While Congress is in recess, some California media activists are taking the opportunity to visit lawmakers’ offices to urge their support for net neutrality. On Tuesday, representatives from the Oakland-based Media Alliance, California Common Cause, LA Media Reform, and Lakewood-based Oceania Gateway gathered with concerned citizens to meet with staffers at the offices of Reps. Joe Baca and Loretta Sanchez. Baca’s district covers parts of San Bernardino County and Sanchez’s district covers parts of Orange County.
Both lawmakers were two of 72 House Democrats who signed a letterto Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski in October of last year expressing concerns about the commission’s proposal to enact new net neutrality rules. Net neutrality would prohibit Internet service providers (ISPs) from censoring or blocking access to lawful content they don’t like, or giving preferential treatment to specific websites or services. The telecommunications industry has led the opposition to net neutrality. This industry includes the nation’s largest cable and phone companies – AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon – who stand to profit handsomely if they are able to charge Web content providers a premium for delivering their data faster. Supporters of net neutrality include a bipartisan coalition of grassroots organizations, as well as tech companies like Google, Amazon, Ebay and Facebook. President Obama has also stated his commitment to protect an open Internet.
The 72 House Democrats, along with several organizations representing minority groups, say they are concerned that imposing new regulations on ISPs could hinder investment in upgrades to the current broadband network, slow down expansion of broadband in underserved communities, and worsen the digital divide. According to her staffer, Sanchez is specifically worried that net neutrality would cost jobs.
The lawmakers’ concerns are unfounded. In fact, allowing ISPs to discriminate against and block access to Web sites that they either don’t like or directly compete with them on content could very well lead to the problems these lawmakers and minority organizations are talking about. Already, the United States is 15th in the world in broadband access, and the speed and affordability of that access isn’t as good as in other developed countries. This is an embarrassment for the nation that invented the Internet and was at the forefront of the digital revolution. Our lagging behind other countries could seriously put a dent in America’s economic competitiveness. The naysayers contend that the free market and deregulation are needed to spur innovation and competition. Isn’t this the same tired baloney Wall Street has been feeding us for decades? And look where that got us (hint: the 2008 financial collapse, millions of jobs lost). Unfortunately, the lawmakers and minority groups who oppose net neutrality have bought into the telecommunication companies’ rhetoric. If deregulation was such a nifty thing, why didn’t ISPs upgrade their networks a long time ago? Why do rural and certain urban communities continue to lack access to broadband? Why hasn’t the digital divide improved? Why are we 15th in the world, instead of Number 1? It’s because certain areas in the country just aren’t profitable, and if the telecom companies can continue to gouge and make big profits from an antiquated system, why spend any money to improve things? If they aren’t forced to do the right thing, they won’t.
For years, the telecommunications industry has tried to lobby Congress to stop net neutrality, and has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to congressional lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans. Nearly all of the 72 House Democrats who signed the October 2009 letter have so far received over $1.3 million in contributions from telecommunications interests in the 2010 cycle. For example, according to OpenSecrets.org, in the 2010 election cycle, Baca has so far received $18,000 in contributions from political action committees (PACs) representing telecom interests. In the 2008 election cycle, he received just over $42,000. Sanchez has so far received nearly $23,000 from telecom PACs in the 2010 election cycle, and received $36,000 in the 2008 cycle. This is why concerned citizens doing grassroots face-to-face lobbying to counter this sort of influence from corporate interests is so important.
Led by Media Alliance’s Tracy Rosenberg, Tuesday’s lobby day group argued that net neutrality would actually increase entrepreneurship and create jobs because small Web-based businesses would be allowed to flourish on an equal playing field with Big Business. A discriminatory Internet, where those site owners with the big bucks can pay for the fastest data delivery, may prevent the next revolutionary company – say, from a college student’s dorm room – from ever taking off. A segregated Internet could also squelch grassroots activism and civic engagement, if poorer non-profits or your average citizen journalist/blogger can’t pay a premium for the faster lane, or if ISP’s are allowed to block political speech. The latter has already happened. No one should be naive to think these corporations won’t engage in more censorship in an environment where they call the shots. For more arguments in favor of net neutrality, go here.
The staffers at Baca’s and Sanchez’s offices were receptive to the lobby group’s concerns and said they would relay our input to the representatives. We are grateful that they met with us. Unfortunately, time is of the essence to make net neutrality into law. A federal appeals court on Tuesday effectively took away what authority the FCC had left to implement net neutrality. The court struck down a 2008 FCC ruling that said the nation’s largest ISP, Comcast, had improperly blocked customers from using the popular video file sharing site BitTorrent. The court said the FCC must have authority from Congress to regulate the Internet. The FCC can either appeal the court ruling, or overturn a Bush-era loophole put in place under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That loophole classified ISPs as an “information service” rather than a “telephone service,” thereby loosening regulatory obligations. The court ruling could put a monkey wrench in the FCC’s implementation of the National Broadband Plan that aims to improve and expand broadband access across the United States. Unless and until the FCC acts immediately, all Web users are at the mercy of the telecoms. Congressional legislation could take years to pass. The FCC is taking public comments on net neutrality until April 26. So far, more than 10,000 comments have poured in. We must make sure the FCC hears from net neutrality supporters, so consider taking the time to submit a brief comment about why an open Internet is important.
In the meantime, Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey has introduced HR 3458 – the Internet Freedom Preservation Act - that would amend the Communications Act of 1934 and enshrine net neutrality as the law of the land. The bill so far has 21 co-sponsors. Tuesday’s lobby group asked Baca’s and Sanchez’s staffers if the representatives would reconsider their previous opposition to net neutrality, and instead support HR 3458 as co-sponsors. I would hope that despite their having taken campaign contributions from telecommunication interests, the Congresspeople answer to the constituents who vote for them, rather than to Verizon or Comcast.
Media Alliance and Common Cause will be setting up more lobby days to visit the offices of two other California Democrats who signed the October letter to the FCC – Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Modesto and Jim Costa of Fresno. If you would like to participate in the next lobby days, contact Anjuli Kronheim, Southern California Democracy Matters Organizer, California Common Cause, at email@example.com or call 213-252-4552. If your Congressperson is Baca, Sanchez, Cardoza, Costa or one of the other opposing Democrats, call or write to them to say you would like for them to support HR 3458. If your Congressperson is not a co-sponsor of the bill, contact him or her urging them to do so. If your Congressperson is one of the 21 co-sponsors of the bill, contact him or her to thank them. If you don’t know your Congressperson, go to http://www.congress.org to find your representative by zip code.
This essay cross-posted at http://lamediareform.wordpress.com.