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If the current lobbying fight over the future of Internet freedom could be cast in biblical terms, the telecommunications industry would be a natural Goliath, while the technology companies would be an intrinsic David. Though in this version, David can’t seem to handle his stone and sling. The tech community, made up of once-scrappy West Coast upstarts, is still feeling its way around Washington’s power circles. While its lobbying efforts, in a classical, work-the-committees kind of way, are lacking, it has assembled a vocal grass-roots coalition arguing for network neutrality. Many believe that broadband operators have plans to turn the Internet into a cable system with operators deciding what fees, in addition to normal access rates, can be tacked on to content and service providers. And they want Congress to put the principle of “Internet freedom” in writing. But their anemic D.C. presence has been no match for the long-standing telecom industry, a giant in Washington’s circles that has pounded Capitol Hill and the public with an advertisement blitzkrieg courtesy of the United States Telecom Association, the industry’s chief trade group, urging Congress not to regulate the Internet. Though the techies have managed to throw some wrenches into the debate, they’ve arrived late to the game and haven’t been able to strategize well beyond their baseline grass-roots support. Their tardiness may seem surprising, since at stake, many techies argue, is the very existence of the Internet. “We really believe that the future of the Internet hangs on the congressional decision on net neutrality. . . . It’s the number-one priority,” says Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a consumer advocate organization in Washington that has partnered with two unlikely bedfellows — the reliably conservative Christian Coalition of America and the liberal MoveOn.org Civic Action — for a “Save the Internet” campaign. The debate began last August, when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated broadband. Content providers such as Google Inc., Yahoo! Inc., and Amazon.com Inc. say the move paved the way for the telecom industry to control the Internet. Their worst fears were confirmed last year, they say, when AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre Jr. noted in a BusinessWeek article that investment in high-speed pipes has been expensive. “What [Google, Vonage, and others] would like to do is use my pipes free. But I ain’t going to let them do that,” he was quoted as saying. But cable and phone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc., and BellSouth Corp. say they have no such intentions and that the tech community is hyperventilating. “There’s a very significant overreaction [by net neutrality proponents] on this issue,” says Gregory Rohde, president of e-Copernicus, which represents BellSouth Corp. “What they are asking for is akin to seeing someone walking down the street and saying, �This person is capable of murder; let’s tie them up.’ “ The tech industry has pushed legislation to reinstate the FCC rules on broadband. But its effort failed last week in the House when a net neutrality amendment, offered up by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), was killed by the Republican leadership. The industry’s focus now shifts to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and a network neutrality amendment he introduced in the Senate. Despite all the rhetoric, the tech community’s Hill presence has been spotty. The exceptions: attendance at a Senate hearing nearly two weeks ago as well as the eleventh-hour D.C. fly-in last week by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who came to lobby the Senate, decked in silver-mesh sneakers and jeans. No tie. No jacket. The tech industry’s late entry into the game and less-than-stellar effort have not been lost on lawmakers or analysts. “The high-tech folks in cities got started on this late,” Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who backs net neutrality, told Legal Times. “Coming up with an effective fight when you start way behind is hard. They are not where they should or ought to be.” The buzz on K Street is that content providers are doing a miserable job working the issue. Lobbyists on both sides of the aisle speak almost embarrassingly of their weak Hill presence and ponder whether this is indeed a priority for the industry.
Network Neutrality — A fight has erupted between the telecommunications and technology industries over who has control over Internet content — broadband providers or consumers. The telecom industry is pushing back on measures that would prohibit them from providing a two-tier Internet service system by which they could offer a separate high-speed lane for video and other “high priority” services. Bills Before CongressHouse — Network Neutrality Act of 2006 (defeated in House June 8)Senate — Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2006
SupportersGoogle Inc., Yahoo! Inc., eBay Inc., and Amazon.com Inc.The elimination of Federal Communications Commission rules that stipulated parameters for net neutrality now allows cable and telephone companies to discriminate, argue content providers. The tech community is asking Congress to reinstate the rules to prevent the cable and bell companies from limiting content to Internet consumers. OpponentsVerizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc., and BellSouth Corp.The cable and telephone companies emphasize that net neutrality is a regulatory measure designed to dampen innovation and business. Regulation and congressional involvement, their lobbyists say, are not needed, since they are not engaging in the kind of net discrimination their opponents assert.

“You can hire the best lobbying team in the world, but if your executive suite and boardroom isn’t attuned to it, it’s a lot of wasted effort,” says one prominent Bell lobbyist. “It’s like a 33-year-old veteran pitching against a 19-year-old rookie.” Even so, the techies have been very successful at mobilizing their supporters on a grass-roots level — a virtual cheering section the telecommunications industry doesn’t have. “The Internet has been used to organize before but has never been successful on an issue so arcane,” says Scott. “This doesn’t hit people in the gut like immigration or health care.” But if the tech community is waiting for an army of bloggers to leap to its rescue, it might have to wait awhile. Opponents say the online community still isn’t getting it and that if you look closely at online blogs and e-mail, supporters rarely have elevated their conversations to discussing the details of the legislation or what the language in a proposed amendment should or shouldn’t be. LIKE A ROLLING STONE For all the success the tech industry has had on the grass-roots level, its Washington presence next to the well-greased telecom lobbying apparatus has been next to invisible. It’s understandable. The bell companies have been on Capitol Hill for nearly a century, while the content companies have remained on the Washington sidelines. It wasn’t until it was faced with an antitrust suit that Microsoft felt the need to spearhead a D.C. office. To hear folks like Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy at Amazon, tell it, it all boils down to time. “Time is on our side,” he says, then, in a contradiction, adds, “If we had more time to shine light on the facts, we would be in great shape.” Misener takes criticism that content providers have not been working the Hill aggressively as a source of pride. “They [opponents] prioritize how well they do in Washington. We prioritize how well we do with our customers,” he says. And yet, when asked if a deleterious outcome on net neutrality would harm Amazon customers, Misener says it would, “to some extent.” “This is why time is on our side,” he says. “Maybe I’m Pollyanna talking, but I’m hoping the way to achieve the right outcome is to look at the facts. We’ve been losing so far on getting the facts out there.” And one of telecom’s longtime allies has been at the forefront of the issue for the tech industry. Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) is no stranger to the lobbying tactics of the bells. His firm, Clark and Weinstock, has represented AT&T Inc. for years, though they parted last year when the firm began pursuing existing clients eBay Inc. and Microsoft Corp.’s interest in net neutrality. Weber calls the telecom lobby one of the best-oiled machines in town. “They are well organized, sophisticated, and have a lot of experience lobbying the Hill,” he says. So what type of advice has Weber offered to the tech community? The former lawmaker says he’s uncomfortable discussing such counsel but adds he’s dished up “the best advice” he has. And though his Republican friends on the Hill are “slow to understand the issue,” he reminds them not to confuse a sophisticated lobbying effort with grass-roots sentiment. Although MoveOn.org’s involvement has been a source of heartburn for some lobbyists pushing the issue — “For a lot of Republicans, that’s a blinking light,” notes one lobbyist supportive of net neutrality, referring to conservative unease at the mere mention of the ultraliberal giant — the coalition was successful at lobbying Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to take a position on the issue. Cable lobbyists don’t seem bothered by Pelosi’s strong endorsement. She’s not urging her members to support net neutrality, says one prominent cable lobbyist. “If she were to whip the caucus on it, like [the Central American Free Trade Agreement] or something, then you’d have a higher level of concern,” says the lobbyist. “But there has not been the indication that she’s twisting arms of the members, saying, �Hey, this is part of the Democratic agenda.’ “ Still, the tech community presses on, in pure Pollyanna mode. “We don’t have a lobbyist in the traditional sense,” says Adam Green, civic communications director at MoveOn.org Civic Action. “Our lobbyists are everyday people.”

Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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