Net Neutrality and Foes of Big Government

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This argument resonates with Tea Party leaders, who are leery of government regulation. But in some cases their passion for the topic runs deeper than their knowledge of it. "The Internet is beautiful," says Honey Marques, one of the Tea Party leaders to sign the Aug. 11 letter. To her, Net neutrality is "about the government trying to control and regulate our free speech and control everything that's happening in our lives." Lisa Miller, a Washington-area Tea Party leader, says Net neutrality is the government's attempt to control "who should get access to the Internet and at what price." When asked why, she declined to comment further because she didn't have the letter she had signed to refer to at that moment.

"Nobody called them on the phone and said, Hey, you should really get involved on this," says Cobb. "[But] in the past couple of months this has come up as a big issue for them because they view it as the government getting involved when it doesn't need to." By framing Net neutrality as more government meddling — as Glenn Beck did last fall, when he called it a "Marxist" ploy that would put a "boot on the throat" of taxpayers — conservative groups have carved out an effective wedge issue. "Net neutrality is not a political question," says Stanford's Downes. "It's a technical question. Neither [side] really gives a damn about Net neutrality. They both are pursuing other agendas and this is a convenient thing to hang it on."

"We've definitely made it one of the major issues for our folks," says Phil Kerpen, vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative advocacy group based in northern Virginia. "If we can't protect the communications system in our country from regulation, it prevents us from getting our message out on all these other public-policy fights." Since the start of the Obama Administration, AFP has fought to foment opposition to the Democratic agenda — organizing rallies to protest the stimulus package, mounting a campaign to cast doubt on the soundness of climate-change science and funneling health care talking points to the Tea Party, who lend an aura of grass-roots authenticity to the anti-Obama cohort. In May, AFP spent $1.4 million on a television ad that painted the Internet as the next domino to topple in a cascading series of "government takeovers." The group plans to make Internet regulation one of the four pillars of its fall messaging campaign, along with government spending, health care reform and cap and trade.

Opponents of Net neutrality, says Joel Kelsey, political adviser for the liberal advocacy group Free Press, "fall into two buckets. Some are genuine Astroturf groups who echo industry talking points with a veneer of public interest, even though they're funded by company money. Then there's the very real conservative philosophical opposition." AFP declined to say whether it received funding from telecom companies, citing a policy of protecting donors' privacy. But as a nonprofit organization devoted to enhancing free-market opportunities, AFP has cemented its stature — and perhaps endeared itself to donors — by stirring fears that Obama is driving a socialist agenda.

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