Sen. Al Franken started his career as a comedian, but he's dead serious about the issue of net neutrality. Appearing Monday at the Future of Music policy summit at Georgetown University in Washington, the Minnesota Democrat delivered an impassioned defense of net neutrality: the idea that broadband providers should generally treat legal web content equally, and should not discriminate against web-based services that might compete with their own offerings.
"Net neutrality is not a matter of needless government intervention," Franken said. "It is a necessary government response to ISPs voicing their support for a separate and unequal internet. Net neutrality doesn't interfere with the free market -- it protects the free market."
Two weeks ago, new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced a plan to keep the internet open and competitive. The rules would represent a major victory for consumer groups and internet companies, as well as the fulfillment of a key campaign promise by President Obama. But major broadband providers have been wary, especially when it comes to extending the rules to wireless devices.
Net neutrality rules are necessary, Franken said: "Corporate internet service providers have tried to use 'network management' to find ways to squeeze more cash out of their networks, and as a result, the freedom and openness of the internet has become seriously challenged."
Franken described the battle over net neutrality as a matter of free speech. "Once service providers are in the business of deciding what kind of content moves at what speed, they come very close to deciding what type of content can move at all," Franken said. "The issue is not just what might be blocked from us, but what might not be created in the first place."
In a provocative statement, Franken compared Iran's recent internet censorship, as part of its brutal crackdown against protesters, with the practices used by some major U.S. internet service providers.
"The Iranians use deep packet inspection to view every email and post," Franken said, referring to a technique used to examine network traffic in detail. "It's awful. Now, you might say that's terrible situation, but we're not Iran. Well, we're not Iran, but that isn't hasn't stopped several companies from taking the same or similar technologies out for a test-drive." Franken cited efforts by Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (ATT) to block content on wireless networks they deem objectionable, such as Pearl Jam's criticism of former President Bush during a webcast of a live concert.
"Free speech limited, or free speech slowed down, is the same thing as free speech denied," Franken said, adding that rural users, including some of Franken's constituents who have only one option for broadband service, could be hurt the most. "ISP profit margins should never come at the cost of free speech and an open internet," Franken said, "because while they may profit, we lose."
The senator sought to make clear that he supports network-management practices designed to combat illegal content, like illicit filesharing. "Having spent much of my life as a writer and entertainer, I own copyrights too," Franken said. "ISPs must and will maintain the right to combat illegal content. The question is, how do you technically separate legal and illegal material? And that may be above my paygrade, or below my paygrade. There are technical questions in how to resolve that, but it needs to be resolved. I think that issue needs to be resolved by people who are expert in that technology or architecture."
After his speech, R.E.M. guitarist Mike Mills interviewed Franken and asked him why he ran for office. Franken responded by citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the death of former Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone -- an icon of the left -- and his own numerous USO tours entertaining U.S. soldiers overseas.
As he spoke about meeting U.S. soldiers, some of whom were serving their third and fourth tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, Franken choked up. "I'm really serious about doing my job," he said. "I'm really serious about representing the people of Minnesota. And I'm really serious about this issue."
Sen. Al Franken gets serious on free speech, net neutrality