Have you heard about the battle over the Internet?
It's a power grab that involves lawyers, lobbyists, unscrupulous legislators, phony front groups and the most powerful telecommunications companies in the world.
They've aligned themselves against the rest of us -- the millions of Americans who use the Internet every day, in increasingly inventive ways.
They've opened their wallets to Washington. It's an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars and it's being made right now by AT&T, Comcast and Verizon -- the companies that provide broadband access to the vast majority of Americans.
These companies are chasing the ultimate payout: control, not just of the Internet wires that snake into our homes, but over the information that flows across those wires..
Right now, the FCC and Congress are weighing a series of decisions that could determine whether this decade-long explosion of Internet creativity was a short-lived experiment in people-powered media, or the beginning of an era of more decentralized, participatory and democratic communications.
20th-century media colossi prefer a return to the old ways, where a handful of gatekeeper firms operated the turn-on valve to all popular information. It was a profitable model that worked well for one-way communications like newspapers, radio, and television. If only it can be applied in age of flash mobs and FourSquare, too.
These media giants are spending a fortune to convince lawmakers and regulators to dismantle consumer protections on the Internet and give industry absolute power over the most important communications medium of our time.
Here's how they plan to do it, in four easy steps:
ONE: Buy Congress
The New York Times reported yesterday that AT&T, Comcast and Verizon executives and political action committees are among the top campaign contributors to lawmakers responsible for communications policy on the Hill.
"Political contributions from AT&T in the current election cycle reached $2.6 million by May 16, on the way to exceeding the total in each of the last three elections," according to the Times. AT&T has been especially generous to the campaigns of every Republican (most notably, John McCain), and all but three Democrats on the subcommittee that deals with the Internet in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. From 1998 through 2009, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable contributed more than $96 million to candidates for federal office, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics (and compiled here). In 2010 they're set to break all records for annual spending.
TWO: Mobilize an Army of Lobbyists
The phone and cable industry controls Internet access for more than 96 percent of Americans. Now, with the help of an army of lobbyists, they're planning to expand that control even further. In 2009, they spent more than $70 million on nearly 500 "K" Street lobbyists.
These agents for hire swarmed the FCC and Capitol Hill in a push to consolidate industry control over the Internet and kill Net Neutrality, the principle that preserves the free and open Internet, before the public (and public interest advocates like Free Press) gets a seat at the table.
Paul Blumenthal of the Sunlight Foundation recently revealed that cable and phone companies hired 276 former government officials to lobby for them in the first quarter of 2010. Included in this figure are 18 former members of Congress and 48 former staffers of current members of Congress on committees with jurisdiction over the Internet.
THREE: Spread Astroturf
Astroturf (or fake grassroots) groups surface wherever and whenever public policies threaten the corporate status quo. In Washington, they've spread like kudzu to envelope civic discourse over global warming, health care and financial reform in a tangle of corporate talking points.
The phone and cable lobby has been busily seeding Astroturf to kill Internet consumer protections. Notably they've funded FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and Arts + Labs to paint Net Neutrality as a "government takeover of the Internet" and to dismiss as "extremists" the nearly 2 million people who have called on Washington to enact lasting Net Neutrality protections.
Their dirty little secret? Most of these fake grassroots groups routinely fail to disclose that their operations are fully funded by corporate special interests.
FOUR: Demonize the Public Interest
Behind every corporate lobbying juggernaut lies a smear campaign targeting public interest advocates.
For these smear-mongers, Net Neutrality is better known as "Internet socialism," "the Fairness Doctrine for the Internet," or simply the cornerstone of the Obama administration's frightening "vision of government ownership and control" over all communications and aspects of our lives. Net Neutrality supporters occupy the radical "fringe" of society, they say.
For Glenn Beck, Net Neutrality is a slowly creeping Maoism designed so that the FCC can "turn the Internet into a public utility, which means they have the power to control and regulate every bit of it."
If the uptick in scorn for an open Internet from the shill and talk radio echo chamber seems a little suspicious, look no further than the companies that still advertise with and support these merchants of disdain. You'll find many familiar names.
Everyone has a stake in the outcome of this fight, whether you're a YouTube "celebrity" or a chili pepper salesman, or someone in between. If you want to control your own Internet experience, you'll need to burst the industry spin, learn the facts about Net Neutrality, and get involved in the fight for open communications.
Now is one of those times that Washington needs to be reminded whom they really work for. And it's not AT&T and Glenn Beck.