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Edward J. Black

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Grateful for the Internet and Those Saving It

Posted: 11/23/11 03:48 PM ET

A pair of recent victories are worth savoring this Thanksgiving for those who value the Internet and who could use some evidence there are still principled people in Washington willing to stand up for what's best for most Americans -- and for our economy.

In testimony this past week on Internet censorship in China, I likened the Internet to the goose that laid the golden egg for our economy. This Thanksgiving weekend I'm grateful that goose wasn't cooked and served up on a platter to parochial special interests.

There's growing concern that politically well-connected corporations get whatever they want from U.S. government, but recent action by antitrust authorities and telecommunications policymakers show there are limits. It's worth noting this Thanksgiving that U.S. antitrust authorities and telecommunications policymakers did not succumb to enormous political pressure, but instead stood up for the interests of American consumers and small businesses.

We saw this with the Justice Department's decision this summer to block AT&T from taking over its competitor T-Mobile and again this week when FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski indicated he would refer the merger to an administrative law judge for review. This, after FCC staff concluded the merger would leave the country with a highly concentrated wireless market, which would raise prices and reduce jobs. It was a turkey of a deal that did not deserve a pardon.

Internet access has been under assault all year starting with a shutdown in Egypt in January. But closer to home, Congress faced a pair of decisions that would allow Internet service providers to discriminate against some content and another measure to direct those ISPs and Internet companies to disappear Internet content.

Many were confused as to how the latter legislation, known in the Senate as S. 968 and the House as H.R. 3261, would work. They were misled by a stated purpose of reducing piracy and the dangers of rogue websites -- a goal easily supported by most of us.

Despite warnings from cybersecurity experts, law professors and human rights groups, the entertainment industry managed to get plenty of co-sponsors and a hearing last week on H.R. 3261, called SOPA, with five supporters seated at the six-person witness table.

But then something happened during the hearing. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., ran the hearing briefly during the chairman's absence, and discovered to his dismay during questioning that there was not a single witness at the table who was an expert on the technology and could answer detailed questions about how the Internet operates. Lungren expressed his concern about the House Judiciary Committee tackling such sweeping changes to the Internet ahead of knowing the technical and cybersecurity implications for the Internet.

From there support for the bill dwindled. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed her concerns with SOPA in a tweet hours later. Then Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., joined Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in promising to block the PROTECT IP Act in the Senate.

This doesn't mean the Internet is now safe. Hollywood is famous for sequels. The bill could still get altered in ways that force Internet companies into the business of censoring the Internet to avoid liability -- much how China accomplishes its censorship -- outsourcing it to companies. We can hope though that there will be enough people paying attention to collateral damage to free speech and the economy.

The biggest danger to the Internet is not some big shutdown as we saw in Egypt. It's all the smaller, well-intentioned alterations, often for seemingly noble reasons. The greatest risk to Internet freedom is a death by a thousand cuts and people too willing to accept the cut of the day -- whether it appears in the form of a privacy issue, anonymity issue or change to available content or the cost to access it.

It was disconcerting to many that measures that would change current levels of Internet openness and access could get this far. It's disturbing that some in Congress could pressure officials like antitrust authorities at the DOJ and consumer rights advocates at the FCC to look the other way and not do their jobs to protect competition and Internet access. But amid these multiple Internet threats there were acts of leadership and courage from members of Congress who understood, from Sandia National Laboratory warning about SOPA's cybersecurity issues to President Obama threatening to veto a resolution to dismantle net neutrality rules.

In a town where it's all too easy to say yes to powerful special interests, senators, members of Congress, the DOJ, the FCC and President Obama said no. So this Thanksgiving I'm grateful for those who defended the Internet.

Edward J. Black is president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association

 

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