Bloggers and other Internet activists made their marks in the past two presidential elections chiefly by building networks of political enthusiasts and raising money for candidates. Now, they are pushing aggressively into policymaking -- and not just over high-profile issues such as Iraq.
They are pressing candidates to back a handful of issues that are obscure to many Americans but vital to those who base their livelihoods on the Internet and track its development.
Armed with massive e-mail lists and high-speed networks, these activists are bypassing the familiar campaign tactics of door-knocking and phone-banking. They are also using their new-age technologies for an old-fashioned purpose: making politicians take note of their legislative priorities.
One of those is "net neutrality." Hardly a household term, it has no overtly partisan or ideological dimensions. Yet it is shaping up as a Democratic issue this year, largely because its most fervid advocates are liberal bloggers and other Internet activists who play a big role in the early stages of choosing a Democratic presidential nominee.
Unlike their Republican counterparts, every major Democratic presidential candidate has endorsed net neutrality. The move keeps them in good standing with powerful grass-roots groups, such as MoveOn.org, and costs them little in return -- perhaps a bit of space on campaign Web sites to promote a matter that comparatively few voters might explore.
Net neutrality is a principle that bars Internet providers, primarily phone and cable companies, from charging higher rates to Web-based firms in return for giving their content priority treatment on the pathways to consumers. Without such restrictions, proponents say, a user might find it time-consuming, or even impossible, to call up a favorite site that carriers have relegated to slower lanes for economic or even philosophical reasons.
"It's an issue that really captures the attention of one of their core constituencies, especially the bloggers and 'netroots,' " said Craig Aaron of Free Press, a group that champions net neutrality. "For candidates looking to appeal to those folks, it was important to take a stand," he said, even though "nobody was talking about it a year ago."
A veteran Democratic consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity was more blunt. Among Democratic candidates, she said, "if you're not for net neutrality, then the blogs will kick your" rear. The grass-roots groups that strongly favor it are relatively small but very noisy, she said, "and you just don't want to have to deal with that."
Opposing net neutrality are the telephone and cable companies that control the "pipes" that transport Internet content from producers to users. The companies say they need flexibility to manage Internet traffic, even if it eventually means charging higher rates for priority service.
For several years, the issue has been debated mainly in legal and telecom circles. Recent telecom mergers have raised its profile, however, as regulators considered the possible ramifications of consolidating control over the Internet's major pathways.
Net neutrality restrictions "could prevent broadband providers from offering enhanced levels of service for specialized applications such a telemedicine, or to offer their own branded or co-branded products or services," said Christopher Wolf, co-chairman of Hands Off the Internet, a group sponsored by phone and cable companies.Such arrangements, he said at a recent Federal Trade Commission workshop, "will help pay for the build-out of the next generation of Internet pipes."
Moreover, Wolf said, his industry's critics cannot cite an example in which any U.S. user has been blocked.
But some groups that rely heavily on their Web sites to share information, raise money or promote causes say they fear it's only a matter of time. They cite, for example, a 2005 comment by William L. Smith, then chief technology officer for BellSouth, which has merged with AT&T, that Internet service providers should be able to charge a firm such as Yahoo for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than Google's site.
Last spring, the debate over net neutrality barely scratched the consciousness of Congress, let alone the general public, after a House subcommittee defeated an effort to add net-neutrality restrictions to a multi-faceted telecommunications bill. The 23 to 8 vote goaded more than 850 interest groups, many, but not all, politically left of center, to form a coalition called SavetheInternet.com.
Members included organizations such as Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union, but the name that really grabbed the attention of Democratic officials was MoveOn.org. The group, founded in 1998 to oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, rocked the political establishment in 2003 and 2004 with its ability to rally supporters and raise money for causes such as opposing the Iraq war.
With MoveOn.org urging its 3 million members to sign and deliver pro-net-neutrality petitions to senators last spring, congressional support began to grow. The net-neutrality language died in an 11 to 11 Senate committee vote, but its backers claimed a moral victory after a wide-ranging telecom bill, which lacked their amendment, eventually collapsed.
The debate's partisan nature has surprised and disappointed some advocates, who note that conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition of America and the Gun Owners of America are part of the SavetheInternet coalition. The Christian Coalition of America, in its policy statement, said net neutrality is "extremely important to America's grassroots organizations and those Americans who want to ensure the cable and phone companies controlling access to the Internet will not discriminate against groups like Christian Coalition of America." Michele Combs, a spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition of America, said that net neutrality is a nonpartisan matter and that "the conservative side has not been educated on the issue."
MoveOn.org officials agree that net neutrality should transcend political lines. "There's a growing online people-powered movement that has increasing relevance in our politics," said Adam Green, a spokesman for MoveOn.org. "An issue like net neutrality, which directly taps into Internet issues, . . . could have a special energy in the political season," he said. "Every Republican and Democrat who uses the Internet is threatened by corporations that want to control which Web sites people can access."