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It began when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated broadband in late 2004, but it was AT&T chief executive Edward Whitacre Jr.’s interview in BusinessWeek that launched a thousand reactions in the technology and telecommunications world on the issue of net neutrality. The issue was a potboiler in 2006 as many content providers, such as Google, Yahoo, and Amazon.com, lobbied Congress to put the principle of “Internet freedom” in writing, fearing that the cable and phone industry was on a path to control of the Internet. But the telecom industry, a giant in Washington circles, pounded Capitol Hill and the public all summer long with an advertisement blitzkrieg — courtesy of the United States Telecom Association, the industry’s chief trade group — urging Congress not to regulate the Internet. In the first half of 2006, the association spent $15.3 million on in-house lobbying of the federal government. “That campaign was one of the better ones,” says Steve Perry, a lobbyist at Dutko Worldwide.”The cable, TV, and phone guys completely discredited the notion that net neutrality was a problem.” Net-neutrality language was not included in the telecom bill at issue, a rewrite of the 2004 act. The battle was intense, with pols of all stripes stepping into combat on unusual sides of the issue. Mike McCurry, press secretary for President Bill Clinton, lobbied against the techies as co-chair of “Hands Off the Internet,” a coalition of cable and phone companies. Meanwhile, former Republican congressman turned lobbyist Vin Weber, a partner at Clark & Weinstock, lobbied his former colleagues on behalf of the tech community. Net-neutrality proponents say the omission of their issue from the telecommunications bill caused the bill to languish before the Senate, and many call this a victory. “We created net neutrality as an important issue for the future,” says Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit telecommunications law firm. “I’m not predicting legislation in the coming year. I wouldn’t rule it out, but we have energized the grass roots. This was a year about educating legislators.” With new Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate, proponents say they head into 2007 with favorable winds blowing. Soon-to-be Speaker Pelosi is a strong proponent of net neutrality and pressured her caucus on it last year. Another strong House proponent, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), will chair the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. And interest in the Senate is likely to pick up, with Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) chairing the Commerce Committee.
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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