Blogging as Lobbying*

Remember how you'd cringe when Greg on The Brady Bunch would talk about a "groovy chick?" I have a feeling a lot of people will have flashbacks like that if they delve into the "Net Neutrality" debate. Because both sides are supplementing the usual battery of PR and lobbying tactics with blogging! Cool, daddio!

First, and most painfully, we get this soporific blog entry attributed to former Clinton spokesman and now Washington communications consultant Mike McCurry and attorney Chris Wolf, who run the telecommunication industry-backed "Hands off the Internet":

We need the freedom to figure out the answers to numerous questions: Who will pay for the pipes that will deliver the next generation Internet? What is the best way to ensure packets of information get across the Internet in the most efficient manner possible? How will traffic be managed when 100 million movies are being downloaded at any given moment?

These are complex questions, and over the coming months, we will do our level best to explain not just why the Save The Internet crowd is wrong, but where their online supporters have their wires (or these days, their wireless) crossed. And that’s why we’ve set up shop here in the blogosphere.

We’ll drop in from time to time, but for now we’ll turn this over to the Hands Off the Internet team, who will keep this blog updated and alive, hopefully even lively.

I'm not holding my breath. In "About Us," they describe those krazy "Hands off the Internet" kids as "a nationwide coalition of Internet users united together in the belief that the Net's phenomenal growth over the past decade stems from the ability of entrepreneurs to expand consumer choices and opportunities without worrying about government regulation."

In other words, this is a coalition of executives at ISPs who need to maintain high shareholder value, and are bored with the money they're already making from all of us who pay them for high-speed access.

Corporations are about growth. Shareholders don't want to be told, "The cable modem/DSL market is nearly saturated and we're going to be fighting an expensive fight simply to retain the customers we've got." For the stock price to rise, the ISPs need to charge more, and apparently figure they should have the unfettered ability to offer new services to justify premium prices. Content providers are free to create content that opens up new streams of advertiser or subscriber revenue — why not the ISPs?

This ISP hunger makes the content providers — big players like Google and Microsoft, but also entrepreneurial netizens who have faith that the next killer app is a gleam in their eye — nervous.

The ISPs control the pipes. What if they decide they want to make money off of searches, or user-generated wacky videos? Couldn't an ISP somehow disfavor Google or YouTube in favor of similar providers they control? What if you had a great new idea? Doesn't this give ISPs leverage to extract payment or even co-ownership in return for access to their customers?

Hence, "Save the Internet." Actually the net neutrality advocates are somewhat less centrally-directed, I think because a constituency exists that is motivated by actual beliefs, not just corporate prompting. Some have started their own activist sites, but "Save the Internet" seems to be where the big money is being directed. But, unlike "Hands…", "Save the Internet's" blogroll includes lots and lots of real bloggers, from bigfeet like Instapundit and Atrios, to dozens of obscure local bloggers, to "Charmed" star Alyssa Milano.

Of course, they've got a blog, too — one that basically repurposes the press releases posted in the press section. Blog entries announce Moby's support, the Christian Coalition's support, an endorsement from the San Jose Mercury News, and lots of long statements by someone called "tkarr" who does not otherwise identify himself. (Presumably, it's Timothy Karr, a Net activist who runs Free Press, but his name never appears anywhere on the "Save…" site.)

Here's how a recent "tkarr" post begins:

The telco cartel wants to gut the Internet and portion it off to the companies that pay their broadband tolls. Companies like AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth seek to get rid of Net Neutrality so they can muscle aside the real online revolutionaries — the small-guy innovators who historically have made the Internet a beacon for democracy, economic growth and new ideas.

In the words of Internet architect Vint Cerf, the Internet is “innovation without permission.” That is the genius of the network that has proven to be a wonderland for new entrepreneurs and ideas, with all the intelligence residing with the end users and not those who control the pipes.

Now, large phone companies like AT&T have unleashed a million-dollar-a-week spending spree to influence Washington decision-makers, pass telco-friendly regulations and change the Internet forever. They want to control online content by placing gateways on the on-ramps and exits to the information superhighway. This is why people on the right and left have joined with every major consumer group, Internet rights advocacy and public interest organization to fight AT&T and their lobbyists.

I mean…it's mostly not a blog. A good blog for "Save the Internet" might be something actually written by a lobbyist. A diary that documents the political warfare as it happens, rather than a compendium of talking points and press releases. Their frontline PR person could contribute to it, too, with accounts (even transcripts) of their discussions with the press.

Don't just lecture us, engage us. The net community is more than just a constituency that will write e-mails and sign petitions. They want a conversation.

I'd give the same advice to the "Hands off the Internet" folks. Right now, they look like a classic AstroTurf campaign, dressed in netizen drag. They are campaigning in exactly the manner you'd expect from a "telco cartel." But lots of people would enjoy reading a blog written by a personable guy like Mike McCurry. He shouldn't hand it off to the "team" (i.e. the underpaid, anonymous flacks responsible for regurgitating the talking points). Write the darn thing yourself!

For a reasonably balanced and comprehensive summary of this issue, I can recommend this piece on Wikipedia. I'm pondering where I stand. I know which side I'm leaning toward, but I want to read more.

My one request to both sides: No blogs from Harry and Louise. Please?

*(Post edited and expanded 5/24, 8 a.m.)

(UPDATE:  The Wall Street Journal posts a debate between McCurry and Craig Newmark that is well worth reading.  What's interesting is both sides claim they are only working to preserve the status quo.  They can't both be right.)    

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