A Limit to Bloggers' Power?

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For the last two years, the Internet giants Yahoo and Google, along with the rapidly proliferating ranks of web bloggers, have won all kinds of buzz, clout and attention. But on Capitol Hill, in the debate over "net neutrality," it's Old Media 2, New Media 0.

A coalition of groups such as the Christian Coalition and Moveon.org, along with Yahoo, Google and all the bloggers, are worried that telephone and cable companies, who built and own much of the infrastructure of networks that provide high-speed Internet access, will put them at a competitive disadvantage by changing the way they charge companies for using bandwidth. Google has complained, for example, that a cable company could charge it much higher fees if it wants to run as fast as other competing sites. Bloggers warn that a broadband company could even restrict or slow down access to sites that express political viewpoints they disagree with. Cable and phone companies like BellSouth argue that since they’ve built these high-speed networks they should have the ability to charge higher rates for companies like Google (which is not exactly struggling financially) that use lots of bandwidth, but insist they would not use such fees to stifle political views.

So far, proponents of "net neutrality" have offered few if any specific examples of how broadband companies have abused their power, which helps explain why Congress has now twice rejected attempts to insert language ensuring "net neutrality" into a telecommunications bill it is considering. Despite an intense lobbying effort by bloggers and Google, the House rejected net neutrality 269 to 152 last month. And last week, on a mainly party-line vote in a Senate committee, Republicans blocked an attempt to put it in the Senate version of the bill arguing it constituted excessive and unnecessary regulation of the Internet.

But net neutrality still has a fighting chance. The telecom bill will be going to the full Senate, where the bloggers have one advantage. The chamber is full of potential candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination who have been jockeying lately to see who can best woo the bloggers.

John Edwards and Mark Warner, two leading 2008 hopefuls, have already spoken at blogger and technology conferences about the importance of net neutrality. Among current senators, Hillary Clinton recently sent an e-mail encouraging her supporters to go online and sign a petition for net neutrality and is working on a Senate bill on the subject. John Kerry went a step further last week. He threatened to filibuster the telecommunications bill unless it included net neutrality protections. On the website of savetheinternet.com, Kerry wrote: "This vote was a gift to cable and telephone companies, and a slap in the face of every Internet user and consumer. It will not stand."

With most Democrats in the Senate lining up behind the net neutrality effort, they may have enough votes to block any telecom bill that doesn't include it from going forward. But the key to actually getting the net neutrality language into the bill will be getting some Republicans to support their cause. (Moderate GOP Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine is one of the few who currently does.) Republicans have plenty of their own potential 2008 candidates who appreciate the power of blogs. Bill Frist posts on his own site frequently (volpac.org) and John McCain made his first foray into blogging last week, posting on a conservative site called porkbusters. (In his post, he lamented the growth in federal spending and then ended by saying, "I have never blogged before. But I understand readers can leave comments on each post and that these comments can be rather, ahem, blunt. So I am happy to entertain any questions, comments, or insults you might have for me at this time.")

Still, McCain voted against the "net neutrality" proposal in the Senate committee, and so far has faced little attack from the right, even though Glenn Reynolds, the conservative blogger who runs the porkbusters site, is among the stronger supporters of net neutrality. The issue hasn't become a major rallying cry on conservative blogs; some oppose the net neutrality proposal and supporters like Reynolds say it's not one of the issues they're most passionate about. Barring any support from the right — or a GOP senator like Frist or McCain — net neutrality proponents will continue to outgunned by the phone and cable companies, who have much more experience, money and staff devoted to lobbying on Capitol Hill than the new media does right now.

Will Joe Have to Go Find a New Party?

If the bloggers are having trouble getting their way in Congress, they're showing they have some clout in a political battle in Connecticut. Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic Vice Presidential nominee who is in the midst of a difficult primary challenge, announced this week he will collect signatures to run as an independent in case he loses in the Aug. 8 primary to challenger Ned Lamont. Polls suggest Lieberman has strong support among independents and Republicans, and Lieberman is worried that he will lose a primary vote that may well be dominated by liberal activists who are angry at him for supporting President Bush on the war and other issues. Current polls show Lieberman leading Lamont by 15 points in a Democratic primary, but by 38 in a potential three-way race against Lamont and the Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger.

But the move has risks. Lieberman's support among Democrats is likely to fall even further now that he's announced he might separate from the party, which could make it even more difficult for him to win the primary. And if Lamont, a millionaire cable executive, pulls out a victory, it might give him enough momentum to start reducing that 38-point margin quickly. Some of Lieberman's high-profile supporters in Washington are already saying they won't support him if Lamont is the Democratic nominee. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, have both endorsed Lieberman in the race, but said they will back whoever wins in the Democratic primary. Some Lieberman supporters have told the Senator he should simply quit the primary, but he is unwilling to concede it so early, because he wants badly to win as a Democrat.

All of this has made the liberal bloggers gleeful. Wrote Markos Moulitsas on Daily Kos: "Just take a moment to savor what happened today — Joe Lieberman humiliated himself by admitting that an 18-year incumbent who was the vice-presidential nominee for the party in 2000 doesn't think he can win his own party's primary."