- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

When MoveOn.org and the Christian Coalition are writing a letter together, you can bet something deeply troubling is going on in Congress. And it is — Internet freedom is under attack.

Internet operators like AT&T;, Verizon and Comcast are lobbying Congress to give them more control over what Americans see and do online. They want to eliminate “Net Neutrality,” the rule that has been in place since the Internet began that prevents Internet providers from deciding which Web sites open easily on your computer.

Net Neutrality ensures that Republican and Democrat Web sites open just as quickly, regardless of the political affiliation or financial self-interest of any Internet company. It allows a video on a small news blog to be just as accessible as the video on a large corporate news site. And it prevents Google from ever having to worry about Yahoo outbidding it for the right to work more quickly on your computer.

It is precisely because of Net Neutrality that the Internet has been a revolutionary force for democratic participation, economic innovation and free speech. The free and open Internet empowers everyday people — mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, young and old alike. But this week, as Congress rewrites our nation’s telecommunications policy, Internet freedom at risk.

In a world without Net Neutrality, companies like AT&T; could abuse their all-too-frequent monopoly power to distort the online marketplace. For instance, AT&T; could start its own online music business while making access to Apple’s iTunes site unbearably slow, and such market distortion would all be legal. Our ability to access iTunes, Google, YouTube, BarnesandNoble.com and millions of other sites would depend on the Internet gatekeepers.

These companies could also control the online marketplace of ideas. Suppose your Internet provider doesn’t like the political views of groups like the Christian Coalition or MoveOn. Without Net Neutrality, they could legally slow our sites or block them altogether. This isn’t just speculation — it has already happened numerous times in places without Network Neutrality, such as Canada, where a major Internet provider shut down a Web site sympathetic to its workers during a labor dispute.

Telecom executives have been surprisingly blatant in public comments about their desire to erect tollbooths on the information superhighway as soon as Net Neutrality is dead and buried — creating a fast lane for some and a slow lane for everyone else. AT&T;’s Chief Executive Officer Ed Whitacre has said, “The Internet can’t be free” and referred to the Internet as “my pipes” which others must pay to go through. BellSouth’s William Smith said his company should be able to charge Yahoo for the opportunity to load faster than Google on your computer.

These telecom companies have worked behind the scenes to gut Net Neutrality in every way possible. And in an arcane August 2005 ruling, they got the Federal Communications Commission to put Net Neutrality on the road to elimination.

Let there be no mistake, we are operating off borrowed time. If Congress does not re-instate Net Neutrality soon, the Internet most Americans know and love will be gone. Companies like AT&T; will be free to discriminate between Web sites in a way that would have been flatly illegal during the entire history of the Internet.

These telecom companies are now spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress to permanently kill Net Neutrality and end the free and open Internet. And just months ago, it looked like these telecom companies would win without a fight.

But there was a catch to their plan. They thought the public wasn’t paying attention. They thought they could shower key members of Congress with campaign contributions, that this issue would fly below-the-radar, and that the public would never hold their elected representatives accountable on this issue. They thought wrong.

Internet users of all political stripes are fighting together. The SavetheInternet.com Coalition was formed — including the Christian Coalition, MoveOn, Gun Owners of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, Craig from Craigslist, Free Press, small businesses, consumer advocates, Internet advocates, nonprofits like Parent-2-Parent and Amazing Kids, and more than 700 other organizations from around the country.

Also supporting Net Neutrality are high-tech pioneers like Google, Amazon and eBay, as well as “fathers of the Internet” Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the www). And Artists and Musicians for Internet Freedom has formed, with musicians such as Moby, R.E.M., the Indigo Girls and the Roots.

Most impressive has been how everyday members of the public are taking action. More than 800,000 people have signed a petition to Congress.Thousands of Web sites have linked to the SavetheInternet.com Coalition. Phone calls go into congressional offices every day. And thousands of typically nonpolitical people have organized in wonderfully creative ways — making online videos about Net Neutrality, posting on blogs and joining SavetheInternet.com’s MySpace.

Last week, the House voted against Net Neutrality — and the threat to Internet freedom is becoming clear to people across the country. As the Senate considers the bipartisan Snowe-Dorgan Internet Freedom Preservation Act (S.2917), it is time for every senator to take a stand.

We urge all Americans — Republicans, Democrats and Independents — to do your part today to preserve Internet freedom. Sign the online petition at www.SavetheInternet.com, call your member of Congress, tell your friends about this issue, or write a letter to your newspaper. Let’s urge all members of Congress to publicly stand squarely on the side of Net Neutrality.

Working together, we will save the Internet.

Roberta Combs is president of the Christian Coalition. Joan Blades is co-founder of MoveOn.org. Both groups are members of the SavetheInternet.com Coalition.

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