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Did They Really Think We Wouldn't Fight to Keep the Internet Free?

The Obama administration and its friends at the Federal Communications Commission thought they could impose sweeping new Internet regulations without anybody other than far-left, Netroots activists like the fringe group Free Press noticing. They failed.

Americans for Prosperity and many free-market allies have blown the whistle and are now educating the vast majority of Americans -- who are happy with the unregulated Internet as it is -- about the threat posed by regulation.

AFP’s mission is to maximize economic freedom, make government smaller and less intrusive, and make America more prosperous. Free Press’s mission? Let’s start with its founder, Robert McChesney explaining their push for net neutrality:

“At the moment, the battle over network neutrality is not to completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies. We are not at that point yet. But the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.”

And McChesney’s broader agenda? His ultimate endgame? Again, his own words:

“In the end, there is no real answer but to remove brick by brick the capitalist system itself, rebuilding the entire society on socialist principles.”

Yet Free Press claims that their support for sweeping new federal regulation of the Internet is about encouraging investment and free market competition. Somehow, it rings hollow when Free Press puts out a statement saying:

“The Federal Communications Commission is simply pursuing a path that will ensure that the free market works for the American public, something that prior FCCs failed to do.”

So the Internet hasn’t been working for the American public? Really?

How can making the free market “work” mean having sweeping public-utility style regulation, a return to the “golden days” of dial-up Internet or even the old national Ma Bell monopoly? How can competition policy be such a serious error, when, in the words of Free Press ally Public Knowledge’s Communications Director Art Brodsky, the Internet “has been the greatest creator of wealth we have ever seen”?

These regulations would be so crippling to investment that Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett referred to them as the “nuclear option” – not exactly a boon to the free market. Then again, perhaps an organization founded by a Marxist believes the only way to “ensure that the free market works” is to shut it down and replace it with a central economic plan.

Simply exposing Free Press’s ideological roots provokes them to call their critics McCarthyites. They can’t stand having their own words quoted – just like they claimed their former board member, Van Jones, was “smeared” by having video and audio clips of his own statements played on TV. They want people to ignore that McChesney is still on their board of directors and they still promote his policy ideas.

They can’t defend what McChesney has said so Free Press President Josh Silver attacks critics for quoting his own founder:

“McCarthy-esque allegations against our organization, painting our efforts to protect consumers and promote critical journalism as part of a “Marxist” government takeover of the Internet.

“Because nothing Free Press actually says or does remotely reflects their rhetoric, they recycle out-of-context quotes from one of our co-founders. Or they draw up elaborate conspiracy theories. It is the province of liars and scoundrels.”

But it’s not a lie. Free Press is the leading advocate for undoing the past 12 years of history -- since the FCC, under Clinton-appointed Chairman William Kennard, determined that Internet access is an unregulated information service. Reclassification is a government regulatory takeover, good or bad. (And do click through on the quotes from McChesney above to judge for yourself whether they are out of context.)

That’s what’s at stake with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s Free Press-inspired proposal to reverse the past 12 years of regulatory policy by reclassifying the Internet as a regulated public utility. That’s a Washington takeover of the Internet. (And, as I’ve explained, Genachowski’s so-called “third way” is still nuclear.)

It’s not, as Free Press’s Megan Tady has asserted, “a crackpot conspiracy” to be concerned that economic regulation could lead to content regulation. It is easy to envision a scenario in which the Internet, transformed into a piece of public utility infrastructure, tightly regulated, and subsidized with billions of taxpayer dollars, would be subject to content restrictions.

Perhaps it will lead to right-wing groups like the Parents Television Council (a Free Press ally in their “Save the Internet” project) decrying indecent material on a public network that taxpayers support and demanding it be blocked.

Perhaps it will lead to left-wing social-justice motivated content regulation. Recent comments from FCC Commissioner Michael Copps suggest this is where regulation could lead:

“Can you tell me that minority and women’s voices on the Internet are getting through to major audiences—really being heard—like the big corporate sites? Should we just take it for granted that the small ‘d’ democratic potential of new information technologies will somehow be magically realized without questions being raised about how they are designed and managed?”

That’s really the central question. Do we think the Internet should be designed and managed by central economic planners to make sure certain voices are heard? By Washington bureaucrats? Or do we want to continue the remarkably successful experiment with a free-market, privately owned, competitive Internet?

To Free Press, private ownership is a problem. Their solution is onerous federal regulation—and, ultimately, “rebuilding the entire society on socialist principles.” So when they talk about freedom, they mean freedom from “corporate control,” provided by government.

The vast majority of the American people understand freedom differently and would rather take their chances with private competition then government control. (See, for example, the recent Rasmussen poll that found Americans oppose FCC regulating the Internet 53 % to 27%.)

I would be glad to debate Free Press on the merits of the FCC regulating the Internet. If they are really convinced that the arguments for keeping the Internet unregulated are weak they should welcome the challenge.

Phil Kerpen is vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity and director of its www.NoInternetTakeover.com project. He can be reached on Twitter, Facebook, and through www.PhilKerpen.com.

Fox Forum is on Twitter. Follow us @fxnopinion.

Phil Kerpen is the founder of American Commitment Action Fund, on the web at www.BookerFAIL.com.