One of the groups who signed the letter was the Fountain Hills Tea Party in Arizona. Like many, many grassroots tea party groups across the country, Fountain Hills has a Ning social networking site, as well as a more traditional homepage, both key to communicating with members. Supporters of net neutrality often suggest that it's smaller sites like these that would suffer the most under the tiered Internet plan ISPs are expected to establish if no government rules require them to treat all Internet traffic equally.
Much like the Netroots movement, the tea party's communication and information dissemination is fueled by online tools. In addition to Ning, tea partiers are avid tweeters, skypers, YouTubers and Facebookers. Yet their seeming embrace of an Internet divvied up and defined by corporate deals puts them at odds with their Internet-savvy colleagues on the left, who have clamored for net neutrality for years.
Peter Bordow, a leader of the Fountain Hills Tea Party, told me that he's not completely ready to make a firm judgment on net neutrality yet, but he leans toward opposing it. He has some experience with the issue, having provided Internet services to customers in the past. (The letter to the FCC is signed by Jeff Cohen, another leader of Fountain Hills. But Bordow told me that his group "did not, as an organization, sign any position or opinion letter of any kind regarding net neutrality.")
"To be completely honest, I have seen and heard fairly compelling arguments on both sides of this issue," he said Friday. "As a former ISP owner, and strong believer in the free market, I tend to oppose legislation that gives appointed bureaucrats the power to tell (and enforce) how companies design and deliver their services to their customers."
In an email, Bordow broke down his concerns as a web-friendly tea partier when it comes to net neutrality:
It is possible (and may in fact even be predictable) that this ability to selectively throttle traffic could be used to "unfairly" limit certain traffic (Internet destinations) to users. I just don't think it is the Government's responsibility (or within their enumerated powers) to legislate powers to appointed bureaucrats to decide "what is fair".
History shows us again and again that whenever the power to decide "what is fair" is given to Government officials and/or appointed bureaucrats, there is far more propensity and opportunity for abuse of this power. It is only when free citizens and the free market are able to flex their collective purchasing muscle that we can be sure that this power is not abused.
So there you have it: on balance, tea partiers would rather leave companies in charge of the Internet because, as Bordow says, that's safer than another government bureaucracy. Indeed, Jamie Radtke, a leader of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation and another signatory on the letter, told The Hill's Jerome that the Obama administration push for net neutrality was the same kind of government encroachment the tea party movement opposes on fronts like health care and direct intervention in the economy. Radtke said to expect the tea party to become a vocal part of the opposition to net neutrality rules as the debate continues to heat up.
"I think the clearest thing is it's an affront to free speech and free markets," Radtke told the paper. "There are so many assaults on individual liberties -- the EPA, net neutrality, cap-and-trade, card-check; the list goes on -- that sometimes the Tea Party doesn't know where to start its battles."
Check out the letter sent to the FCC (as first published by The Hill) here: