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How Moby Saved the Internet

SOMEWHERE ON THE NET NEUTRALITY TRAIL -- Some people are lucky. Others are damned lucky. Some are even double darn lots of damn lucky.

I offer you as example A: my new good friend, Moby.

Only an hour or so after the entertainer/activist stood on the Cannon House Office Building's terrace Thursday afternoon calling for a national law to preserve net neutrality, he got his wish.

Or, as Moby's peeps now can say: "Within an hour of Moby's call to 'save the Internet,' Congress jumped."

It's doubtful that James Sensenbrenner, the powerful Republican poobah and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has much working knowledge of Moby.

(Full Disclosure: I didn't know much of Moby either, but I'm proud to report that, when introduced to Moby, he said, and I quote exactly: "Hello.")

All I'm saying is Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, is more of a cheese and Patsy Cline kind of guy.

Nevertheless, shortly after Moby's demand that the Internet be regulated, Sensenbrenner introduced the legislation Moby had just demanded. Let history show that when Moby spoke, Congress acted, even if it was an accident of timing.

The Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006 (H.R. 5417) would prohibit broadband network providers from charging extra fees to run content at the same speed and quality of the network owner's own content.

In other words, network neutrality.

The bill is in stark contrast to pending legislation in both the House and Senate that would allow broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast to slap premium charges on content providers to run in the fast lane.

"If Congress guts net neutrality, independent music and news sites would be choked off, consumer choice would be limited and the Internet will become a private toll road auctioned off by companies like AT&T," Moby declared before a crowd in the very low two figures.

Moby, mind you, despite his low-key public speaking style, is no rookie in the political arena. He counts himself among one of liberal political group moveon.org's top celeb quotemiesters. Spin is everything. Logic and facts are incidental.

"It seems simple. The system works just fine right now," Moby read from crumpled notes fished from his pocket.

Well, Moby, in that case why pass any laws at all?

Ironically, in calling for federal laws, Moby is urging Congress to do what the tech industry has always fought: regulation of the Internet. Whether he knows it or not, what Moby wants is direct government intervention in the operation of the Internet.

By the time the Q&A arrived for Moby's lunching motley crew, Moby made himself available for "softball" questions, deferring details to Congressman Ed Markey, the event's host who is never more comfortable than in front of rolling video.

(Another Full Disclosure: The video Moby's peeps were making hasn't been posted yet, but I'm fairly sure I'm the right foot in the left frame about ten minutes into the gig. Since Moby is a vegan, I may, however, be cut out of the video since I was chowing down on a couple of chili dogs.]

By the time Sensenbrenner dropped his bill in the hopper Moby was long gone to his next save-the-world gig, but tech moguls rushed to gush over the legislation.

In a statement, Amazon, eBay, Google, IAC/InterActiveCorp, Microsoft and Yahoo all agreed: "[The legislation] will prevent broadband providers from using their position in the market to engage in discriminatory behavior on the Internet," they said of Sensenbrenner's bill.

The IT honchos weren't so kind to the House Commerce Committee's net neutrality legislaiton. The group said the bill (known as COPE, don't ask why) was "deliberately impeding enforcement of discriminatory practices and preventing the establishment of consumer safeguards against them."

Conspicuously absent from the magnets endorsing Sensenbrenner's bill were network gear makers. They were busy giving hope to COPE.

In a letter to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Cisco, Qualcomm and other hardware makers dismiss all this network neutrality talk as just so much pish posh over nothing.

"It is premature to enact some sort of network neutrality principles into law now," the letter states. "The problem that the proponents of network neutrality seek to address has not manifested itself in a tangible form in a way that enables us to understand it clearly."

Moby's call to action and Sensenbrenner's bill both came shortly after cable industry spokesman Kyle McSlarrow told the Senate Commerce Committee net neutrality "is now the number one issue" when it comes to telecom reform.

He may be right.

Without net neutrality on its agenda, Thursday morning's hearing on the massive telecom reform bill didn't even draw a full house.

The most pertinent question the media asked was: "Who is Moby?"

You can be sure the joint will be packed next Thursday when the focus will be on Chairman Ted Stevens' plan to refer net neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission for further study.

"I take credit or blame for the net neutrality proposal," the Alaskan Republican said, noting that Sen. Daniel Inouye, the ranking Democrat on the panel, did not agree with his net neut language.

For his part, Inouye preached bipartisanship while threatening "substantial revision" is needed "if we are to pass legislation this year."

The question now is who has jurisdiction over network neutrality legislation, commerce committees or judicial panels? Business issue or antitrust issue?

Stayed tuned, net neuties.

Roy Mark is internetnews.com's Senior Editor and Washington D.C. correspondent