This Time, We Spank the Telcos

If anything can warm my sad, cynical heart here in the Sausage Factory, it’s seeing people rise up and reclaiming their power and responsibilities as citizens.
So when I saw the House Judiciary Committee voted 20-13-1 (one voting “present”) to send the the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act to the floor of the House for a vote, a stunning turn around from last month’s Commerce Committee approval of COPE, I get quite giddy about the prospects for legislation that reflects more than just refereeing industry food fights.

Needless to say, the opponents of network neutrality find themselves stammering in amazement and groping for alternative explanations. Surely it must be a turf fight, or an effort to extort more campaign contributions from telcos and cable cos! Surely it must be Google money financing things! Could really make common cause with the Christian Coalition, the Catholic Church and, well, Common Cause? Could the dry bones of democracy again be given flesh? Could the couch potato masses remember their strength and rise again as citizens reborn? Hallelujah!

Well, maybe not quite so dramaticly Biblical (must be working too much with all those religious groups), and we’re not out of the woods yet by a long-shot. But the last few weeks have definitely thrown up roadblocks in the telco victory march through Congress. My analysis, including a Colbert-esque “Tip of the Hat” to Free Press’ Ben Scott for his amazing Senate Commerce Committe testimony and a “Wag of the Finger” to Libertarian Reporter Declan McCullagh for this rather shameful bit of editorializing in the guise of reporting below.

(Sorry to be out of touch so long. We experienced some technical problems here as well as running into to Memorial Day Weekend holiday.)

The ongoing legislative war over network neutrality continues, with pro-NN forces daily recovering lost ground. In the last month, we have seen a steady flow of organizations signing on in support of Network Neutrality that defy the way the telcos and cable cos like to spin this fight. For example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Christian Coalition, and now the National Religious Broadcasters have declared their support for strong network neutrality legislation. On the business side, the National Federation of Retailers has joined the financial services industry in realizing that a two-tiered internet represents a complete departure from what we have now and a phenomenally bad idea. Pro-NN also picked up a coalition of musicians.

All of this cuts against the telco argument that NN comes either from Google and other big content providers or from radical left-wing loonies and quasi-socialists.

On the other side, the anti-NN picked up Cisco and other network equipment manufacturers and a raft of neo-con and libertarian bloggers who view NN as a takings or as imposition of the heavy hand of government regulation, or just don’t like anything Hilary Clinton supports.

Unsurprisingly, such a major policy fight has produced family squabbles. In organized labor, the Service Employees Internetional Union sided with network neutrality, while the Communications Workers of America lobbied against it. In geek-land, Vint “father of the Internet” Cerf and Sir Tim “father of the web” Berners-Lee faced off against Dave “grandfather of the Internet” Farber with Farber taking the anti-NN side.

The upswing in momentum for NN became clear last week, however, when the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve the the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act. Meanwhile, back in the Senate, Snowe, Dorgan and Inouye introduced a new network neutrality bill, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, and the Senate Democratic staff on the Commerce Committee released its own discussion draft telecom rewrite that adopts similar pro-NN language. That Rep. Barton now flogs his bill as protecting net neutrality and Ed Whitacre loudly proclaims that AT&T will never change the way the internet works shows how the wind has shifted.

So what happened? Well, you know my take. Once people started looking at the issue and thinking about it, they came to the conclusion that letting phone companies and cable companies dictate how the internet gets run would suck rocks. So they started waking up to the idea of getting in touch with legislators and telling them. And so did the organizations they belong to, and so did the trade organizations that will get stuck paying two or three times to move the same bits, etc. etc.

The internet also proved its incredible usefulness in getting real information to people and unmasking front groups in ways practically unknown since the birth of TV and Radio as very expensive mass media. Folks interested could check out both sides of the arguments, weigh the issues, and make their own decisions — quite a scary concept for telcos and cable cos used to controlling the debate through issue advertising and a tame, consolidated media.

Time and again, the telcos and cable cos found their “information war” tactics backfiring. Hire some democrats like Mike McCurry to deliver the goods and defuse the threat from the left? Bang! It gets exposed. Develop a simplistic, misleading web advertisement? Bang! Bloggers produce a point-by-point rebuttal. Start sending an army of trolls to post disruptive or inflamatory comments? Bang! Bloggers notice the pattern and expose it. No sooner do the telcos or cable cos think they know how to wage information war when the blog swarm responds, shifts and strikes back.

Mind, I do not accuse all those who oppose NN of being either shills or easily misled. But the strength of the pro-NN argument and the constant exposure of the telco and cableco astroturf tactics keeps pushing momentum in the right direction.

Needless to say, the opponents of Network Neutrality concede no such thing. In the never-ending spin machine, the shift of some Republicans in the House and Senate to the pro-NN side gets explained away as anything but an actual change of momentum. Hence the focus of NN opponents on the jurisdictional fight between the Judiciary and Commerce Committees, as if such handwaving could neatly wave away the fact that six Republicans voted for NN for the first time, and no Dems defected.

Which brings me to this post’s “Wag of the Finger.” I’ve known Declan McCullagh for about ten years now. A firm techno-Libertarian as well as a reporter for CNET, Decllan usually does a fair-to-middlin’ job of seperating his politics from his reporting. Which is why I found this write up of the Judiciary vote so disappointing. A read through the article minimizes the defection of 6 Republicans (including the Committee Chairman) by describing the vote as “partially following party lines” and “All 14 Democrats on the committee (joined by six Republicans) supported the measure, while 13 Republicans opposed it.”

The six Republicans, including the Chairman, are in (parenthesis)? Please.

Declan and co-author Anne Broach then go on to describe the “surprise victory” as being a triumph for Google and other corporate interests (with nary a mention of the rest of us) quotes only industry opponents (with nary a quote from supporters of the bill) and makes a sly speculation that the real issue is not merely a jursidiction battle, but because passage of the Commerce Committee’s COPE Bill “would effectively cut off Judiciary Committee members from being able to hold hearings on Net neutrality antitrust violations, give speeches about corporate malfeasance and solicit campaign cash from affected companies–the lifeblood of modern Washington politics.”

Declan, Declan, Declan, this by you is reporting? Save the editorializing for your op-ed pieces or for your blog. God knows I’m the last to deny you the right to an opinion, but when disguised as journalism? Besides, you think the Judiciary doesn’t get enough money from the RIAA and MPAA? Please!

So I’m afraid Mr. McCullagh receives a wag of my virtual finger, and the hope that his coverage improves in the next round (hint, try to quote at least one bill supporter, it creates the illusion of neutrality and even-handedness).

Meanwhile, tho, I would be remiss if I did not give a “tip of the hat” to Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott for his amazing Senate testimony. From what I heard, Ben blew them away at the Senate. Way to go Ben!

Lest anyone accuse me of irrational exuberance, I know full well that winning a victory does not win us the war. And, as we learned last year when the House Commerce Committee started with reasonably good language on NN that ultimately got whittled down to what sits in COPE, the momentum can swing the other way if we get overconfident and drop the pressure.

But it feels good to win. Especially when winning comes from junking the “special interest playbook” and getting back to the basics of democracy and citizenship.

Stay tuned. . . .


  1. Well I am proud to have played my little part in this drama, so far. Firstly, I’m proud to host Tales of the Sausage Factory. When that quarterly bill comes around from my ISP, I always rationalize it as my contribution to the cause (except in those months when my book sales more than cover the expense, in which case ToTSF is merely a hitchhiker).

    And also, I called my Congressman, Delahunt, at his various offices and let the people answering the phone know in the strongest terms that although I had voted for Delahunt every election since 1992, all bets were off if he voted against NN. And I had all my local activist friends call with the same message. I think we pulled him from a no vote to an abstain. Now we have to get him all the way over to the right side.

  2. I’m sure you guys had a major impact on Delahunt. Keep at it! And let me know my share of the cost of upkeep for Wetmachine. (Perhaps we can sell ads to the telcos and expose them?:))

  3. I just got an email from Delahunt. I’ll post it later tonight.

    As for cost of wetmachine: it’s on me, in liew of a contribution to Media Access Project. (Especially since I have not yet changed the banner to include your name! On which topic, as we say, “stay tuned. . .”)

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