Network neutrality, telecom company cash and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.)

Is the Internet about to change from a free-spirited marketplace of "may the best Web site win" to a top-down, corporate-controlled glorified cable package? A diverse coalition of bloggers, academics, citizens groups and non-profit organizations think we're in danger of just that. The Save the Internet coalition (SourceWatch profile) warns about the loss of "network neutrality":

Congress is pushing a law that would abandon the Internet's First Amendment -- a principle called Network Neutrality that prevents companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from deciding which Web sites work best for you -- based on what site pays them the most. Your local library shouldn’t have to outbid Barnes & Noble for the right to have its Web site open quickly on your computer.

Net Neutrality allows everyone to compete on a level playing field and is the reason that the Internet is a force for economic innovation, civic participation and free speech. If the public doesn't speak up now, Congress will cave to a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign by telephone and cable companies that want to decide what you do, where you go, and what you watch online.

Theoretically, this means that if Comcast or TimeWarner don't like their SourceWatch pages, they could block their Internet customers from viewing them. This is very scary stuff for those of us who feel the Internet has become one of the great equalizers of politics by allowing equal access to the points of view of the smallest citizens group and the biggest industry-funded front group.

Like any other fight in Washington where profits are at stake, the big guns are on the prowl -- several of the large telecom companies that operate networks have come down to cash in their chits with the politicians whose campaigns they fund. As the new Congresspedia article on Network neutrality legislation documents:

Against network neutrality are network operators such as AT&T (formerly SBC and AT&T), Comcast, TimeWarner and Verizon. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, AT&T, TimeWarner and Verizon are the 22nd, 27th and 32nd top campaign contributors, respectively, since 1989.

Of the four representatives sponsoring the anti-network neutrality legislation, three are in the top 20 recipients of telecom company campaign cash since 2005 (from the Congresspedia article):

Reps. Barton, Pickering and Upton are the 14th, 6th and 17th top recipients, respectively, of campaign contributions from the telecom industry (which includes most of the high-profile network neutrality opponents) since 2005.

The fourth, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), has a $1 million conflict-of-interest problem, as my colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation blogs have been documenting:

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), a co-sponsor of the legislation sought by the phone companies, is the founder of a Chicago-based community center that received a $1 million grant from SBC/AT&T between 2001 and 2004. (SBC acquired AT&T in 2005 and took its name.)... According to the Center for Responsive Politics, SBC is Rush’s fourth-biggest campaign contributor since he was first elected to Congress in 1992, with over $39,000 in contributions to his campaigns. AT&T is listed as his second-top donor in the current election cycle, with $7,500.

This may be business as usual in Washington, but we at Congresspedia and the Sunlight Foundation are here to drag it out of the backrooms and into the, well, sunlight. Check out the Congresspedia article on network neutrality legislation for information on how members of Congress voted and where the legislative fight stands now. Also, thanks to the contributions of User:JJCPA and the Sunlight bloggers, you can get the full lowdown on Bobby Rush's telecom campaign contributions on his Congresspedia profile. You can also follow the Sunlight blogging on network neutrality and Rush.