WASHINGTON -- A group of 24 conservative organizations have announced the
formation of the Internet Freedom Coalition (IFC, www.internetfreedomcoalition.org) to oppose "net neutrality" regulations,
which the groups say mark the first major attempt by Washington to regulate the Internet.
"We're proud to join with other leading free market and faith-based organizations
to ensure that the Internet remains driven by the free market, not by Washington bureaucrats and politicians," said Jason
Wright, president of the Institute for Liberty and IFC co-director.
At issue is a brewing battle that pits cable and telephone companies that
provide Internet service – including AT&T and Verizon – against major Internet players such as Google and
Amazon and large-scale users like the left-wing MoveOn.org, who support the net neutrality regulations opposed by the IFC.
The Internet providers are lobbying to create a two-tiered Internet in which
Web sites that pay them large fees would get priority, including the all-important boon of faster loading. Last year phone
companies spent $60 million lobbying at the federal level, and Verizon alone contributed more than $81 million to Congress
between 1998 and 2005.
What the users like MoveOn want is the so-called net neutrality legislation,
which would require all Web sites to continue to be treated equally.
While that may appear to many to be a desirable move, the conservative groups
warn that it would open the door to U.S. government regulation of the Internet, allowing the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) to use this likely popular issue to sink its claws into the currently unfettered Internet.
MoveOn recently sent out an e-mail asking its 3 million-plus e-mail contacts
to sign a petition asking Congress to vote for "meaningful and enforceable net neutrality laws," saying such legislation "prevents
AT&T from choosing which Web sites open most easily for you based on which site pays AT&T more."
The IFC's Wright has countered: "The big government, pro-regulation crowd
wants the government to regulate the Internet. Speaking on behalf of our collective membership of over 3 million citizens,
we oppose network neutrality and any other form of regulation or taxation of the Internet.
"Make no mistake: network neutrality is the first giant leap toward government
regulation of the Internet."
The current featured player in the dispute is Ted Stevens, R-Ala., chairman
of the Senate Commerce Committee, who has released a 135-page draft telecommunications bill – a re-write of the Telecommunications
Act of 1996.
Absent from the legislation, however, are any regulations related to net
neutrality, which means there is nothing in the bill to grant the FCC power to enforce net neutrality concepts.
Currently, the Internet is regulated by a U.S.-based, non-governmental organization,
the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. If MoveOn and its allies have their way, a federal agency, the FCC,
would gain unprecedented control over the Internet.
In the House, in more bad news for MoveOn and company, a bid by Democrats
to get extensive net neutrality regulations hammered into law failed recently.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is a strong proponent of net
neutrality laws. She has said the legislation with no provisions for net neutrality "would block the FCC from restoring meaningful
protections for Internet consumers and entrepreneurs, and from prohibiting the imposition of bottleneck taxes and other discriminatory
actions on the part of broadband network operators, such as AT&T and Verizon."
But Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Commerce and
Energy Committee, pressured his fellow GOP members to vote against an amendment addressing net neutrality, arguing that neutrality
proponents were overstating their case.
"I don't think all the Draconian things they predict will happen if we don't
adopt their amendment," he said.
Mike McCurry, co-chair of the group Hands Off the Internet and former press
secretary for President Bill Clinton, agreed: "Hypothetical problems are no justification for giving the FCC and other government
regulators the power to decide how the Internet will evolve."
The proponents of net neutrality claim that with Web sites paying service
providers, minor sites would be harder to access and slower to navigate as the paying clients get the bulk of the bandwidth.
But the major broadband providers downplay such fears, and say it will be
economically feasible to invest in higher-speed links only if some bandwidth can be reserved for paid content.
For example, in a recent interview with CNET News.com, Verizon Chief Technology
Officer Mark Wegleitner said movie-quality video could be delivered to DSL subscribers if the copyright owner would pay.
Writing in the Washington Post, Robert E. Litan, a senior Fellow at The
Brookings Institution, explains why the issue is coming to a head. Litan notes that until recently, traffic congestion on
the Internet was not a problem.
"There was so much excess capacity in the fiber optic cables and other parts
of the complex telecommunications network that heavy traffic delivered from one site did not threaten the reliability of traffic
delivered from other sites and routed through the Net."
Litan maintains that existing networks are rapidly running out of excess
"We need new cyber-highways if the brave new world of movies, fast Google
searches and telemedicine - to take a few examples - is to become at all viable."
The big question, he says, is who will pay for these higher-speed networks.
And the big question for the Internet Freedom Coalition and others who oppose
net neutrality laws, according to Wright, is: "Will a Republican Congress really allow MoveOn and liberal allies to turn back
the clock on the greatest innovation and wealth-building enterprise to come along in a generation? We certainly hope not."
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