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Thursday, May 13th, 2010


Introduction & Summary

AT&T and other internet service providers started out wanting to undermine one of the foundational principles of the internet (and a direct cause of it’s great economic growth) so that AT&T and the rest could pad their profit margin. To do this, they funded think tanks to come up with talking points and propaganda, they created political “grassroots” opposition, and financed candidates who would oppose net neutrality (who happened to be Republican). In buying off opinion leaders to oppose net neutrality, they ended up needing to get into bed with right-wing christianists who want to censor the internet, thus trading away yet another basic aspect of what has made the internet successful.

How successful has this campaign been? A few weeks ago, I came across a few pieces linking to a letter sent by conservative “luminaries” Grover Norquist, Phyllis Schlafly, and a number of others. This letter prompted Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government and Neil Stevens of RedState to announce that the right wing was finally coming together nearly unanimously against net neutrality. As Big Government describes it:

[T]he Right, as a virtually unified whole, has turned a page in the debate over a dynamic Internet, and now is staunchly and almost uniformly opposed to what some critics call “a government takeover of the Internet.”

Non-Controversial and Bi-Partisan

It wasn’t long ago that net neutrality was a non-controversial position with bipartisan advocates and the only opposition coming from the entrenched interests of AT&T and other broadband providers. The reason for the consensus was obvious: The success story of the internet in creating a libertarian near-utopia was the product of government engineers and forceful regulators — and net neutrality was one of the core principles built into the internet that allowed its remarkable, decentralized success and its wide-open field of competition. It was net neutrality that allowed Yahoo! to come from nowhere and become a success; and Google; and Flickr; and Facebook; and virtually every other web success. Net neutrality meant that Google could compete head-to-head with Yahoo! — and that the only thing that mattered was the quality of its product instead of the degree it could pay off internet service providers to speed up its connection.

It was government action to mandate an early form network neutrality that allowed the internet itself to be created and it was government engineers who designed these initial networks to be content-neutral. Beginning in the late 1960s, regulatory agencies forced AT&T to become a more neutral network (to allow non-AT&T products to connect to its phone lines, to allow other firms to lease its phone lines). Until that point, AT&T had been blocking “the emergence of competing data-communications companies” that eventually played a role in the creation of the internet.

AT&T and the “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet”

However, given AT&T’s history, this bipartisan consensus seemed unlikely to last. The right wing’s movement turn against net neutrality can be counted as evidence of the corruption of our political process. And it’s not the first time. As I documented previously, AT&T has always sought favorable regulations to allow it to take advantage of its customers — and it has a history of funding astroturf organizations and buying off “influential people” in political movements in order to push its agenda. Former top AT&T executive Dick Martin confirmed that Grover Norquist was one of those individuals AT&T went to in the 1980s.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the opposition to net neutrality began to be generated — as John McCain and other Republicans reversed their positions as they received large inflows of money from various broadband companies opposing net neutrality. The meme began to circulate on the right wing that net neutrality was a version of the Fairness Doctrine of the 1960s which mandated radio programs give time to opposing views when they spoke on controversial subjects. This description of net neutrality made no sense — except — as I wrote at the time as a “propaganda campaign … directed [not] to the public at large, but at conservative activists.  The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling.  But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners.”  As I had written earlier:

By equating the Fairness Doctrine with net neutrality, [they are] attempting to polarize the public away from a consensus in favor of net neutrality into two competing camps.

The Right’s Mistake

This most recent letter from Norquist, Schlafly, and other conservatives is interesting though — more than just as a representation of the epistemic closure of the right as it deludes itself into thinking net neutrality is a “government takeover of the internet” and a “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet” because believing and supporting each of these things means more money for right-wing causes. What’s most interesting to me is the political mistake they made — quite possibly the price they paid to get so many christianist activists to sign off on it — and the only flaw I have noticed in this multi-year lobbying campaign. They came out in favor of censorship of the internet:

Net neutrality regulations also call into question how obscenity and other objectionable content on the Internet is treated. Let’s be clear, all content is not equal and does not deserve equal treatment, but net neutrality prohibits broadband service providers from prioritizing the content consumers want and preventing peddlers of child pornography from having unblocked access to every home Internet connection. It is critically important for parents and families to continue to have access to the tools necessary to keep unwanted content out of the home.

All rather uninteresting pablum that doesn’t sound objectionable to the average reader. However, it suggests a weakness in the anti-net neutrality coalition — as these more christianist members will undoubtedly begin to paint this as a matter of  protecting our children through censorship. “All content is not equal,” they say. “We need the internet to protect family values.”

Net neutrality isn’t just what makes the internet a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity; net neutrality is the opposite of censorship — it not only protects my right to blog and be heard on controversial issues, but that good old American past-time of porn-watching. It’s opponents want to block access to the parts of the internet that conflict with their family’s values.

As I had some trouble finding the full letter, I’m enclosing it below (with my source as RedState and the Institute on Religion and Public Policy [pdf]):


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