The telecom slayers

In the Capitol Hill battle over Net neutrality, a ragtag army of grass-roots Internet groups, armed with low-budget videos, music parodies and petitions, have the corporate telecoms, and their allies in Congress, on the run.

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The telecom slayers

Ben Scott is smiling like a man who just hit the jackpot. As one of the coordinators of SavetheInternet.com, Scott is a leading advocate for Net neutrality, a congressional provision that would prohibit Internet service providers from charging Web sites for faster delivery of data. Scott is the closest thing there is to a field general in the grass-roots campaign to ensure Net neutrality, waging a daily battle with telecom giants AT&T and Verizon, who stand to boost their profits by creating toll roads on their Internet lines.

For more than a year, telecom lobbyists, who include former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, have outgunned Scott and his ragtag army of bloggers, Internet entrepreneurs and consumer-rights activists on Capitol Hill. But on this fall day in his bare-bones office in Washington, Scott is grinning in victory. He knows he has succeeded in tripping up the lobbying goliaths with a simple weapon that couldn’t be more appropriate in the battle over the Internet: a low-budget video posted on YouTube.com.

In the unadorned black-and-white film, college kids sit in front of a webcam and talk about the evils of an Internet without Net neutrality. “Do you want companies to control your clicks?” a goateed young man asks the camera. “This means slower connections to sites that are under competing ISPs,” another says. “Let’s keep the Internet free!” After a guitar solo and a hazy image of the American flag, the video goes black and directs viewers to SavetheInternet.com.

In the first week after it was posted on YouTube on Aug. 17, the video was viewed over 350,000 times, according to figures provided by the site. By comparison, the infamous “macaca” video of Virginia Sen. George Allen calling a man of Indian descent the racial slur, was viewed 200,000 times in roughly the same amount of time. A testament to the power of viral marketing, the Net neutrality video “is doing the work of 30 full-time communications professionals,” Scott says. “And the best part is, I have no idea who made it.”

In fact, the video was made in a little over an hour by Ben Going, a 21-year-old waiter from Huntsville, Ala., and an aspiring Internet filmmaker. Going says he pieced the video together because he feels that his hobby, his business, his way of life, is under attack. He is not alone. All summer long, hundreds of Web users like Going have flooded the Internet with videos and blog postings. An online petition in favor of Net neutrality has gathered more than 1.1 million signatures, and a letter-writing campaign spawned online has resulted in a flood of letters to Congress members. Barry Piatt, communications director for Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, a leading Net neutrality advocate, says his office has received close to 1 million letters on Net neutrality, “a virtually unprecedented level” of mail for any issue, let alone one as technical as this one. And the “overwhelming majority” of the letters, Piatt says, favor Net neutrality.

Web giants like Google, eBay and Amazon, which will be forced to pay the lion’s share of fees on an Internet fast lane, have certainly not been quiet. They’ve spent millions to slug it out with the telecom companies but have yet to land a knockout blow. The real action remains at the grass roots. “Two very different models are now coming to head,” says Craig Aaron of SavetheInternet.com. “One is entrenched lobbyists in D.C. doing what they have always done, fighting it out inside the Beltway. On the other side is this new grass-roots movement, using new communications tools and finding new ways to organize. This is people using the Internet to save the Internet.”

The Net neutrality debate is really over a rather obscure provision in the Telecommunications Act, Title II, which ensures nondiscrimination in Internet service. From the telegraph wire to the phone line to the modem, voice and data traveling over wires have always been treated the same way. For the first time in more than a decade, the act is being rewritten to address current technology, including cable TV and the Internet.

Telecom debates have punctuated Congress all year, but none have been more feisty than those over the Net neutrality provision. While Congress is currently in recess, those on both sides of the Net debate say they look forward to getting back in the ring after the November elections. The telecoms have spent millions to knock out Net neutrality, but the grass roots has helped bring the fight to a draw.

The battle erupted in the wake of a 2005 Supreme Court ruling, which changed the regulatory classification of ISPs and removed the nondiscrimination protections on the Internet. Facing fewer restrictions on how they could govern the Internet, the likes of AT&T and Verizon made no secret that they intended to create a lucrative Internet fast lane, open only to Web sites that can pay. Critics quickly responded that an Internet where only those who can pay the rent can display their wares will stifle innovation and choice. “Consumers will have all of the choices and selection of a former Soviet Union supermarket,” says Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a key ally of Net neutrality.

Enthusiastic proponents like Snowe say that a tiered pricing system would fundamentally alter the Internet, which was designed as a “dumb network” that does not discriminate between different types of data traveling over it. Big Web companies like Google and Yahoo argue that this equal footing led to the “innovation without permission” that spurred the Internet revolution in the first place. They insist that tiered pricing will ensure a near monopoly for the phone and cable companies, which currently control 98 percent of the $20 billion Internet service market.

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On the other side, the telecoms argue that because they are the ones spending millions to build the high-speed Internet infrastructure, they are the ones that deserve to charge more for faster service. The increases in revenues, they say, will also finance the expansion of the broadband network, especially to rural areas. For a nation that ranks 16th in the world in broadband access, this is clearly a problem. In taking their argument to the people, the telecom giants and their lobbyists preach that “Net neutrality” is just code for liberal government regulation, and that free markets should reign.

In 2005, the big phone and cable companies began putting their money where their mouths were. That year, they spent $71 million in lobbying, reports Bloomberg News, to make sure Net neutrality died a quiet death. This spring, according to a study conducted by Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a Maryland telecommunications research firm, the telecom companies spent more than $1 million per week in targeted TV advertising in the D.C. area. Arlen puts that level of advertising “on par with a car dealership,” although in this case, he says, the ads are aimed only at “the 535 members of Congress and their staff.” Meanwhile, pro-Net neutrality groups were spending roughly $50,000 per week on ads, according to Mike Smith, another industry analyst.

Perhaps bigger than the spending advantage are the telecoms’ deep roots in Washington. Verizon employs former Iowa Republican Rep. Tom Tauke as its top lobbyist, one of the youngest members ever elected to Congress in 1979 when he was only 29. Between Tauke and AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, and the other CEOs who all have testified before Congress dozens of times, the telecoms have no shortage of friends on Capitol Hill.

Contrast that with the Young Turks of the Internet, who are not nearly as generous with their campaign contributions to the Republicans in charge. In the spring, Google cofounder and president Sergey Brin showed up on Capitol Hill to lobby for Net neutrality wearing jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, a no-no for even the lowliest intern. Brin left empty-handed after trying to see several key senators. “These guys just don’t get how to play in Washington,” says Arlen. “Even a big market cap doesn’t get you respect on Capitol Hill. The big telecoms have been handing out billions of dollars in campaign contributions for decades.”

In an early masterstroke, the telecoms hired McCurry, Clinton’s former press secretary, to head the lobbying group they bankrolled, Hands Off the Internet. Scott and others dismiss Hands Off the Internet as an “Astroturf” group, a P.R. term for a corporate-funded group that gives the appearance of being rooted in the grass roots.

But McCurry is no lightweight. The man who had to face the firing squad on a daily basis when he led the White House press briefings throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal, McCurry has had little trouble hitting all his side’s talking points on Net neutrality. While TV ads were flooding the zone, McCurry was selling the telecoms’ point of view to newspaper editorial boards, hammering home the idea that Net neutrality is “needless regulation” based on “fears not facts.”

“Who will pay for the advancements we know we have to make to the Internet to stay competitive?” he asks. Streaming video sites like YouTube and Internet telephony providers such as Vonage require massive amounts of bandwidth and expensive pipes to transmit them through. McCurry argues that it is only fair to charge more for those who use the most.

“We did not build the Internet like we built the interstate highway system,” he says. “We made the decision in the 1990s to let the private sector take over the innovation that had previously been done through [the government]. We don’t have publicly owned utilities in this country.”

To hear McCurry tell it, the telecoms are struggling. Without tiered pricing, he says, the companies will not have the funds to build out broadband networks. However, Verizon generated nearly $80 billion in revenue last year, more than all other cable companies combined. AT&T’s revenues clocked in at a paltry $44 billion. Over the past five years, the four Bell phone companies have received more than $15 billion in federal subsidies to help wire rural and low-income households through the “universal service fund.” All to say nothing of the monthly charges they receive from the average Internet user.

For the first half of this year, it was looking like the telecoms would get what they wanted. In early June, the House voted 321-101 for a version of the Telecommunications Act without enforceable Net neutrality. With Alaska Republican Ted Stevens waiting to shepherd the bill though the Senate, prospects for Net neutrality looked dim.

Stevens, the head of the Senate Commerce Committee, and the man essentially in charge of all Internet policy in the Senate, is one of the more cantankerous figures in the chamber. He has been known to threaten to quit if he does not get his way on certain bills and often wears an Incredible Hulk tie when he prepares to do battle for his pet projects, such as last year’s infamous $223 million “bridge to nowhere” in the transportation bill. In June, Stevens delivered a rambling, five-minute speech on Internet policy, which included such gems as “the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It is not a big truck. It is a series of tubes.”

The speech turned out to be a boon for Net neutrality advocates. Right after Stevens’ command performance, his remarks received the full sardonic treatment on “The Daily Show.” Public Knowledge, a nonprofit organization that focuses on technology policy, and supports Net neutrality, posted an audio recording of Stevens’ speech on the Web, allowing it to echo across the country. One industrious techno DJ heard the audio file, set it to music and created the song “A Series of Tubes,” by DJ Ted Stevens. The video for the song has been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube.

With the tide of grass-roots activism rising, the Net neutrality issue surfaced from the Internet and murky halls of Congress into wider public awareness. An unlikely coalition of advocates, ranging from MoveOn.org to the Christian Coalition, the Service Employees International Union to the Gun Owners of America, motivated by what they see as threats to free speech, started taking the issue to their constituents with renewed passion. Aaron of SavetheInternet.com says the strange coalition has definitely turned heads in Washington. “For far too long, media policy has been big companies making decisions behind closed doors. Folks in D.C. got very used to making this sort of monumental decision without ever bothering to ask the public what they think about it.”

In late June, the telecoms received a stunning rebuke in the Senate, when the Commerce Committee tied 11-11 on the Net neutrality provision to the telecom bill put forth by Snowe and Dorgan. The vote, says Scott, “sent a shock wave” through the horde of telecom lobbyists gathered in the congressional hearing room, fully expecting to see net Neutrality read its last rites.

Still, while Scott and his army of bloggers have succeeded in keeping Net neutrality alive, there is a difference between a stay of execution and a full pardon. Corporate powerhouses like AT&T and Verizon are not about to roll over. McCurry says it’s only because the telecoms “missed the significance of Net neutrality early on in the debate that the grass roots took off at the local level.” The grass-roots explosion is based on “psychology” and not “good public policy,” he says. He argues that many liberals feel that the blogosphere is to them what talk radio was to the right in the 1980s. “The left feels this is their medium for communication and they don’t want big business tampering with it.”

But, as Scott points out, with religious right and pro-gun groups supporting Net neutrality, the issue is hardly limited to the left. He declares that SavetheInternet.com is not bankrolled by the big Internet companies, yet the grass-roots mission is increasingly getting a boost by them. In August, eBay CEO Meg Whitman organized a letter-writing campaign, sending out a form letter to eBay users supporting Net neutrality and urging them to print out the letter and send it to their senator. Ed Kutler, a lobbyist for eBay whose office coordinated the letter drop, says he delivered 610,000 letters in one day.

Following the Senate victory in late June, the Net neutrality mission continued to spread. In mid-August, a group of activists gathered in Albuquerque, N.M., outside the district offices of Sen. Jeff Bingaman and presented him with a petition with more than 7,000 signatures, demanding he take immediate action to support Net neutrality. Small-business owners made speeches about how vital Net neutrality is to them, the local news media came and the story was picked up by the local National Public Radio affiliate. Protesters held similar rallies in 25 cities across the country. Four Democratic senators, previously on the fence on the issue, announced they would support Net neutrality in the next session, with Minnesota Sen. Mark Dayton announcing his support at a Minneapolis rally after he was presented with a petition with more than 13,000 signatures.

Flush with success, Aaron is still forced to pose the million-dollar question, the one that has been hounding pundits since bloggers first became a political presence during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “Can we draw enough attention to this issue and get enough votes in Congress to win?” After all, key questions remain: Can the grass roots keep this momentum going? Can activists sustain this kind of activity long enough to wait out the glacial pace of Congress?

While Scott remains optimistic, this is uncharted territory for grass-roots activism on media policy. But he says his ace in the hole is a simple message. “Nothing is easier than going onto the Web and saying to users, ‘Everything you love about the Web is threatened.’”

In his Capitol Hill office, Scott keeps a small framed photo from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” It is the famous scene where the defiant Luke, played by Paul Newman, tries to eat 50 eggs in one hour to win a bet. In the photo, Newman looks fatigued and in pain, with bits of egg all over his face, yet facing a heap of eggs sitting on the table. “This is just like Net neutrality,” says Scott. “No one thinks we can beat the telecoms, everyone is betting against us. So every day I have to go out and eat 50 eggs in an hour.” He pauses, realizing the hugeness of his challenge, but relishing his victory so far. “The bloggers have really changed the debate on Net neutrality,” he says. “Had there not been a massive public push on this issue, I am quite confident it would already be over.”

Daniel W. Reilly is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He previously worked in the Washington bureau of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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