“Above all else, we must strive to keep the highways of commerce open to all on equal terms.”
President Theodore Roosevelt, 1905
When President Obama came out in favor of Net Neutrality, the debate suddenly flared up. Ted Cruz and the Tea Party wing reflexively started campaigning hard against it, signaling a big battle ahead. Perhaps Obama should issue a statement claiming that “The sky is blue” just to see what fun ensues.
For all the noise, this is an important debate that is now settling in to become another political battle. The nuances are almost certainly going to be lost, especially with very mixed messages coming from the voting public. It is, however, one of the most important issues of our time – who controls the media, or for that matter, what exactly is “the media” today?
The principle is a simple one of equal access to the marketplace, something that the Federal Government has stepped in to assure many times through our history. Americans for Prosperity weighed in with a horrifically bad piece, riddled with errors, saying that “The internet is not a 19th Century railroad”. But, in fact, in many ways it is. The principles of a monopoly, at least at a local level, apply in roughly the same ways.
For example, I have Comcast internet service. It’s really the only choice for high-speed internet, as they have the franchise rights for cable in St Paul. I can’t possibly choose a dish in a historic neighborhood, so Comcast is it. The situation is much like a railroad operating as the only spur into a town a century ago – when they were prohibited from charging different rates to different customers in the spirit of equal access to the market.
Yet, the internet is different, especially in the sense that the technology is not yet fixed and will in fact change. That makes regulation very difficult without stifling innovation, and raises questions for Net Neutrality.
The term is “common carrier”, and it refers back to the railroads before being applied to telephones and other communication. The principle is that everyone has to be charged the same for a given service, treating their use of their connection as something like a commodity. You can charge based on use, but you must charge everyone the same and you cannot restrict the use.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were in fact regulated as “common carriers” before 2002. That year, the restrictions placed on a monopoly were removed and, in many ways, the internet blossomed with new infrastructure being added. The debate becomes a bit cloudy when looking at the historical record.
In addition, alarm bells are sounding over the use of the old “common carrier” and the taxes that come along with it. Simple regulation with existing laws might well introduce new taxes on the internet, but of course that doesn’t have to happen. The debate is deliberately being muddied by those who make a lot of money as ISPs.
Enter the newest phase of this debate, as noted before. When Sen Cruz (R-TX) came out against Net Neutrality, he called it “Obamacare for the Internet”. Sen Franken (D-MN) countered that Cruz “Doesn’t undertstand the internet” in a video widely circulated on YouTube. Cruz responded with his own salvo against regulation, claiming that it stifled telecommunications development.
That this debate is playing out on YouTube is especially fun, given that this is one of the sites being throttled in a world without Net Neutrality. This important political debate would not happen if ISPs had more control over what you can and cannot download. You can see if your own ISP is throttling YouTube and see how it affects you.
How will this debate go? That’s the problem. Polls on the subject are all over the map, reflecting apprehension and confusion among the public. Rasmussen reports that 61% of respondents said “No Regulation!” when asked, Should the Internet remain ‘open’ without regulation and censorship or should the Federal Communications Commission regulate the Internet like it does radio and television?” and 56% said the free market was better than government regulation. But the Internet Freedom Alliance reports that 83% of self-identified conservatives favor Congress taking action so that ISPs do not monopolize the internet.
A poll by Google Consumer Surveys showed that 57% of Americans don’t know enough about Net Neutrality to have an opinion, but of those who did they favored regulation 23% to 19%. That’s pretty close and subject to a huge swing in favor of whoever controls the debate – which is what is going on now.
So what Net Neutrality is about to boil down to is appropriate anti-monopoly regulation to prevent a corporate takeover versus antique standards to regulate and control the valuable flow of information, along with new taxes.
How will this play out? It’s hard to say right now. But there should be little doubt that local ISPs can be, and in fact were, regulated in the same way other utilities were at one time. That doesn’t necessarily eliminate “fast lanes” for those with more money to spend nor does it make more backbone investment less lucrative. The regulations can and should be carefully written to cover this new technology.
But the debate we see firing up is not one that is likely to produce that kind of outcome. That’s a terrible shame, especially with a majority of the population not confident enough in their knowledge of the issue to form an opinion. This will only get worse before it gets better.