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Net neutrality makes for strange allies

File this under the old adage, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” The current net neutrality debate in the U.S. Congress has the Christian Coalition of America allied with rock stars Moby and R.E.M.

The Christian Coalition and a group of musicians were among the groups coming out in support of a net neutrality law this week, as the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee began a series of hearings on a telecom reform bill that largely ignores calls for prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or impairing Web content from competitors.

Moby, the techno musician, was scheduled to appear at a net neutrality rally on Capitol Hill Thursday. R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe said efforts to kill net neutrality provisions are “yet another attempt by corporations and their congressional buddies to pull our society backward.”

“The nation’s largest phone and cable companies are spending millions pressuring Congress to let them decide which Web sites work best on your computer based on which corporations pay them the most!” R.E.M. said on its Web site. “If Congress caves, consumer choice will be limited, the free flow of information will be choked off, and the free and open Internet will become a private toll road managed by these large companies.”

The Christian Coalition, in a news release, said it is concerned that large broadband providers will block content that they don’t agree with. Some providers could block antiabortion Web sites, said Roberta Combs, the group’s president. Without a net neutrality provision, “there is nothing to stop the cable and phone companies from not allowing consumers to have access to speech that they don’t support,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Republican Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas sent a letter to Senate colleagues Wednesday urging them to reject net neutrality provisions. That position puts Brownback at odds with the Christian Coalition and some other religious groups backing net neutrality, even as he courts the support of conservative religious groups for a potential presidential run in 2008.

“Some online content providers have used fear and misinformation to argue that strong network neutrality regulations — to be enforced, presumably, by virtually unaccountable bureaucrats — are needed,” Brownback and DeMint said in their letter.

Also voicing opposition to net neutrality laws this week were a group of 35 networking and communications system vendors, including Cisco, Qualcomm, Alcatel and Corning. Their position against net neutrality laws puts them at odds with tech vendors such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, but aligns them with their telecom customers such as AT&T and Verizon.

“The Internet has benefited greatly from the relative absence of regulatory restrictions,” the networking vendors said in a letter to Congress. “Congress has wisely refrained from burdening this still-evolving medium with regulations except in those few cases when a problem has been clearly manifest and a narrow and carefully tailored solution to the problem can be articulated. This is not the time to deviate from this posture.”

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