October 30, 2009

Big Tobacco and the Fight Against Net Neutrality: Smoke in the "Heartland"

Greetings. Several years ago, at an Internet issues-related conference, I was pulled aside by an attendee who identified himself as being involved in high level lobbying "inside the Beltway" (Washington D.C. area). He offered me some free advice. In essence it was this:

"You guys are babes in the woods when it comes to the ways of Washington. If you don't learn how to play the game the way the big boys do, you're all going to be plowed under when it comes to the Internet issues that you care about."

He was right of course. Pro-Net-Neutrality Google has been around just more than a decade, but anti-Neutrality telephone companies have been playing the Washington game for a good century of so. And technologists (including myself) often tend to view issues in logical terms. After all, our stock in trade -- literally -- usually depends on logic. So we're not inherently prepared when opposing forces attack with an emotional kick to the groin.

This has all taken on renewed meaning in light of the recent attempts by some elements of the anti-Net Neutrality camp to portray Net Neutrality as some sort of "communist" plot and those persons and organizations who advocate Net Neutrality as Marxist inspired. This is red-baiting in the finest tradition of "Tricky" Dick Nixon, and the rise again of this despicable technique almost a full decade into the 21st century seems both remarkable and nauseating.

But perhaps it's not really surprising, especially in an age of Big Lie politics, particularly among some elements of the Far Right. "Health reform will create death panels!" "Obama wasn't born in the U.S.!" Now add to these false memes, created purposely to sucker in the right-wing political faithful, the new Big Lie: "Net Neutrality is a dangerous government takeover of the Internet and a communist plot by Marxist sympathizers!"

It was this latter nonsense that I was reacting to with my (apparently controversial) video satire that I released a couple of days ago: Is Net Neutrality a Communist Plot? ("Declassified DoD Film").

But where are the accusations of communism and Marxist activities coming from in the first place? We know that "Mad Man" Glenn Beck (as Time called him) has picked up the refrain. But where did it all get started?

One source appears to be the "free market solutions" organization known as "The Heartland Institute." A recent Heartland paper by James G. Lakely, discussing Net Neutrality and the free software movement seems representative.

The string "communist" appears in the paper no less than twelve times. Excerpts from that paper have appeared on various religious and right wing-oriented political sites around the Web.

It turns out that The Heartland Institute has been around for about 25 years, but only recently really aimed its guns at Internet issues. The write-up of the company at SourceWatch makes for fascinating reading.

According to SourceWatch, Heartland reportedly opposes the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming, promotes privatization of public services and the deregulation of health care insurance, and perhaps most interestingly, has also apparently been heavily intertwined with the tobacco industry in various ways, including funding from Philip Morris for a number of years at least (more recently, Heartland's corporate funding has been very secretive and opaque).

I'm certainly not saying that Heartland is doing anything illegal. They're welcome to their opinions, and politics isn't for lightweights.

But I am saying that the attitude of some persons in the pro-Net-Neutrality camp -- that logic and reasoning alone will convince regulators, courts, and legislators of the righteousness of Net Neutrality -- is extremely naive.

To use a dreaded Star Wars analogy, such attitudes are like pulling up in a tiny ship between the Death Star and a target planet, and transmitting "Can't we all just get along?"

The battle for Net Neutrality has now entered the realm of hardball politics at the most extreme levels. It's time to fish or cut bait. Either we play the game the way the Big Boys do, or we'll just be spinning our wheels with endless verbiage that in the end will probably amount to little or nothing.

If we truly care about the future of the Internet and the need for Net Neutrality, playtime is over. The war truly starts now.


Posted by Lauren at October 30, 2009 08:17 PM | Permalink
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