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Google's Call to Action: Net Neutrality, Free Speech and Universal Access

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On Tuesday evening, Google CEO Eric Schmidt went before a politely hostile industry audience to map out his company's vision for a better Internet .

"The Internet has created this remarkable set of free markets, open competition and competitive growth. ... We need to keep it free and open," Schmidt said during a carefully worded speech sponsored by the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF). "If it goes the other way, we have got a serious problem, because this thing is really phenomenal."

Schmidt: Principles for a Better Internet
Schmidt listed four "calls to action" for the future of the Internet:
  • Defending freedom of speech;
  • Promoting universal broadband access;
  • Protecting Net Neutrality; and
  • Pushing for government transparency
These four principles are not just critical to a better Internet, Schmidt said, but are the "basic principles" driving the great American experiment.

Net Neutrality Gives Everybody a Choice

"We also care a lot about Net Neutrality," Schmidt said. "Whether you agree with me or not, you would agree with the following principle: No entity that controls the last mile, whether it's a telco or a cable company or, by the way, a local government since they're doing this stuff, too, should be able to control the content that flows over it. Again it's another important architectural principle to create this dynamic that is so powerful."

Among the Progress and Freedom Foundation's corporate sponsors are telephone giants (AT&T and Verizon) cable companies (Comcast and Time Warner); and cell phone companies (T-Mobile and Sprint) who have actively voiced their opposition to open Internet principles.

Together, these entrenched interest pay PFF more than $3 million each year. In exchange the "think tank" promotes positions favoring corporate gatekeepers over Web users, and content "shaping" over the free flow of information. Google also contributes to PFF, though evidently not enough. (Note: My group, SavetheInternet.com, takes no corporate money whatsoever.)

Understandably, some on Tuesday bristled at Schmidt's remarks. Representatives from the Heritage Foundation, Discovery Institute, U.S. Telecom Association, T-Mobile and Verizon stood to challenge Google's Net Neutrality and Open Access positions.

"Our concern is that any time you have a situation where there is not a choice, you can end up with the wrong outcome," Schmidt replied. "Let's be honest and say that the world is a better place when everybody has a choice."

Regulation for Whom?

One attendee -- a member of the Darwin-challenged Discovery Institute -- sought to argue that the Internet be completely free of regulation.

The real question isn't: "Should Congress regulate the Internet?" There always will be regulations. The real question is: "Whom will the regulations benefit?" Without forward-thinking broadband policy and real competition, America's high-speed Internet services are falling dangerously behind those of other developed nations.

The phone companies represented by many at the PFF event have held Washington's policy process in their grip for far too long. They are among the most prolific spenders on Washington lobbyists, campaign contributions, PR firms and paid junkets -- all with the intent to create special rules that are written in their favor. For all their corrosive talk about "deregulation," the cable and telephone giants actually lobby for regulations to:
  • Protect their market monopolies and duopolies
  • Stifle new entrants and technologies in the broadband marketplace
  • Increase their control over the content that travels over the Web

PFF claims to ground its work in principles of "limited government, free markets and individual sovereignty." How then do they justify taking money from corporations -- and adopting positions -- that have a demonstrably opposite effect?

We'll leave that question to the likes of Professor Larry Lessig, who plans to devote the next decade to investigating the corruption of our democracy by moneyed interests.

Free Choice v. Telco Control

What's clear is that the phone company scheme to inject gatekeepers and toll booths into the Internet marks a fundamental shift in the neutral way the Internet has always worked.

We caught a glimpse of this earlier this month when AT&T censored Pearl Jam and other bands that didn't quite meet their standard of "Internet freedom." AT&T and Verizon's whole business model has been built upon a type of content control that's anathema to the free-flowing Internet. They stand in opposition to efforts to empower people to make their own decisions and to protect their privacy in doing so.

Such gatekeeping takes away the most basic and crucial tenet of the Internet -- our freedom to connect online to a Web site of our choosing. It also tips the Web's even playing field to favor larger corporations, while handicapping the Internet's true innovators: outsiders and startups who can't afford to buy in to the network provider's protection racket.

There are many valid concerns about Google's own ambitions for the Internet. But the search giant seems to be standing up for the basic freedoms that have made the Internet a great engine for free speech, economic innovation and social change.

We wish we could say the same for the phone companies and other special interests that float coin-operated think tanks like the Progress and Freedom Foundation.