President Barack Obama issued a call on Monday for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to "implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality." In a multipart plan, President Obama proposed that the FCC reclassify broadband providers as public utilities, and laid out four specific provisions to protect the Internet from deep-pocketed interests.
The radical wing of the GOP, including Tea Party darling Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), immediately launched a counter offensive calling the president's proposal "Obamacare for the Internet." I'll get to the underlying causes of that on page two. But first, some background.
"Net Neutrality" is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) November 10, 2014
Net neutrality is the concept that all Internet data should be treated equally. Under net neutrality, YouTube's videos would be given the same priority as a video embedded on your grandmother's blog. While it's the responsibility of the content provider to supply enough bandwidth to satisfy their own traffic needs, once that traffic reaches the rest of the Internet, including the so-called last mile to your home, it's all treated equally.
Broadband providers hate that idea. They want to be able to raise more revenue by socking deep-pocketed content owners—think YouTube and Netflix (and Apple)—with fees to move their data. Related, they have also long wanted to charge users based on their consumption.
In short, while broadband providers advertise X amount of bandwidth, they get pissed when anyone uses all of it.
Verizon and Comcast both have been aggressive on these fronts. Verizon throttled Netflix's traffic in order to force that company to pay to be on what's become known as a "fast lane." Netflix buckled and paid for that fast lane, and Comcast quickly forced a similar deal. It's this sort of shenanigans that net neutrality would prevent.
From President Obama's statement:
'Net neutrality' has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.
He specifically called for broadband providers to be reclassified as "consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act." While he didn't use the word "utility" in his statement, Title II of the Telecommunications Act covers public utilities.
The president also offered four specific safeguards:
- No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
- No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
- Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
- No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
Though the president has voiced his support for net neutrality in the past, this is the strongest statement yet from the White House on the subject, and it's the first specific proposal he has laid out.
Next: Timing, Politics, and Lobbying
Page 2 - Timing, Politics, and Lobbying
Timing Is Everything
The timing of the announcement is interesting in that it comes less than a week after the U.S. midterm elections. In general, the GOP ranges from ambivalent to hostile to net neutrality (to wit, Senator Cruz's tweet above), though the concept has consistently enjoyed popular support among the American people in national surveys.
It seems like net neutrality would have made for an easy campaigning issue to differentiate the Democratic Party from the Republican Party, and yet we get this statement today. Don't let anyone accuse the Dems of making the best out of a good situation.
Be that as it may, the White House will have a tremendous fight on its hand. The GOP almost immediately voiced its opposition to FCC regulation of the market, and dollars to donuts say they'll use their midterm election wins as an argument that the American people support that position—despite all evidence to the contrary. Don't let anyone accuse the GOP of letting facts get in the way of their political idealogy.
Mind you, FCC regulation doesn't require Congressional approval, but Congress can, A.) make a lot of noise, both pro and con, and, B.) pass laws to correct or change any regulation its members and their supporting lobbyists don't like. The latter is not likely during the next two years in any circumstance—using this topic as an ideological talking point for either side is.
The problem for the GOP is that Americans who understand the issues support net neutrality and do not support the creation of so-called "fast lanes." Which is why cynical blowhards like Senator Ted Cruz are lashing out by trying to tie President Obama's call for net neutrality and reclassification of broadband providers as utilities to Obamacare.
That's easier than saying they prefer a market where the rules are dictated by the richest corporations most interested in skewing the forces of competition to their own benefit.
An Opportunistic Cynic Walks Into a Bar
The funny thing, though, is that in many ways Senator Cruz is correct. Enforcing net neutrality is a lot like Obamacare. Net neutrality ensures equal access to Internet content, even the poor, just as Obamacare expands access to health care to many more people, even the poor.
[Update: The Oatmeal has an entertaining and informative take. - Bryan]
But then, Senator Cruz's comment wasn't aimed at the American people as a whole, it was aimed at the right wing base of the GOP, the people he hopes will nominate him for President in 2016. Most of those folks loathe the word Obamacare and will stop listening right there.
About Those Deep-Pocketed Corporations
There's one more aspect of this fight that warrants mentioning, and that's those deep-pocketed corporations. Some of them—well, the telecommunications giants who make up broadband carriers in the U.S.—don't want any regulation. As stated above, they want to be free to plunder some of every passing dollar they can.
But there are other rich corporations that benefit from net neutrality. Netflix is one, but Netflix is a tiny mom-and-pop compared to the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft, and a host of other established content providers. None of these companies want to find themselves forced to pay extortion to Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, or any other provider, and many of them have come out in support of net neutrality.
That means this isn't strictly capital vs. consumers, though the telecommunications giants have far larger lobbying arms (and budgets) than the tech giants. They've also been at it longer, and they are frankly far better at lobbying than any of the consumer groups and tech companies who support net neutrality.
The FCC and the White House
Under Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC has generally speaking skewed towards balancing the interests of corporations and consumers, or "stakeholders" as the FCC calls them.
After the Supreme Court gutted existing net neutrality protections in 2013 (the FCC set up those protections using a legitimately shaky/nonexistent regulatory framework), the FCC seemed to be leaning towards a new regulatory environment that would give broadband providers what they want—paid fast lanes—even while professing a commitment to protecting open access and net neutrality.
Hopefully with the White House putting some weight behind net neutrality, including a call for specific remedies and regulations, the FCC will gain the backbone to do what's right. That remains to be seen, but I'm hopeful on this topic for the first time since that Supreme Court ruling.
Road sign image made with help from Shutterstock.