Archive for June 20th, 2006

The term “net neutrality” has a variety of specific meanings, but generally refers to the idea that the service providers sending information over the Internet cannot discriminate what they send, and how fast they send it, based on content.

In the current political context, the term refers to an amendment proposed by Rep. Edward J. Markey to a House telecommunications bill that regulates Internet phone (Voice Over IP, or “VoIP”) and broadband suppliers. Markey’s amendment would have ensured that “Broadband network owners should not be able to determine who can and who cannot offer services over broadband networks or over the Internet.”

The telecomms want to be able to charge for “expedited” service. That is, they want to allow some websites a faster loading rate over their networks. (The network providers can distinguish the type of information that flows through their networks, and they can block or expedite information.) From the WaPo:

William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.

The problem?

Several big technology firms and public interest groups say that approach would enshrine Internet access providers as online toll booths, favoring certain content and shutting out small companies trying to compete with their offerings."Prioritization is just another word for degrading your competitor," said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group. "If we want to ruin the Internet, we'll turn it into a cable TV system" that carries programming from only those who pay the cable operators for transmission.

[snip]

Consumer groups wonder, for example, how any Web start-up that might want to challenge an incumbent could expect to outspend it to get top or even equal performance over a network charging for the privilege.

Another argument against Net Neutrality is that it discriminates against information passed on the Internet that is more “valuable.” Medical records, for example, under “pure” Net Neutrality, are weighed equally with porn or blogs and travel the network at the same speed. However, Markey’s amendment allowed for valuing certain types of information over others. Network operators could prioritize medical records over porn or blogs, but they couldn’t discriminate among hospitals or medical networks.

In essence, network providers want to “push” content at the consumers, the same way newspapers and television push content at consumers. In this model, consumers can choose only among a pre-screened subset of programs or articles. In the Internet, this translates into the network provider choosing for you a subset of websites you can effectively and quickly download and view.

In a recent debate (recap and partial transcript here) between a Net Neutrality proponent – Amazon’s Paul Misener – and an opponent – former Clinton staffer and telecomm “sellout” Mike McCurry – the philosophical ideas and real-world market effects were bandied about, and, in my opinion, made it clear which side to favor. You’ll recognize most of his arguments – I’ve already included them in this post, but Misener is pretty durn elegant.

Misener:

Tiered pricing for access is something we support. Amazon pays a lot more than ‘Joe’s-Internet-retail.com’ simply because we use more capacity… That makes perfect sense to us. You pay for that capacity. But the important component here is that once the consumer has paid for his or her capacity at their home they ought to be able to use that capacity however they want.There’s a fundamental misconception here that somehow delivery of video over the Internet is just like it is over cable TV, over satellite, over broadcast or, frankly, like delivery of content through newspapers or magazines. Those models have always been about ‘push.’ Somebody decides — who either owns the pipe or owns the newspaper — what content goes in their and pushes it out to consumers and they can choose to read it or not.

That’s not the way the Internet works. The Internet does not have all this content in there unless the user asks for it. When you hit return on your browser it actually sends out a ‘get command’ to the server; it’s a very illustrative name for a command in computer code. It actually says ‘get’– that means now send me the file. That file never gets into the pipes owned by the network operators that Mike represents unless their customer who’s paid for that access asks for it. So we’re not clogging their pipes at all. We’re only providing the content that we hope our joint customers want to see.

When we get to the point of discrimination, there’s also this misnomer when we talk about things like wanting to prioritize videos so things don’t get clogged… We don’t want that either. We don’t think that that’s wrong for the network operators to be able to prioritize certain types of content. So if they want to prioritize telemedicine over data files that makes perfect sense. Let them do it. We’re not opposed to that. The [Net Neutrality] rules that we propose would not do that. Our concern is discriminating among the source or ownership of that content. So if the network operators are put in a position of favoring the Mayo Clinic over Johns Hopkins, that’s a problem. That’s the discrimination. That’s when the network operators become the HMO.

[snip]

If you want to discriminate and favor telemedicine offer data files, that’s fine. But don’t pick the Mayo Clinic over Johns Hopkins. That’s pretty easy. And a complaint system where Johns Hopkins can go to the Commission and say Mayo Clinic was given a better deal than we. That makes perfect sense.

I’d argue that what the telecomms are asking to do would hurt the free market by crippling innovation. In a sense, telecomms are asking for the power to regulate the Internet. I’m not against regulation in general – I think, for example, it should be illegal to disseminate child porn over the Internet – but I don’t think giant corporations should have to power to regulate.

One of the great things about the Internet – besides its unfettered freedom – is that it’s about as close to a meritocracy as you get in our society. The best content wins the most clicks.

The net providers want to take that meritocracy away and replace it with a plutocracy – an Internet where those with the most money win the most clicks. We saw what happened with radio when money took over. You see it in television too. Homogenous pap meant to sell but not offend, meant to entertain but not challenge.

Later on I’ll give you a scorecard for Montana candidates on who supports Net Neutrality and who’s against it. Right now I know Monica Lindeen favors it, and Denny Rehberg prefers the telecomms.

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Links…

A couple of wing-dingers from Matt Singer: Burns & Coobs taxes, and more of Burns’ weird rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Idaho Republicans begin to move away from the First Congressional District’s noxious Bill Sali.

New church leader says homosexuality isn’t a sin. The fundies erupt.

Speaking of gays, the Pentagon thinks they’re mentally ill. That’s so 1950s.

How do homosexual animals evolve? “…homosexual coupling is more the norm than the aberration when it comes to most animals…”

The WaPo review of Ron Suskind’s “Shadow War,” in which we learn that (a) torture doesn’t work and (b) was done to bolster Dinky’s credibility. And the NYTimes review of the same, in which we learn that Bush mishandled the “war on terror” and was determined to go to war with Iraq at all costs.

Cheney on Iraq: now and then.

The American Prospect on US – Iran relations since 9/11. Apparently there was a chance of detente that Bush f*cked up. Surprise!

Rovian rumors: Karl got off in exchange for linking the Plame scandal to Cheney?

Digby explores the Washington press corps’ inexplicable man crush on the President.

The New York Review of Books on Bush’s power grab.

The Rock Creek subdivision to proceed.

I know I criticized the Gazette for preferring harmless, noncontroversial letters, but this is ridiculous! Can’t the paper at least print letters with an argument? If I write a letter that says “Denny Rehberg is a d*ck,” do you think they’ll print it?

Saved by the Bell: where are they now?

extortion:

1. The act or an instance of extorting.
2. Illegal use of one’s official position or powers to obtain property, funds, or patronage.
3. An excessive or exorbitant charge.
4. Something extorted.

Carter country lies at the very extreme southeast corner of Montana, wedged between South Dakota and Wyoming, a remote area once connected to the county seat of Ekalaka by a 23-mile gravel road.

In 2003, they hired a Washington DC lobbyist to pry from the federal government appropriations to pay to have the road paved. It worked. Carter county received $8 million in 2003 and another $9.6 million last year.

That’s how the system works. Lobbyists get the work done, “reaping far more in federal dollars than local governments spend on lobbying.” Simple, right? Lobbyists do good work. Right? Not so fast…

…Alex Knott, political editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C.-based nonprofit group…characteriz[es] the industry as a network of money, influence and power. Often, Knott said, lobbyists donate money to the lawmakers they’re lobbying. Their corporate clients do the same, and in many cases the lobbyists are former lawmakers or staffers of former lawmakers making profitable use of their experience in public service.

And, as a recent Roll Call story on lobbyists reports (subscription req’d), trading campaign donations for earmarks is illegal. And not necessary. Billings mayor Ron Tussing:

If you ask Ron Tussing, who became mayor of Billings, Mont., six months ago, he’ll tell you that paying for a Washington, D.C., appropriations lobbyist is a waste of taxpayer cash. City officials have plenty of contacts in the state’s Congressional delegation, he said, to guide them through the federal budget process.

“I disagree with the way the city’s handled their appropriation requests, which is one of the things I talked about during my campaign,” Tussing said. “I’m on a first-name basis with our three Congressional delegates, so there’s no reason we can’t do that stuff ourselves.”

Do you think Montana’s Congressional delegation is involved in pay-for-earmarks? Hm. Again, the Gazette:

The money flows both ways. Lobbyists give tens of millions of dollars nationwide each year to the campaign coffers of lawmakers, Knott said. In Montana, lobbyists hired by government entities have given more than $120,000 to the campaign funds of Montana’s three-man congressional delegation, with most going to Republicans. The D.C. lobbyist for the city of Billings, Van Scoyoc and Associates, which also represents Montana State University, is ranked by the Center for Responsive Politics as the 13th-biggest donor to Republican Sen. Conrad Burns between 1999 and 2004.

Back to Carter county. The lobbyist hired by the Carter county commissioners was Bill Kevin Ring, a lobbyist who has taken money from Montana state government in the past. Ring, according to the Gazette piece, has some shady history:

The Montanans who have hired Ring all praised his work, saying the lobbyist was influential in helping them secure the first major federal funding they ever received. But Ring’s lobbying has come under scrutiny in the past. As a onetime associate of Abramoff, Ring is in the middle of an expanding lobbying scandal. Ring and former Burns staffer Shawn Vassell, another Abramoff associate, invoked their right not to incriminate themselves when questioned this summer about what they did and what they got paid when working for Abramoff.

At a hearing in June of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Ring refused to tell Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., what, if anything, he did to earn $125,000 paid by the Sandia Pueblo tribe in New Mexico. The tribe gave the money to Abramoff’s lobbying partner, Michael Scanlon. Scanlon, in turn, gave the money to a consulting firm registered to Ring’s Maryland home address.

“In fact, you didn’t provide any services (to the tribe) according to the information that we have,” McCain said at the hearing. Ring did not respond.

And the Washington Post on Bill Kevin Ring.

(And you wonder why McCain isn’t stumping in Montana for either of the state’s Republican candidates for federal seats?)

And just how did Carter county come to hire Ring? The Gazette:

Records show that Ring, Carter County’s lobbyist, donated $2,000 to Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., in 2002 and 2003 and $1,000 to Burns. He gave no money to Baucus.It was Rehberg who advised the Carter County Commission to hire Ring.

And more d*mning info:

Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg received a $1,000 campaign donation from Jack Abramoff’s lobbying associate in 2003 on the same day the lobbying firm inked a deal with Carter County at Rehberg’s recommendation.

[snip]

The same day, the campaign reported cashing a second $1,000 check from Greenberg Traurig’s political action committee. Records show the lobbying firm wrote the check in early February, but Rehberg didn’t cash it until the end of March.

To add injury to insult, it would appear that Ring’s involvement in the federal appropriations for Carter county was unnecessary and nonexistent. Gazette:

It’s unclear exactly what role Ring played in the Carter County road project, especially in the latest go-round of highway spending when Montana’s delegation was in a particularly good spot to secure federal highway dollars.Rehberg set aside about $12 million for the project in the version of the bill that left the House, [chief of staff Erik] Iverson said, but he would have done that with or without a lobbyist’s involvement.

Baucus was one of four lawmakers who wrote the final bill, where Carter County’s $12 million got whittled down to $9.6 million….Ring never spoke to Baucus.

During the recent House debate, Monica Lindeen brought up the Carter County “affair” in a direct question to Rehberg. The reply:

Rep. Rehberg said the government had promised to pave that highway “since asphalt was invented, practically,” and that he gave Carter County commissioners three names to choose from. “Would I do it again? No. Why? Because it was misinterpreted and used as political fodder,” he said, clearly irritated.

Rehberg also claimed that the Carter county commissioners already had the money set aside to help get the appropriations for their road project. He also said that suggesting a lobbyist to Carter county was “thinking outside the box.”

Roll Call:

After all, [an anonymous] lobbyist said, Abramoff’s scheme of charging clients millions of dollars to do grass-roots work and maintaining a secret partnership with Michael Scanlon is not something most lobbyists do. But raising money for Members and then asking them for appropriations is routine.

“If you have clients who want earmarks, get earmarks and then contribute to the Congressman — that’s everybody,” this lobbyist said.

(Apparently the only “out of the box” thinking Rehberg is doing is in coming up with answers to allegations of ethical wrong-doing in the Carter county affair.)

According to the Roll Call report, cash-for-earmarking is currently under investigation:

At the same time, the practice of earmarking specific pots of federal cash has come under investigation by the Justice Department, first in the scandal involving former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and more recently a probe of the appropriations-focused firm Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White. That firm, which has close ties to House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), recently split in two because of the ongoing scandal.

So the feds are going to crack down on the latest type of Republican lobbying scandal. (Maybe someone needs to tip them off to this story.)

Some may point to the Carter county officials who seem content with the Faustian bargain they made: they ponied up $100K to get a dozen million dollars in federal aid. Who cares if their Congressional Representative gets a little kick-back from the cash?

But that’s not how the system should work. In effect, Carter county officials gave Denny Rehberg $2K (the money given to Rehberg by lobbyist Bill Kevin Ring) to do his job. If you feel like that’s the way the world works, and there’s nothing we can do about it, and hey! At least pushing your cash around guarantees results! Then by all means, support Denny Rehberg.

But if you don’t have $100K at your disposal to effect change in the areas you care about, then you’re like me. Sh*t outta luck. Government shouldn’t be a paid commodity. Legislation shouldn’t be drafted by the highest bidder. That’s not how the system is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be about ideas — good ideas – it’s supposed to be about democracy.

And serving as a Congressional representative is supposed to be a service, and not the kind of service you pay for to get a little action in a back alley. A Congressional representative is supposed to work in the interests of his constituency, his state, and the voters, not the lobbyists with the biggest billfolds.

Let’s make a clean sweep of Montana’s carpetbaggers.




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