Mixed Message in Memphis

by on January 23, 2007 · 0 comments

WASHINGTON, January 23, 2007–Those who would “Save the Internet” came to Memphis last week and declared victory in their struggle. They also hosted a party to celebrate and launch the next phase of the battle: going on the offensive.

The SavetheInternet.com Coalition is, of course, David to the Bell companies’ Goliath. Over the last two years AT&T, Verizon Communications and their trade group the United States Telecom Association spent more than $50 million lobbying Congress to change the nation’s telecommunications laws, according to disclosure documents. But it was spent in vain. The Bell-favored bill, which had overwhelmingly passed the House, died last year in the Senate.

In contrast, SavetheInternet.com spent $250,000 on educating the public about its side of the story, said coalition spokesman Craig Aaron. “Save the Internet” opposed the Bell bill, and made “Net Neutrality” its rallying cry. The coalition gathered more than 1.5 million petition signatures supporting the notion that telecom companies must be stopped from controlling the content that flows over their broadband networks

As might be expected, “Save the Internet” is Internet-savvy. Its Web site currently features a video–downloaded 260,210 times via YouTube–showing “alien invaders” from AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. The little green men from these companies, the video explains, “want to lock down portions of the Web : by killing one of the Internet’s founding principles: ‘Net Neutrality.'”

Caricatures aside, it’s not much of a stretch for SavetheInternet.com to claim as it does that it vanquished the Bell bill over the issue of Net Neutrality. And the credit–or blame–for that, in large part goes to Free Press, the nonprofit advocacy group that seeks to “reform” the media and put restrictions on broadcast and cable ownership–and now on the Bells.

It was Free Press, which gathered more than 3,500 citizens to its third biannual conference on media reform last week in Memphis, Tenn., that birthed the coalition in April. The new group has benefited from the relentless campaigning of MoveOn.org Civic Action, a sister organization of the progressive political action committee. And some moral support came from the right, when the Christian Coalition supported these Internet saviors.

But it’s coalition coordinator Free Press that has done the heavy lifting in this advocacy effort. For Robert McChesney, the University of Illinois communications professor who founded Free Press in late 2002 as the Federal Communications Commission was seeking to relax media ownership rules, “saving the Internet” is now what his movement is all about.

Previous conferences focused on the media ownership fights or critiques of the Bush administration’s manipulation of the media, according to McChesney. “This year, the major fight centered clearly on Net Neutrality,” he said.

That may be an overstatement–once again, there was plenty of discussion about big media on the agenda–but McChesney is right to assert that Net Neutrality did not exist as a political issue in 2005, when Free Press held its last conference. However, he said that since then, “the cable and telephone industries showed their fangs and now want to make it possible that they can privatize the Internet.”

Is the effort by Free Press to link media ownership and Net Neutrality likely to succeed? That’s where the Memphis conference presented a decidedly mixed message.

Free Press calls itself nonpartisan, but the tenor of its conference was unmistakably left-leaning, with speeches given by actress Jane Fonda, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Democratic politicians.

“We are nonpartisan, but ironically, or coincidentally or along with it, we are progressive [by seeking] institutions and structures that make informed self-government possible,” McChesney explained. Some Republicans also have joined in its efforts regarding media ownership and Net Neutrality, he said.

But playing both sides may be hard, particularly as Free Press and the SavetheInternet.com Coalition push to promote “universal access” and other forms of telecom competition.

One forum at in Memphis nicely illustrated this dilemma. All of the panelists were neutralistas, but not all agreed on what their struggle meant.

To Matt Stoller, a political blogger at MyDD.com, the victory was a win for the political left.

“The Net Neutrality fight is the first pro-regulatory stance in public debate that has been put forward in 30 years or so that won, and it won in a very specific way,” said Stoller. “We had a debate in the public domain about whether the government should regulate the Internet. We convinced the American people that the government should regulate something.”

But Adam Green, communications director for MoveOn Civic Action, offered this philosophy: “We need to show and prove the world that we are on the side of the free and open market, and the free and open exchange of ideas,” A bit later, Green derided the telecommunications industry critics of neutrality for “trying to brand us as being against companies.”

Tim Wu, the Columbia University law professor and author who first coined the term “Net Neutrality,” says it’s best to keep both sides off-balance. Some dislike his turn of phrase, but he couldn’t be happier. “For better or worse, that term Net Neutrality has become a third rail” of telecom politics, Wu said.

And it seems it’s one that politicians touch at their peril.

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