E-mails, public service ad messages on Web pages and letters to advertisers and blogs could be part of the effort from companies such as Google, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon and Microsoft. Up until now, these companies have been shy about reaching out to consumers about public policy directly, opting instead to use corporate advertising to carry the message.
"We know we need to win this fight outside the beltway," said Alan Davidson, Washington counsel for Google. He said the only way for the Internet industry to counter the "tens of millions" of dollars phone companies have spent lobbying was to get more involved.
"We are doing an unprecedented effort for our industry," he said.
The companies say the end result will have a significant role determining the Web's future.
"Part of the problem is the perception that this is a multibillion [dollar] fight between content providers, when this is really a fight about the future of America's competitiveness," said Earl Comstock, president-CEO of Comptel, a Washington association that represents communications service providers.
The effort follows the House vote late yesterday to send legislation to the Senate that would make it easier for phone companies to offer cable TV service without having to negotiate franchises city by city. Phone companies say the legislation will bring competition to cable, helping lower consumer costs. They also maintain the bill is needed to pay the heavy cost of upgrading local phone lines to carry not only cable, but also Internet traffic at speeds beyond that now commonly available.
New neutrality amendment
Consumer groups and Internet companies pushed for a "net neutrality" amendment to be added to the bill, out of fear that phone and cable companies providing the new higher Internet speeds will reserve them for either their own content or paying partners' content, effectively creating a two-lane road, one for preferred content providers and one for everyone else.
The House rejected the net neutrality amendment, with some legislators calling it an attempt to solve a problem that doesn't exist and to regulate an Internet made strong by unregulated competition. But others said the legislation would dramatically alter the Internet playing field and that the amendment was vital to assuring that a phone company doesn't pick, say, Google over Yahoo or the Fox New Channel, giving them advantages that makes the Net less competitive.
Google's Mr. Davidson said Google and eBay have launched efforts to reach out to consumers and those efforts will expand. Google has sent letters both to its "g-mail" subscribers and to advertisers about its concerns. He said eBay now is running public-service ads on its Web site for searchers that key in "net neutrality."
EBay CEO Meg Whitman has already sent e-mails to a million eBay members with a plea to support net neutrality.
'Phone and cable monopolies'
Google Chairman-CEO Eric Schmidt recently sent a similar note to Google users.
"Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody -- no matter how large or small -- has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies who control almost all Internet access want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest."
Mr. Davidson said other companies have similar efforts planned. Microsoft, for one, declined to comment on specifics.
"We don't discuss our specific lobbying efforts on this issue or any public policy issue. But we are doing outreach to members to raise awareness as Congress considers telecom reform," said a Microsoft spokeswoman.
Consumer groups said their grass-roots effort has already started and is building. "The real grass-roots effort is only a month to 6 weeks old," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "It takes time for a buzz to start to grow."
Andy Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, predicted senators would be more responsive, and said the campaign had gained considerable traction since it started.
Senate plan next week
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is expected to unveil his own version of the cable legislation next week and there could be a committee vote on net neutrality later in the week.
Content providers assert the net neutrality debate could affect the prices consumers pay to access Web sites, and those costs could also be passed along to advertisers. Jupiter Research analyst Joseph Laszlo, for one, is confident the agencies will naturally adjust to whatever new market paradigm comes about.
"In two to three years, it's not difficult to imagine some video sites offering faster service because of deals they have with ISPs. Then an agency will have to decide whether they want to pay a premium to advertise on that site, or the site without the deals," said Mr. Lazlo. "The game might change, but it will change for everyone."