SAN JOSE, Calif.--eBay this week unleashed a political machine that should make politicians envious: a national e-mail blast over Net neutrality.
Meg Whitman, chief executive of the Internet auctioneer, called on more than a million eBay members to get involved in the debate over telecommunications laws and "send a message to your representatives in Congress before it is too late."
"The telephone and cable companies in control of Internet access are trying to use their enormous political muscle to dramatically change the Internet," Whitman wrote. "It might be hard to believe, but lawmakers in Washington are seriously debating whether consumers should be free to use the Internet as they want in the future."
This is the first time that eBay has used e-mail to urge its members to weigh in on a national issue and the first time Whitman has sent an e-mail to members under her own name, the company said Thursday.
eBay--which has been active in a pro-Net neutrality coalition for years--confirmed that more than a million e-mails have been sent out so far, but declined to offer a more specific number. The campaign is ongoing.
Net neutrality's crowded field
|Bill number||Lead sponsor(s)||What It Proposes||Status|
|S.2360||Wyden (D)||No two-tier Internet||Still in Senate committee|
|S.2917||Snowe (R) and Dorgan (D)||No two-tier Internet||Just introduced|
|HR5417||Sensenbrenner (R) and Conyers (D)||Antitrust extended to Net neutrality||Awaiting House floor vote|
|HR5273||Markey (D)||No two-tier Internet||Still in House committee *|
|HR5252||Barton (R) and Rush (D)||FCC can police complaints||Awaiting House floor vote|
|S.2686||Stevens (R) and Inouye (D)||FCC will do a study||Senate committee vote expected in June|
* Republicans have defeated similar language twice as an amendment to a telecommunications bill.
Source: CNET News.com research
The concept of Net neutrality, which generally means that all Internet sites must be treated equally, has drawn a list of high-profile backers, from pop music star Moby and actress Alyssa Milano to Vint Cerf, one of the technical pioneers of the Internet. It's also led to a political rift between big Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo that back it--and telecom companies that argue federal legislation will curb their ability to manage their own networks.
"Meg has been following the issue, and with legislation moving through the House and the Senate, felt that this was an appropriate time to reach out to the community to make sure Congress heard what the community thought about the telecommunications reform bill," said Tod Cohen, eBay's associate general counsel for global policy.
Other tech companies have tried e-mail outreach efforts before, though this week's campaign ranks among the largest. Microsoft, for instance, distributed a "Freedom to Innovate" newsletter during its antitrust trial that ended with the exhortation: "Now is the time to let your elected officials know how you feel about the case."
eBay's e-mail campaign comes as the political debate over Net neutrality is growing more pointed in Washington, D.C. On May 25, one House of Representatives panel voted in favor of formal Net neutrality regulations bitterly opposed by AT&T, Verizon Communications and other broadband providers--while another House panel rejected such regulations on April 5.
For their part, network operators from the telephone and cable industries, now allied with some of the nation's largest hardware makers, have said repeatedly that they have no intention of blocking, degrading or impairing content. They say they're protecting their right to manage their networks as they see fit, which could mean charging extra to heavy bandwidth users, such as video providers, that expect to have their content shuttled at priority speeds.
Also on Thursday, the American Electronics Association, or AEA, cautiously embraced Net neutrality.
In a statement, the trade association said its board of directors' executive committee endorsed a set of principles asking Congress to protect consumers and Internet companies "from anticompetitive and unreasonably discriminatory conduct by broadband network providers."
That's a careful statement that falls short of endorsing some of the more aggressive Net neutrality proposals--such as the one approved by the House Judiciary Committee on May 25--that would go further and block what's being called a "high speed" lane for certain services such as video.
AEA's board includes representatives of dozens of companies including Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Nanoventions, Intel, Adobe Systems, Qualcomm and eDiets.com.
A Cisco Systems representative responded to AEA's announcement with this statement: "Some of the groups who are most public in this debate focus on one part of the network stack or another. We actually care about the entire network--from core to end-user. No new regulations are needed in order to support the FCC's connectivity principles."