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July 25, 2006

Tubing on the Alaskan’s pipeline: Or, how a feckless U.S. senator is running interference for Big Media

Anyone with access to a modem probably realizes by now that Ted Stevens’s understanding of technology runs about as deep as a table ashtray. The U.S. Senator from Alaska, a brutish and tone-deaf Republican (not all Republicans, thankfully, are this way — see, in this matter, Olympia Snowe of Maine), chairs the Senate committee that oversees telecommunications. He’s also the sponsor of a bill that sits now on Congress’ table — the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006, aka COPE — which would considerably rewrite the 1996 Telecommunications Act, most drastically in the sense that it would allow major media companies to control how Americans access Internet content.Chances are you’re also familiar with how Stevens explained the intricate nature of the World Wide Web during an impassioned plea to Congress earlier this month. If not, here’s an abridged version of more than 10 minutes of soliloquy:“The Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s, it’s a series of tubes.”Also this, ostensibly regarding big files that he says slow Internet delivery by consuming bandwith:“What happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got, an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday, I got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.”His logic, as far as we can discern, goes something like this: Commercial outfits that currently use the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx or UPS to deliver goods are trying for a free ride by using the Internet to deliver such large-scale things as movies and books in digital format (Google’s new video feature is an instructive example). Such “massive” deliveries, to use Stevens’s characterization, are slowing things down for the rest of us, who presumably despise the relative ease of this “new” system of communication. He even goes so far as to say his bill will protect consumers from these predators who are using up our “personal Internet” for commercial gain. (The speech, which has been widely circulated online, can be found here: www.publicknowledge.org/node/497.)It is here where the senator cannot crack the nut of the debate: Companies like Verizon and AT&T are tired of paying for the lines on which information is delivered, while companies like Microsoft and Google take advantage for free. The COPE Act would allow the owners of such lines of delivery — telecom industries who offer not only Internet access but phone and cable TV — to charge users on a two-tiered scale based on speed of delivery.Predictably, Stevens and COPE supporters refuse to accept the logic that creating a two-tiered system controlled by service providers — think of a carpool lane on the highway, except you have to pay to use it — offers opportunities for supreme commercial gain to providers such as Comcast (which “splits” our region with Insight Communications, which currently enjoys a monopoly in Louisville).If Stevens’s incoherent babble does anything, it dooms his telecom lobbyist friends to explaining why they chose him to shoulder their multi-million dollar effort to monopolize the last frontier in America’s communication world (beyond the fact that they gave him money, that is: Stevens has accepted, during the current election cycle, nearly $100,000 from the telecom industry). It also shows that overcomplicating an issue — a fairly common tack to discourage public debate — can backfire severely when your Congressional conduit is a bit dim on it.To solidify their campaign, the telecom companies are also employing an oft-used tool of American politics, the negative ad, coupled with bouquets of Orwellian doublespeak that would make the Bush administration proud.So we’ve had TV ads showing groups of people who argue that Net Neutrality would increase government regulation over the Internet and snuff the free market — it’s not a lie, because a law saying a telecom company can’t give preference to one bit of information over another based on cost would be further regulation. But it is a significant  misrepresentation of reality, the very reality argued for in this article.Mike McCurry, President Clinton’s former press flack, is co-chair of the group Hands Off The Internet — funded by AT&T, Bellsouth and others to lobby against Net Neutrality. McCurry and his flack pack engage the same dyspeptic logic and bald doublespeak: Check out www.handsofftheinternet.com for a dose.There is hope yet. A comprehensive Web site, www.savetheinternet.org, has gathered more than 1 million signatures on a petition demanding that Congress preserve the sanctity and freedom of the Internet. It also has a scorecard of how senators are leaning in regard to COPE.Kentucky’s two Republicans, Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, are listed as undecided. Surely the senators would appreciate a phone call about the issue of keeping the Net neutral and free: McConnell’s phone number in D.C. is (202) 224-2541; in Louisville, it’s (502) 582-6304. Bunning’s D.C. office number is (202) 224-4343; in Louisville, it’s (502) 582-5341.Kentucky’s entire House delegation voted for COPE, as did Indiana Rep. Mike Sodrel, whose district includes part of Metro Louisville. So a sense of urgency here is probably advisable. Contact the writer atsgeorge@leoweekly.com