Net Neutrality and Foes of Big Government

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Conservative groups like AFP say the proper venue for a debate about the Internet's rules of the road is not the FCC but Congress. That may seem odd, given that conservative groups have been virulent in their criticism of the body. But they may be calculating that many lawmakers are unwilling to bite the hand that feeds them. Comcast has forked over $6.9 million in lobbying in 2010, while Verizon spent $4.4 million in the second quarter alone. AT&T has doled out more in political donations than any other company during the past 20 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While the GOP has spearheaded the antiregulatory drive, Democrats have been big beneficiaries of the telecom industry's largesse. In May, a coalition of 74 House Democrats urged FCC chairman Julius Genachowski not to regulate broadband, which they argued would "jeopardize jobs." Of that group, 58 had received substantial contributions from broadband service providers, according to a New York Times analysis. A 2009 Net-neutrality bill stagnated, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the communications subcommittee, has argued that any effort to codify a situation shrouded in uncertainty would almost certainly languish in this balkanized Congress.

Meanwhile, Net-neutrality advocates have seen their alliances frayed by overheated rhetoric. In late August, Gun Owners of America, a Second Amendment lobbying group that had been a part of the coalition since 2006, severed ties with the Save the Internet coalition to dissociate itself from groups pushing FCC regulation. Craig Fields, director of Internet operations for Gun Owners of America, says the spotlight conservative media outlets have trained on the issue had no bearing on the decision. "The tail did not wag the dog," Fields says. But, he acknowledges, "It's fair to say that at times we've had difficulty explaining to our people, who are conservatives and libertarians and tend to have a free-market approach, that we are not in bed with George Soros and MoveOn.org." In a season when political argumentation can resemble a game of Mad Libs played with a few incendiary nouns, picking enemies can be as important as picking issues.

When the fight over Net neutrality arrived in Minneapolis, Zach Segner, 25, showed up for the same reason as everyone else: to protect the Web. But his notion of how to accomplish that task was vastly different from that of most attendees. Thin and unshaven, Segner wore a black "End the Fed" T-shirt and unfurled a tattered bedsheet spray-painted with the dictum "Hands Off Our Internet." "The Internet's working fine right now," he said. He acknowledged he didn't grasp the fine points of Net neutrality, but said he cares deeply about an open Internet and is leery of the government wresting control away from businesses to usher in a "Chinese-style system." In some ways, his ideals seemed to align with those of FCC commissioner Michael Copps. "The Internet was born on openness, flourished on openness and depends on openness for its continued success," Copps told the crowd. "I suppose you can't blame companies for seeking to protect their own interests. But you can blame policymakers if we let them get away with it."

And yet, even if Net neutrality is — as Al Franken said — the First Amendment issue of our time, for now the FCC seems bent on minimizing its explosiveness. On Sept. 1, the agency announced it would extend the public comment period to solicit further debate on the topic — nudging the deadline for action past November's midterm elections.

— With reporting by Justin Horwath / Minneapolis

TIME magazine and Time.com are part of Time Warner, which has no public position on Net neutrality. Like its competitors, Time Warner Cable, which was spun off from Time Warner in March 2009, opposes new Net neutrality regulations.

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