© Associated Press
Austin, Texas - Sen. Al Franken claimed Monday that big corporations are "hoping to destroy" the Internet and issued a call to arms to several hundred tech-savvy South by Southwest attendees to preserve net neutrality.

"I came here to warn you, the party may be over," Franken said. "They're coming after the Internet hoping to destroy the very thing that makes it such an important [medium] for independent artists and entrepreneurs: its openness and freedom."

Net neutrality, he added, is "the First Amendment issue of our time."

Receiving a hero's welcome from the liberal crowd, Franken took repeated shots at big telecoms, singling out Comcast.

He said Comcast is looking to change the basic architecture of the Web by implementing a pricing scheme that allows moneyed interests to pay for faster speeds, leaving everyone else behind. That would be a particularly bad development for the independent musicians and artists gathered here, he said.

"The real end for Comcast is to put Netflix out of business entirely," Franken said, because of the threat that Netflix's streaming video business could pose to Comcast's cable franchise. "In the end, the American people will end up paying a lot more for worse service."

Comcast is now embroiled in a dispute with Level 3, a networking company that carries online video feeds for Netflix, over fees Comcast wants to charge to carry the high-bandwidth content.

In response to Franken's comments, a Comcast spokeswoman said Monday that the dispute with Level 3 isn't about net neutrality but is "a peering issue." "Under the FCC order for the Comcast NBCU transaction, Comcast is required to comply with the FCC's recent open Internet rules even if they are overturned in court. Our customers can access all Netflix content," said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast's vice president of government communications.

Franken, who was an aggressive opponent of the Comcast acquisition of NBC Universal, implored SXSW attendees to fight the political influence of the big telecom firms.

"Unfortunately one thing these big corporations have that we don't is the ability to purchase favorable political outcomes," he said. "Big telecoms have lots of [lobbyists], and good ones, too. ... The end of net neutrality would benefit no one but these corporate giants."

Franken said talk of a "government takeover" of the Internet by net neutrality critics has as much credibility as claims of "death panels" in the health care legislation and claims that "Obama's a Muslim," calling them a "pantheon of lies."

Franken finished up his half-hour speech by imploring the crowd to preserve net neutrality to avoid a future in which they're "stuck listening to the Black Eyed Peas and reminiscing about the days before you had to sell out to make it."

"Let's not let the government sell us out," he said. "Let's fight for net neutrality. Let's keep Austin weird. Let's keep the Internet weird. Let's keep the Internet free."