01/14/2010 07:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Right Is Wrong About Net Neutrality

Perhaps you've heard about this issue of "Net Neutrality." Doesn't ring a bell?

Maybe you know it as "Internet socialism," "the Fairness Doctrine for the Internet," or simply the cornerstone of the Obama administration's frightening "vision of government ownership and control" over all communications and aspects of our lives.

Or so you might think if you've caught any of the right-wing's sudden interest in telecommunications policy.

Far be it from me to discourage public debate over pressing policy issues at the Federal Communications Commission. Net Neutrality is one of the most important issues the average citizen has never heard about.

But the uptick in attention from the tea partiers and the talk radio echo chamber -- which first popped up last fall when the FCC took up the issue, and is peaking again around this week's deadline for public comment on new rules -- is a little suspicious.

Some of the newfound opponents are reflexively opposed to anything supported by President Obama -- who has pledged "to take a backseat to no one" on the issue. Others have knee-jerk response to any talk about "government regulation."

But the timing of the attacks on the FCC and the similarity of the talking points suggest more sophisticated coordination with Net Neutrality's corporate opponents.

The Truth About Net Neutrality

Of course, the actual issue of Network Neutrality being considered now at the FCC bears little resemblance to the caricature being presented on Fox News. In reality, Net Neutrality is a fundamental principle that has been part of the Internet since its inception.

Net Neutrality means no discrimination, and it protects Internet users' ability to do or download whatever they want online without interference from the phone or cable company.

A series of awful decisions at the FCC during the Bush administration put Net Neutrality in jeopardy, and some in Congress tried to eliminate it in 2006. But over the past three years, more than 1.7 million Americans have contacted Congress and the FCC about the issue.

Take a look at the FCC docket, and you'll see thousands and thousands of comments from average people who are using the open Internet to start small businesses, organize in their communities, or just communicate with the world.

A broad coalition of groups spanning the political spectrum from the National Organization for Women to the Christian Coalition to the ACLU and the American Library Association has joined the fight for the free and open Internet alongside every major U.S. consumer group, large and small Internet companies, and even the inventor of the World Wide Web. A hallmark of the effort has been its broad, nonpartisan nature.

Creeping socialism? Hardly.

Net Neutrality is what made the Internet such a remarkable arena for entrepreneurship and economic growth in the first place. Net Neutrality creates an environment in which anyone can innovate without permission. Without it, there would be no Google, no instant messaging, no craigslist, no blogosphere nor so many other once unimaginable things that now seem indispensable.

The Fairness Doctrine? While this buzzword never fails to fire up the far right, it has nothing to do with Net Neutrality. By its very definition, Net Neutrality is content-neutral -- it keeps out all gatekeepers, corporate and government alike, and allows anyone with a good idea, compelling content, or a new application to find an audience.

And despite all the hand-wringing over "government control" of the Internet, the simple fact is that we've always had rules governing our communications system -- whether broadcast, broadband or wireless -- and always will. The only question that ever matters is whether those rules will just benefit a few giant companies or help the rest of us?

That's the issue now before the FCC. Last fall, the agency issued a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" to codify the Net Neutrality rules and clarify that Internet services providers can't discriminate against lawful Internet content or applications and must be transparent about how they intend to manage their networks.

The deadline for the first round of public comments is Jan. 14 -- though the rules likely won't be finalized until late spring or early summer. The outcome of that debate will determine whether the free and open Internet is protected once and for all, or whether the fine print will become so riddled with loopholes that the new rules are rendered meaningless.

Ma Bell's Fingerprints

The big companies opposed to Net Neutrality (like AT&T and Comcast) have flooded the media with myths and misinformation about Net Neutrality. Washington trade publications and all the Capitol Hill newspapers have been filled with ads questioning the FCC's "extreme" plans. Phony grassroots astroturf groups churned out op-eds and took to the airwaves.

Dozens of members of Congress from both parties as well as local officials -- most of whom had never said a peep about media policy before -- have fired off letters to the FCC opposing Net Neutrality. A few respected but misguided civil rights, labor and libertarian groups joined the chorus, warning ominously of Net Neutrality's "unintended consequences."

It's troubling to see these groups lined up alongside corporate mercenaries like the shills at Americans for Prosperity. Yet it's hard to find much difference between the positions being peddled by ex-Clinton officials like Mike McCurry (still doing what he must to pay the mortgage) and the crackpot conspiracies scrawled on Glenn Beck's chalkboard. They all seem to be reading from the same set of talking points.

That's no coincidence. Clues that all the anti-Net Neutrality noise might be manufactured were revealed last fall in the form of a leaked e-mail that AT&T's top lobbyist sent to company employees "asking" them to use their personal email accounts to weigh in against the new rules. Coming from one of the company's most senior executives, it's hard to imagine AT&T employees thinking the memo was merely a suggestion.

A closer look at the letters already piled up on the FCC's doorstep revealed some interesting similarities. Dozens of letters were filed earlier this year using the same template and language but issued on separate stationery. One letter to the FCC from the "Arkansas Retired Seniors Coalition" forgot to take out the reference to "XYZ organization." Another didn't remove the stock header "Governor/PUC Letters to FCC on Net Neutrality" before filing. Fishy.

You're the Boss

It's easy to mock such underhanded tactics. But could the astroturf efforts actually be working to sway the debate? Without a strong pushback from bloggers, small business owners, community organizers and congressional leaders, we could up with watered-down rules that put the future of the Internet further at risk.

You have a stake in the outcome of this debate whether you're a Deadhead or a Dittohead, if you care about free speech or free markets (or both). If you want the open Internet to stay that way, you should ignore the spin, learn the facts about Net Neutrality, and -- now, this is just a suggestion -- drop a line to the FCC. They'll still read what you have to say, even if you didn't get it in by midnight on Jan. 14.

Nobody likes getting a stern missive from their boss -- just ask the leakers who shared that memo from AT&T. But now is one of those times that the FCC commissioners need to be reminded whom they really work for. And it's not Ma Bell or Comcast.