This week the House will vote on a communications law that will profoundly affect the future of the media. Under debate is "Network Neutrality" -- the guiding principle that has allowed the Internet to be the most successful social and economic innovation in a generation.
Here's how it works: Big cable and telephone companies are the Internet service providers (ISPs) for 98% of broadband users, and they stand to make serious money and solidify their market dominance by creating a "tiered" Internet. By keeping net neutrality off the books, they can charge content and applications providers -- from non-profit organizations to innovative entrepreneurs to Internet giants like Google, Yahoo! and I-Tunes -- for super-fast delivery to consumers.
Who will be able to afford this? Only the biggest companies; everyone else will be shunted to the slow lane in this zero-sum game. Every time one Web site is accelerated, another must be slowed down. It spells the end of equality on the Internet and the beginning of a world where most content providers get stuck in the slow lane. Ultimately, the absence of net neutrality will result in a handful of massive companies turning the Internet into a product like cable TV -- where they, not you, decide what you get to see, how fast it downloads, and who gets preferential treatment.
Here's why it's really important: Democracy only works when voters can make informed decisions based on diverse and independent information. Consolidation of media ownership, tepid public broadcasting, and government and corporate propaganda posing as news have made critical mainstream journalism an oxymoron. And that's where over 90 percent of Americans go first to get their news.
The upcoming conversion to broadband Internet television brings with it the potential for a revolutionary increase in the number of independent voices reaching television and radio dials across the country: Every URL could become a new network in what might be our best chance to make an end-run around vapid network news, consolidated newspapers, angry radio DJs, and the myriad other maladies of commercial media.
The vote coming up in Congress on Wednesday is for Rep. Joe Barton's (R-Texas) "Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act." The COPE Act is a massive gift to the biggest telephone companies, allowing them to rapidly enter the TV business with high-speed networks to deliver next-generation television. Not a bad thing on the face of it, but the bill would allow these companies to pick and choose where they'll offer service, all but guaranteeing the persistence of a deep digital divide. The bill includes no meaningful protections for net neutrality.
The only way that net neutrality will prevail is if the public demands it at the same time that major Internet content providers (like Google, Yahoo!, EBay, Vonage, and Amazon ) -- who are aligned with the public interest community on this issue -- flex their muscles in Washington. Our opposition has launched a wave of corporate-backed Astroturf campaigns like Hands Off the Internet, which is co-chaired by former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry and funded by the major telephone and cable companies. They're trying to create the appearance of public support for their position opposing net neutrality and buying up ad space on liberal blogs. McCurry has been ripped by bloggers like MyDD for his misrepresentation of the issue.
And just off the wire: this morning: the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a community development center founded by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), the Barton bill's lone Democratic co-sponsor, received a $1 million grant from the charitable arm of SBC/AT&T -- the giant phone company that's the biggest opponent of net neutrality. Add this apparent quid pro quo to the long list of corrupt policymaking in Washington.
Check out the map showing all of the members of the committee that will cast the first vote on the future of the Internet. And make sure to tell them you're paying attention to whether they side with the high-priced lobbyists or the public interest.
Stay tuned ... the future of the Internet and critical, independent media depends on it.