Net Neutrality: A Political Primer

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Net Neutrality -- defined as the principle that users should control what they can access on the net -- or, from the supply side of things, that Internet service providers shouldn't be able to block content from some users or create a tiered service model. Today, the Federal Communications Commission started the long rule-making process by a unanimous vote.

It's a hot issue in tech -- one that could define the future of the net -- but it's also become a terribly important political issue. Here's why.

One: there's a split in the Democratic coalition, featuring, in general, progressive/tech activists on one side and Blue Dog Dems and civil rights groups on the other. Netroots progressives had three main issues in 2008: Iraq, FISA, and net neutrality.

Two: the divisions have a created a split among Democratic elected officials. Seventy-two House Dems signed a letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to slow down its pro-neutrality activities.

Three: it's a proxy for a fight over the economy. Why did all the major carriers turn down stimulus money that had net neutrality provisions? (How do you think Rahm Emanuel felt about stimulus money getting turned down?) Contrast this to the acceptance of TARP money and executive pay.  

Four: a healthy chunk of the economy is at stake. Threatens Verizon:

"On the larger scale, America's telecom companies invest more in networks every year than the Federal government invests in transportation.  In fact, if you exclude real estate, investment in information, communications and technology accounted for an astonishing 43 percent of all capital investment in the U.S. last year.  Since the start of the recession, these investment levels have held up better than almost any other sector of the economy - down just 2.5 percent through the second quarter of '09, as compared with a drop of more than 20 percent in private investment as a whole."

AT&T and other groups are stepping up efforts to reframe the issue as one of regulation -- that net neutrality is a solution searching for a real problem, and that costs for Internet users are bound to rise.

Five: it involves an Obama campaign promise, specifically to promote the issue through the FCC.

Six: Cue Glenn Beck, and allegations of socialism and Marxism.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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