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As Long as We Remember...

May 4, 2006

Another Attack on Freedom

Tony Soltero

Imagine that one morning, in the not-too-distant future, you fire up your email server and see a note from John Ashbury, the publisher and editor of The Tentacle. But instead of a plea for articles, or a list of cute jokes, or a clarion call to save America from the lurid horrors of a Nancy Pelosi speakership, the note is a somber notification that The Tentacle must cease operations due to prohibitive bandwidth costs.

You read and re-read the note in disbelief, but the words are clear, direct, and not ironic. John is not putting you on; The Tentacle is no more.

Sound a little farfetched? Well, maybe not. Our Congress is currently working on making such a dark scenario very plausible. There is a bill currently wending its way through the process, the "Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006" that essentially hands over control of the Internet to a small group of telecoms.

What this bill would do is enable the telecoms to set up "toll booths" on the Internet. This would allow them to force Internet users to pay for faster broadband access across the network, effectively yielding Internet dominance to companies and organizations with the financial muscle to pay for premium access, while relegating the "mom-and-pop" Internet entrepreneur (like, say, The Tentacle) to a slower lane.

It would even permit the telecoms to block sites they disapprove of.

This is a complete betrayal of the spirit and essence of the Internet, a betrayal of the very characteristics of the Internet that have turned it into a formidable, society-transforming force around the world, and an engine for economic growth.

The enormous power of the Internet, unique among communications mediums, is that an Internet participant - be it a political blogger, an entrepreneur, a service provider, or a sports chat site administrator - enjoys the same chance to succeed as his better-heeled competitor if he delivers a better product.

On the Internet, what matters are your ideas - not your wealth, not your looks, not your political or social connections. You don't have to be rich to mount a successful Internet enterprise. You just have to be good at what you do. Is there any better encapsulation of what America is all about?

Let's run through an example. I am a fan of the Houston Astros baseball team, from my younger days in Texas. (Please don't mention last year's World Series.) One evening, several years ago, I wanted to see what kinds of Astros resources I could find on the Web, so I poked around.

I went to the official team site, and while it was adequate enough with basic information (schedules, results), it wasn't all that exciting. But then I happened upon a fan site that was positively astonishing - the commentary was sharp and incisive, the graphics were superb, the message boards were lively, and the statistical analysis was original and multi-dimensional. I became a regular. The site eventually generated a vast amount of traffic, easily outdrawing the official team site - and it wasn't because it was better financed, or better advertised, or had better-looking, it was just better.

And therein lie the virtues of the Internet. There is no medium with lower barriers to entry - the Internet is the closest thing we have to a true meritocracy in this country. If you're good, if you deliver an interesting product, you'll get hits -- whether you're The Tentacle or CBS News.

Well, the telecoms can't stand this state of affairs. They're used to having control, and the idea of a free, unfettered Internet they can't control doesn't salt their omelet.

So they're strong-arming members of Congress, whom they've paid off with campaign contributions, to go against the public interest, gut the idea of "net neutrality", and give them control of the game. It is a naked power and money grab, and an initiative that could destroy the Internet meritocracy as we know it.

Are you fond of your cable company? Do you enjoy the fact that your cable company decides for you what channels you can subscribe to? Do you revel in the fact that your choices are "take exactly what the cable provider offers you" or "do without?"

What if your electric company decided to ration power to your home if you don't own the "right" appliances? That's the ultimate fate of the Internet if this bill is passed and signed by the president.

The telecoms argue that since they own the pipes, they should get to profit from them. It's a strawman argument; the telecoms already profit from their carriers in the form of subscriber and ISP fees; and never mind that government subsidies helped them build their infrastructures.

So who's doing the bidding of the telecoms? The chief sponsor of this bill is Rep. Joe Barton (R., TX), who in the last election cycle received $27,000 from a Comcast PAC, $15,000 from a Verizon PAC, $11,700 from an AT&T PAC, and $10,000 from a PAC representing the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

His Democratic co-sponsor is Rep. Bobby Rush (D., IL), who's also compiled quite a dossier of telecom PAC contributions - $7,500 from an AT&T PAC, $7,500 from a Comcast PAC, and $5,000 from the same National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

Also co-sponsoring this bill are Rep. Charles Pickering (R., MS), who took $31,961 from telecom PACs, and Rep. Fred Upton (R., MI), whose coffers were stuffed by telecom PACs to the tune of a sweet $38,750.

Oh, if you all needed another reason to distrust Hillary Clinton, she raked in $88,000 from the telecoms, though she hasn't weighed in on net neutrality yet. Nice government we have, eh? (All figures courtesy of the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Fortunately, we still have a few congressmen with integrity. Rep. Ed Markey (D., MA) has introduced an amendment to the COPE bill that preserves net neutrality (essentially, the status quo) and prevents the rules from being stacked in the telecoms' favor.

The amendment was defeated in committee last week after intense industry lobbying, but there were signs of hope - pressure from pro-Internet American citizens increased awareness of the issue and flipped enough votes to still make the fate of the bill a tossup as it enters the full House for a floor vote next week. Representative Markey has re-introduced the amendment for the floor vote.

Net neutrality has enabled enterprises like Google, Vonage, and eBay to get off the ground and achieve enormous success. It is a key to our nation's continued economic growth, to innovation, and to just plain freedom.

America deserves an unrestricted Internet. Whatever our partisan leanings, it is in all our interests to ensure that net neutrality is guaranteed by the government.

Please contact your congressmen and senators on this issue - there are still many who aren't beholden to the telecoms, and are open to persuasion.

And for a good exposition on what's involved, visit It is a nonpartisan site that lays out exactly what's at stake here.

Keep The Tentacle alive. Support net neutrality.

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