One of the key issues at stake in the first two years of Obama's presidency is regulation of what the government calls "open Internet principles," commonly referred to as network neutrality. AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have stirred up controversy by blocking political information or competing services over their networks, as I mentioned in my broadband stimulus article this week. So the Federal Communications Commission wants to make clear rules that prohibit Internet Service Providers from discriminating based on the content Americans choose to send and receive.
Back in October, Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick and 71 other Democrats sent a letter to Obama's new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowksi, opposing net neutrality rules. The letter read, in part:
"As the FCC embarks on its much anticipated rulemaking addressing the subject of net neutrality, we therefore urge the Commission to carefully consider the full range of potential consequences that government action may have on network investment ... We remain suspicious of conclusions based on slogans rather than substance and of policies that restrict and inhibit the very innovation and growth that we all seek to achieve."
Public interest advocates jumped all over the letter-writers, and some critics even began calling them "Blue Bell" Democrats, suggesting they are beholden to the telecommunications giants descendant from Ma Bell.
“In parroting the misinformation put forward by the big telecom companies, The Blue Bell Caucus only condemns their constituents to inferior service and limited opportunities to succeed in an Internet-based economy,” wrote Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn.
After joining Idaho Republicans in opposing the Recovery Act, it was a pleasant surprise to hear so many Idaho broadband stimulus applicants champion the efforts of Minnick's office, particularly of staffer Marie Hattaway, in keeping them informed and even helping them apply. (See Mapping Out the Jedi Mind Trick for more on Idaho applicants.)
Colorado Rep. Jared Polis was one of the other 71 Dems, but he quickly posted to Daily Kos that nothing in the letter was against net neutrality. BW sent a follow-up email to John Foster, Minnick's senior adviser, asking for clarification on Minnick's net neutrality position and the impact of telecom lobbyists in DC. Here is what Foster had to say:
"Walt signed on for some specific reasons, foremost among them a desire to make sure that we don’t inadvertently limit the ability of small, regional telecoms (and in some cases, we’re talking service to just a couple hundred people) from expanding what they do to include broadband internet service.
Walt of course believes in a free and open Internet. But as the letter makes clear, you have to keep all segments of private enterprise in mind as you consider net neutrality — not just the Verizons and other Baby Bells, but also the guy in Grangeville or Kooskia who wants to be able to manage the flow of bandwidth for the satellite services he’s thinking of setting up. I think that’s part of what Polis was trying to say.
And as to the lobbyists, I’m not really sure. Lord knows we don’t see them in Idaho, where Walt spends most of his time. And his committee assignments mean he doesn’t see telecom folks that often. So I can’t really say."