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Obama, Net Policy and the Kindness of Strangers

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Last year reports that the United States was slipping from Internet pioneer to digital dawdler as its global broadband penetration ranking had fallen from 4th to 15th in six years elicited a collective yawn. This is a surprising reaction from a nation whose forefathers, in the words of President Kennedy, "made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power" and refused to let the nation "founder in the backwash of the [space] age."

Fortunately, President Obama has demonstrated both vision and leadership to reverse this trend by making broadband deployment a vital part of his economic stimulus package. The Internet industry, however, must recognize that broadband neglect may also be attributable to its own failure to mobilize and distill cyber jargon to its core issues -- economic growth, innovation and consumer choice.

For example, the decline in U.S. broadband ranking and its impact on our economic competitiveness is much more relevant when you learn that a multimedia file that takes four minutes to download in South Korea might take nearly an hour and a half to download in the U.S. or that falling behind in the broadband race could lead to a loss of $1 trillion in economic productivity over the next decade.

The value of bridging the digital divide between rich and urban and poor and rural areas to prevent future digital dust bowls is apparent when you learn that rural Kentucky created or saved 63,000 jobs and increased wages by $1 billion by increasing broadband penetration from 65 to 95 percent; or that a mere one percent nationwide increase in broadband penetration would yield 295,000 jobs.

Even if the industry had articulated a compelling argument, however, the result may have been the same since it may not have been heard. In 2004, the Internet Industry Association issued a report warning that the industry's failure to mobilize and engage policy makers has created "a disastrous gap in their ability to understand the industry and its issues" -- a point illustrated that year by the House passage of legislation that would have treated benign applications such as HTML, java and cookies as illegal spyware.

While a number of companies such as Google have made great strides in increasing their Washington presence, far too many in the industry fail to recognize the need to educate and engage in policy debates at both the federal and state level. One Silicon Valley executive boasted at a 2008 tech policy conference that he pays little attention to Washington. While that may be true, it certainly is not wise given that at one point the chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the industry explained that the Internet was not "a truck. It's a series of tubes."

The same is true when it comes to net neutrality, another aspect of President Obama's innovation agenda. Few Americans understand its meaning, but most people understand that censoring or restricting consumer access to content or applications and potentially blocking new and innovative products from entering the market (especially with respect to more bandwidth rich Web 2.0 applications) can only limit economic growth and consumer choice.

The industry, however, has failed to ignite consumer outrage over the fact that this is actually occurring with certain Internet service providers today. While net neutrality is supported by a broad coalition that includes internet giants such as Google and Amazon.com, consumer groups and unlikely allies such as the ACLU and Christian Coalition, it has been no match for the powerful telecom and cable lobby. It is a sad irony that the medium which has generated so much political activism on both the right and the left, has been unable to mobilize to protect itself.

It is time that the industry heeded the call of their powerful ally in the White House that "this is our moment." From Amazon to MomandPopStore.com, it is time for the industry to stop depending on the kindness of strangers and stepped up to the plate to lend the President a hand. Working together they can spur economic growth and innovation and restore the nation's status as the global cyber pioneer.