Rep. Polis and Net neutrality: A tale of three letters

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Boulder Democrat who made millions as an Internet entrepreneur, drafted a letter (pdf) and blogged at the Huffington Post Monday in favor of network neutrality. That makes sense. In addition to owing his fortune to the Internet, Polis has been a fan and beneficiary of the progressive “netroots” community throughout his brief but burgeoning political career. So of course he would support legislation designed to ensure the internet remains a level playing field and that it does not “break apart into various pay-to-play private networks,” as he put it at his blog, where major telecom companies would decide what content to deliver to your screen by in part deciding how fast and smooth it should get there.

So why then did Polis earlier this week join with a curious list of 71 other lawmakers in signing a letter likely authored by AT&T and Comcast (pdf) and meant to send a clear message to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski that the major telecommunication companies were not going to let Congress pass net neutrality legislation without a fight. In other words, some executive somewhere was waving scalps at the FCC, and Jared Polis’s scalp — an identifiably wispy collection of short hairs — was one of them. Before he stole it back!

Why is the list of lawmaker names curious? Because a lot of them are from Texas and Pennsylvania, headquarter states for AT&T and Comcast, which suggests those are the companies behind Thursday’s anti-net neutrality letter to Genachowski at the FCC. Also, few if any of the lawmakers who signed the letter appear to be members of the influential committees set to wrestle with the net neutrality legislation– the commerce committee and its subcommittee on communications, technology and the internet. What would be their stake in the issue or their expertise? (Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, incidentally, is a member of both committee and subcommittee and she did not sign the letter. Colorado delegation members Polis and Ed Perlmutter both signed it.) *

Were the signers pressured? Or were they confused by the euphemistic wording of the letter? Interview responses to come.

Below is a draft letter sent out informally Monday by the Media and Democracy Coalition in response to the letter to Genachowski signed by the Democrats Thursday. The final version is available here and includes the signatures of a long list of progressive media and rights organizations. The Coalition sent its letter to supporters who were also constituents in the districts represented by the lawmakers who signed the anti-net neutrality letter.

October 19, 2009

Dear Congresswoman/man XXX:

We are writing to express our disappointment in your October 15, 2009 letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski raising concern over network neutrality rules, as well as urging restraint in the development of national broadband policy. We hope you will consider issuing a public statement in support of strong network non-discrimination rules, as well as federal policy that will improve the quality and availability of broadband in the U.S.

As we understand it, the underlying argument in your letter is that the do-nothing approach of the previous Administration and FCC is what has led to the growth in broadband adoption over the past decade. Please consider evidence to the contrary: the U.S. is far behind other nations when it comes to broadband adoption, ranking 15th in the world according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. Entire rural and Native American communities do not have access to any high-speed broadband providers at any price, and most other communities lack meaningful competition in the broadband market. In 2009, only 46% of African Americans had broadband at home, and only 35% of households with incomes $20,000 and under had access, compared to the national average of 63% of adult Americans.[1] If you believe this is unacceptable, as we do, we hope you will see a role for federal policy in speeding the deployment and adoption of high quality, affordable broadband.

Your letter goes on to imply that network neutrality rules may dissuade Internet Service Providers from upgrading or deploying high-speed networks. This argument is fundamentally backwards; rather than meeting consumer demand for more bandwidth by deploying high-capacity networks, cable and phone companies want to restrict usage and charge consumers more to access certain content. Put another way, ISPs want to “manage” Internet traffic in a way that forces U.S. consumers to live with networks that fail to meet our growing needs. We would rather see U.S. broadband providers upgrade their networks so there would be no need to throttle bandwidth users in a discriminatory fashion.

Furthermore, it should be of great concern to Congress and the FCC that cable and phone companies increasingly own both the infrastructure and content delivered over broadband. Without federal rules that keep the Internet an even playing field, there is no question ISPs will look for every opportunity to promote content they have a financial stake in above that of potential competitors. For comparison, it would be unfathomable to allow the U.S. Postal Service to deliver advertisements for FedEx slower than its own promotional mailings. We should not allow cable and phone companies to get in the way of free speech or commerce in the same way.

The Internet we know today treats all content equally, which is what has led to the creation of innovative applications and web-based businesses that have revolutionized the way consumers communicate, engage in commerce and participate in civic society. Allowing cable and phone companies to change the rules on U.S. Internet users could have a chilling effect on the information economy.

If it was not your intention to add your name to a letter that sends a message in opposition to pro-consumer network neutrality rules and public interest broadband policy, we hope you will clarify your position in another public statement.

Sincerely,

* TCI is continuing to compare the lists of lawmakers who signed the letter to the FCC with the members of the relevant Congressional committees and is looking out for any other relevant information.

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