Tech Issue Gains Traction in Election
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Bloggers and other Internet activists made their marks in the past two
presidential elections chiefly by building networks of political
enthusiasts and raising money for candidates. Now, they are pushing
aggressively into policymaking -- and not just over high-profile
issues such as Iraq.
They are pressing candidates to back a handful of issues that are
obscure to many Americans but vital to those who base their
livelihoods on the Internet and track its development.
Armed with massive e-mail lists and high-speed networks, these
activists are bypassing the familiar campaign tactics of door-knocking
and phone-banking. They are also using their new-age technologies for
an old-fashioned purpose: making politicians take note of their
One of those is "net neutrality." Hardly a household term, it has no
overtly partisan or ideological dimensions. Yet it is shaping up as a
Democratic issue this year, largely because its most fervid advocates
are liberal bloggers and other Internet activists who play a big role
in the early stages of choosing a Democratic presidential nominee.
Unlike their Republican counterparts, every major Democratic
presidential candidate has endorsed net neutrality. The move keeps
them in good standing with powerful grass-roots groups, such as
MoveOn.org, and costs them little in return -- perhaps a bit of space
on campaign Web sites to promote a matter that comparatively few
voters might explore.
Net neutrality is a principle that bars Internet providers, primarily
phone and cable companies, from charging higher rates to Web-based
firms in return for giving their content priority treatment on the
pathways to consumers. Without such restrictions, proponents say, a
user might find it time-consuming, or even impossible, to call up a
favorite site that carriers have relegated to slower lanes for
economic or even philosophical reasons.
"It's an issue that really captures the attention of one of their core
constituencies, especially the bloggers and 'netroots,' " said Craig
Aaron of Free Press, a group that champions net neutrality. "For
candidates looking to appeal to those folks, it was important to take
a stand," he said, even though "nobody was talking about it a year
A veteran Democratic consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity
was more blunt. Among Democratic candidates, she said, "if you're not
for net neutrality, then the blogs will kick your" rear. The
grass-roots groups that strongly favor it are relatively small but
very noisy, she said, "and you just don't want to have to deal with
Opposing net neutrality are the telephone and cable companies that
control the "pipes" that transport Internet content from producers to
users. The companies say they need flexibility to manage Internet
traffic, even if it eventually means charging higher rates for
For several years, the issue has been debated mainly in legal and
telecom circles. Recent telecom mergers have raised its profile,
however, as regulators considered the possible ramifications of
consolidating control over the Internet's major pathways.
Net neutrality restrictions "could prevent broadband providers from
offering enhanced levels of service for specialized applications such
a telemedicine, or to offer their own branded or co-branded products
or services," said Christopher Wolf, co-chairman of Hands Off the
Internet, a group sponsored by phone and cable companies . Such
arrangements, he said at a recent Federal Trade Commission workshop,
"will help pay for the build-out of the next generation of Internet
Moreover, Wolf said, his industry's critics cannot cite an example in
which any U.S. user has been blocked.
But some groups that rely heavily on their Web sites to share
information, raise money or promote causes say they fear it's only a
matter of time. They cite, for example, a 2005 comment by William L.
Smith, then chief technology officer for BellSouth, which has merged
with AT&T, that Internet service providers should be able to charge a
firm such as Yahoo for the opportunity to have its search site load
faster than Google's site.
Last spring, the debate over net neutrality barely scratched the
consciousness of Congress, let alone the general public, after a House
subcommittee defeated an effort to add net-neutrality restrictions to
a multi-faceted telecommunications bill. The 23 to 8 vote goaded more
than 850 interest groups, many, but not all, politically left of
center, to form a coalition called SavetheInternet.com.
Members included organizations such as Common Cause and the American
Civil Liberties Union, but the name that really grabbed the attention
of Democratic officials was MoveOn.org. The group, founded in 1998 to
oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, rocked the political
establishment in 2003 and 2004 with its ability to rally supporters
and raise money for causes such as opposing the Iraq war.
With MoveOn.org urging its 3 million members to sign and deliver
pro-net-neutrality petitions to senators last spring, congressional
support began to grow. The net-neutrality language died in an 11 to 11
Senate committee vote, but its backers claimed a moral victory after a
wide-ranging telecom bill, which lacked their amendment, eventually
The debate's partisan nature has surprised and disappointed some
advocates, who note that conservative groups such as the Christian
Coalition of America and the Gun Owners of America are part of the
SavetheInternet coalition. The Christian Coalition of America, in its
policy statement, said net neutrality is "extremely important to
America's grassroots organizations and those Americans who want to
ensure the cable and phone companies controlling access to the
Internet will not discriminate against groups like Christian Coalition
of America." Michele Combs, a spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition
of America, said that net neutrality is a nonpartisan matter and that
"the conservative side has not been educated on the issue."
MoveOn.org officials agree that net neutrality should transcend
political lines. "There's a growing online people-powered movement
that has increasing relevance in our politics," said Adam Green, a
spokesman for MoveOn.org. "An issue like net neutrality, which
directly taps into Internet issues, ... could have a special energy
in the political season," he said. "Every Republican and Democrat who
uses the Internet is threatened by corporations that want to control
which Web sites people can access."
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