Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), the prohibitive favorite to capture the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has agreed to support network-neutrality legislation introduced Friday in the Senate, triggering a strong response from a leading conservative group.
Clinton's entry into the debate fired up the American Conservative Union, which began an e-mail campaign denouncing Clinton’s political alliance with various pro-net-neutrality groups as a concerted effort by government to seize control of the Internet.
"While Hillary, MoveOn.org and their liberal allies call this legislation ‘net neutrality,’ it is nothing less than a government takeover of the Internet. If they succeed, this legislation would allow government to control Internet content and prices," the ACU said in e-mail sent Monday.
The ACU, founded in 1964, calls itself the “oldest and largest grassroots conservative lobbying organization” in the country, with more than 1 million members. It is a member of the Hands Off the Internet Coalition, which includes AT&T Inc., BellSouth Corp., Cingular Wireless and Alcatel SA.
On her Web site (clinton.senate.gov), Clinton endorsed net-neutrality legislation (S. 2817) introduced by Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). The lawmakers hope to add the bill to a major telecommunications bill (S. 2686) introduced May 1 by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), which excluded net-neutrality mandates.
Among other things, the Clinton-endorsed Senate bill would ban broadband-access providers from blocking or degrading unaffiliated Web content or applications and from prioritizing their own content but refusing to do the same for similar content that they don't own.
"I support net neutrality," Clinton said in a statement posted one day before the bill was unveiled. "The open architecture of the Internet has been the critical element that has made it the most revolutionary communications medium since the advent of the television."
Clinton’s statement avoided accusations that cable and phone companies were scheming to turn the Internet into a private toll road to boost their profits and kill the competition. Instead, she stressed the importance of maintaining an "open and nondiscriminatory" Internet.
"Each day on the Internet, views are discussed and debated in an open forum without fear of censorship or reprisal. The Internet as we know it does not discriminate among its users," she said.
Still, if the bill Clinton supports were enacted, cable and phone companies would be barred from demanding fees in exchange for quality-of-service guarantees to third parties, and consumers would have the right to purchase broadband access as a stand-alone product unbundled from any cable, telecommunications or voice-over-Internet-protocol service.
In an e-mail to supporters, the ACU indicated that the next battle in the Internet war would come Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to vote on a bill (H.R. 5417) that would ensure that net-neutrality violations could be punished under federal antitrust laws designed to curb market-power abuse.
“We must flood the offices of the House Judiciary Committee and your congressman with tens of thousands of messages from their own constituents demanding that they oppose MoveOn.org, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton’s scheme to give Big Government the right to regulate and control the Internet for the first time in history,” the ACU said.
MoveOn.org, which claims 3.3 million members, is a liberal organization started the late 1990s with the goal of blocking President Clinton’s impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate.
The ACU’s e-mail failed to disclose that the House bill’s chief sponsor is Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). Each year, the ACU grades House members’ voting records on scale of zero to 100, with 100 being a perfect score. Last year, Sensenbrenner received a 96. He has a lifetime ACU score of 88.
Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, noted that the net-neutrality debate has not been a strictly right-left conflict.
“Net neutrality should not be a partisan issue, as the Gun Owners of America and the Christian Coalition have shown. An open, innovative Internet benefits everyone -- conservatives, liberals, moderates and anyone else,” Brodsky said.
In a prepared statement in favor of a net-neutrality law, Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs raised some of the same concerns mentioned by Clinton, including the ability of political groups to communicate without interference by broadband-access providers.
"The Internet is what it is today because every site, no matter how obscure, is just as accessible to every individual as any name-brand site with a multimillion-dollar budget," Combs said.
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