  • Phone: (310) 519-1442