Beyond Net Neutrality: Internet Freedom
January 26, 2007
Ben Scott is policy director for Free Press, the national, nonpartisan media reform group.
A year ago, the future of the free and open Internet looked pretty grim. The telephone companies were firing up the engines of one of the biggest lobbying campaigns in history. All told in 2006, they would spend more than $100 million on advertising, lobbying, campaign contributions, slanted research from coin-operated think tanks and an array of astroturf groups—in an attempt to rewrite communications law. At the top of the priority list was the destruction of “network neutrality.”
Net neutrality is the basic principle that keeps the companies connecting your house to the global network from discriminating against content flowing over the Internet based on its source or ownership. As a result, the Internet has grown into the greatest engine of democratic participation, free speech and economic innovation since the printing press.
When the dust cleared in the 2006 fight in Congress over Net neutrality, the telephone lobby—and its hundreds of millions of dollars—fell short. They were thwarted by the grassroots SavetheInternet.com Coalition, which brought together of more than 800 organizations and collected 1.5 million petitions supporting Net neutrality. Standing beside them were the titans of Silicon Valley and hundreds of small businesses, librarians, civil libertarians, journalists and thousands of bloggers and YouTubers. As a result of SavetheInternet.com Coalition’s political pressure, Congress closed its doors for the year without passing a new telecom bill. It was a grand moment for supporters of a democratic Internet.
In the last days of 2006, the Net neutrality debate heated up again. This time it was not in Congress but at the Federal Communications Commission. AT&T was pushing for final approval of its $86 billion acquisition of BellSouth, the largest merger in telecommunications history. The FCC might have rubber stamped the merger for AT&T without a single public interest condition (as the Department of Justice did), but when one of the FCC’s three GOP commissioners, citing a conflict of interest, removed himself from the proceeding, AT&T was left with a divided FCC—two Democrats, two Republicans—and no choice but to compromise.
To get its merger, AT&T agreed to two years of clearly defined Net neutrality, an expansion of its network and low prices for new Internet subscribers. In the wake of the merger, much of the discussion in the Internet community has focused on trying to poke holes and find weaknesses in the Net neutrality condition that AT&T was forced to accept. This line-by-line critique has attained such a volume in certain circles that you might think it was the most significant element in this story. It is not, not by several country miles.
It was never possible to win a perfect Net neutrality victory at FCC through a merger condition. But the terms of this deal have reshaped the debate over the future of the Internet. The phone companies’ two most prominent arguments against Net neutrality are now dead. They can no longer argue that Net neutrality cannot be defined—because the FCC just did it. Neither can they argue that Net neutrality, network build-out, low-cost high-speed Internet and a profitable company are mutually exclusive. AT&T’s agreement means that in the new Congress, the debate is not about whether Net neutrality should be the law of the land; it’s about how and when Congress will move to make it so.
Once Net neutrality is back on the books, we can set our sights higher than protecting the free and open network we’ve always had. We can start pushing for the big goal: universal access to a world-class broadband network at affordable prices. We need a national broadband policy, not a series of laws designed to prop up the business models of incumbent telephone and cable companies. We want to make the information superhighway a public good, to bring the transformative spirit of free speech and free markets to every community. The organizers of the SavetheInternet.com Coalition recently unveiled the "Internet Freedom Declaration" to pursue these goals.
This is an uphill fight, but the new Congress has leaders in key positions that favor an expansive, public interest broadband policy. In particular, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., now chairs the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over Internet issues. Judging by his speech at the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis, Markey has a very progressive agenda in mind. Together with Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., we can expect to see close scrutiny and oversight of FCC activities. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin will have to answer for why his commission has watched the United States tumble down the ranks of the world’s leaders in broadband. He will have to answer for why he has consistently opposed Net neutrality and pushed an agenda that is indistinguishable from AT&T’s wish list.
We'll also look to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, to put in place a national broadband policy with Net neutrality as its cornerstone. Inouye will be supported by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who recently re-introduced their Net neutrality bill. Other important issues for the future of the Internet are also being teed up in the Senate. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has introduced a bill to press the FCC to open up more of the public airwaves for wireless broadband.
Throughout the early months of 2007, we should expect House and Senate Commerce Committees to conduct a series of hearings to determine the best paths for bringing a bigger, better, more affordable Internet to the American public. For once, the lawyers of the largest corporations won’t be the only voices at the table. We’ll see scholars, consumer representatives, unions and entrepreneurs who can give testimony about why we need a universal broadband to super-charge our economy and enhance social opportunity.
The concessions made in the AT&T merger are a big victory for the millions of people who have followed and fought this debate to hang their hats on. We’re not playing defense any longer.