02/13/2008 11:11 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Spying & Telco Immunity: It's The System, Stupid!

On Tuesday, the Senate voted to allow the government to eavesdrop on foreign-based communications and to shield the largest phone companies from some 40 lawsuits alleging illegal wiretapping.

The level of corruption that this vote represents is simply staggering. Telephone companies broke the law when they handed over private records to the government without going through proper legal procedures.

There is no member of Congress who doesn't agree that if you break the law, you must have your day in court. That is, unless you are AT&T or Verizon pumping massive amounts of cash into political campaigns and deluging them with an army of lobbyists.

John McCain voted against your right to privacy and for the largest phone companies. Hillary Clinton didn't vote, and Barack Obama voted against telco immunity. I'm not surprised to see that the reliably industry-friendly GOP isn't so "tough on crime" when big corporations are breaking the law. What's interesting is to look at the Democrats who also voted with the phone companies.

I could go on about what a misguided and depressing travesty of justice Tuesday's vote was, but you're used to it. We're all used to it, and it is yet another reminder that real, fundamental change must happen in Washington. Not by merely electing a better president, but by getting big money out of political elections and creating a media system with strong, critical journalism that holds government accountable. And not just at times like now when an administration is on its heels.

The problems of elections and media continue to be acute. Hillary raised $115.7 million for her presidential campaign in 2007 -- before a single vote had been cast. Obama raised $102.2 million. Romney was next with $88.5 million, and Giuliani pulled in $60.9 million. Bottom line: money, not ideas, determine whether you can run for high office in America. That is not what democracy is supposed to look like, and it's not what our young men and women are fighting and dying for overseas.

The mainstream press continues to obsess over the horse race and personalities of the presidential election, instead of telling the public exactly how candidates' policies vary, and how their rhetoric matches (or doesn't) their actions.

If Tuesday's immunity vote holds, the largest phone companies will only be emboldened in their efforts to control the Internet. They're already getting started. AT&T recently bragged at an industry trade show about its plans to "filter" Internet traffic for copyrighted material; Comcast got caught blocking traffic on their network; and Verizon censored text messages NARAL Pro-Choice America tried to send to its own members.

We can still fight back. The same day as Tuesday's telco immunity vote, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chip Pickering (D-Miss.) introduced bipartisan legislation that would protect Net Neutrality and spark a much-needed public conversation about the future of the Internet by holding hearing across the country. The Federal Communications Commission even announced a February 26 public meeting in Boston to discuss Comcast's Internet blocking. We need to capitalize on these events to bring these crucial decisions into the light of day.

If you think this policy stuff is too wonky, think again. Because if we lose these fights, 10 years from now when phone and cable companies have taken control of the Internet and destroyed our last chance to get around the mainstream gatekeepers, you'll ask yourself why you weren't paying attention in 2008.