Franken bullish on net neutrality

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Saying it protects the free market, U.S. Sen. Al Franken sounded optimistic in a speech today about the chances for preserving net neutrality by law. “For the first time, it looks like we might actually do this,” Franken told the Future of Music Coalition in Washington, D.C.

In his speech (pdf), Franken laid out the problem this way:

Right now, a blog loads just as quickly as a corporate webpage. … But recently, business executives from top ISPs have declared their interest in offering, quote, “prioritized” Internet service to companies who can pay for it. … That would transform the Internet from a free, open, and competitive playing field into a “pay-for-play” arena in which citizen bloggers, nonprofits, and small businesses are simply outgunned by major media conglomerates.

The stakes are high, Franken said:

As noisy and messy as it may be, the Internet is a democracy. And because of that, it is a critical part of our democracy. But, in the absence of strong legislation prohibiting ISPs from regulating content, that may not always be the case.

Net neutrality is especially important to people in rural areas who don’t have a choice of internet service providers, Franken said, and to people with unpopular ideas – ideas that are unpopular with their ISPs, anyway:

First, you may remember that in 2007, Verizon refused to allow the pro-choice group NARAL to send text messages to its supporters – even though they had signed up to receive them. Verizon’s explanation was that it had the right to block “controversial or unsavory” messages. Like, for example, that a woman should have control of her reproductive system. …

It is a twenty-first century reiteration of one of our most important constitutional rights – the right to free speech.

And it doesn’t interfere with the free market. It protects the free market.

Franken’s confidence arises from support he sees at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the White House, Congress, and even the U.S. Supreme Court, where he probed now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the issue during her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He mentioned that today:

I asked her specifically about whether she thought that the American public has a compelling First Amendment interest in ensuring the Internet stays open and accessible. And if I could paraphrase her answer, it was “yes.”

Such is the life of a senator: only Sunday he shared a stage in Minneapolis with the president of Somalia, Sharif Sheik Ahmed, and today he’s on stage in the nation’s capital with the bassist of R.E.M., Mike Mills.

That was good for a few cracks from Franken about Mills’ little-known band: “I’ve had my eye on these guys, REM, and they’re going to take off – you just watch.”

But Franken made no mention of an R.E.M. song that Mills is said to have written, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” The song was inspired by the 1986 attack on former CBS anchorman Dan Rather in which the question in the song’s title was hurled at Rather by his assailants – one of whom allegedly suffered from the belief that TV networks were trying to control him.