Last year, I quit my job at AOL and Engadget to join a small internet publishing startup and help build what would become The Verge and Vox Media. After a lot of hard work, I am proud to say The Verge has been a success — we have hired, invested, and grown during what remains a massive recession.
Our ability to succeed is why I believe President Obama should be re-elected. The Verge exists only on the internet, and Romney's position on net neutrality and network access represent a grave threat not only to our future, but to the entire technology industry. Both candidates have insisted that this election is a referendum on the future of the economy; the GOP's platform would hand the reins of the internet economy to a small handful of entrenched corporations with a long history of crushing innovation in the name of control. Bluntly, a vote for Romney is a vote for the worst of AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast.
Bluntly, a vote for Romney is a vote for the worst of AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast
Romney has been specifically opposed to net neutrality, saying the the government has now "interjected itself in how networks will be constructed and managed." The GOP's "network freedom" policy advocates reducing regulation on internet industries, including abolishing even the FCC's watered-down Open Internet rules, which Romney characterizes as the government picking "winners and losers in the marketplace." This is a total failure to understand how the internet actually works — and how much control broadband service providers have over the future of millions of startups and small businesses. The best public policy directs a vibrant free market to act in the best interests of the public by properly aligning incentives; Romney would allow the broadband industry to be ruled by radically misaligned profit incentives that defy common sense.
The FCC's Open Internet rules, as imperfect as they are, prevent wired broadband companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable from blocking video competitors like Netflix or striking favorable-access deals that let certain sites load faster than others. Imagine News Corp striking a deal with Verizon to make Fox News load 10 times faster than CNN, creating imbalanced competition that goes against every ideal of free speech and equal access. Net neutrality rules are the key to maintaining the free market of the internet economy. They are the rules that keep competition just one click away.
And make no mistake, the broadband industry is doing everything in its power to subvert the existing rules and bring us ever closer to these worst-case hypotheticals: Comcast excuses its own Xbox video app from counting against its data caps, while Netflix rings up the meter. If you don't have a Verizon phone, you can't watch videos on NFL.com, since Verizon and the NFL have a deal in place that restricts access to other carriers. AT&T is forcing iPhone owners to upgrade to new, more expensive data plans in order to use FaceTime over cellular connections. The list goes on.
Leaving the access industry to regulate itself is a recipe for disaster
This is not some liberal fantasy nightmare — this is happening now. This is the state of the market. Leaving the access industry to regulate itself in the absence of any meaningful competition is a recipe for disaster. The incentive for broadband companies to generate additional revenue by favoring certain companies and services over others is simply too strong to be left unchecked by regulation. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, appointed by Obama, has characterized his agency's role as "a cop on the beat"; Romney and the GOP would leave the information superhighway unpatrolled entirely.
And the need for telecom regulation and organized infrastructure buildout is more pressing than ever as mobile broadband adoption explodes. We are rapidly reaching the point where most Americans will primarily connect to the internet through a mobile device, and the state of that market is frankly abysmal. The FCC's unwillingness to set standards means AT&T and Verizon have spent billions building incompatible LTE networks and forcing customers into restrictive two-year contracts that seem to get more expensive every year. Sprint played a sucker's bet by trying to leap ahead with WiMAX, lost billions, and is now selling itself to Japan's SoftBank because it can't make up the LTE gap in time. Smaller regional carriers have to submit themselves to cutthroat deals order to carry popular devices like the iPhone and stay competitive with the majors — but those deals reduce the amount they can invest in network buildout, preventing them from growing into meaningful competition.
Romney accuses the government of picking winners and losers, but AT&T and Verizon are doing it already
I wrote in July that US wireless carriers are the biggest threat to innovation, and that point was sharply underlined in the past month: while Apple launched the new iPad mini with broad carrier support, neither Microsoft nor Google could seemingly strike the right deals to offer the Surface or Nexus 4 with LTE support. Governor Romney accuses the government of picking winners and losers, but the reality is that AT&T and Verizon are doing it already — and doing it so capriciously that even deep-pocketed behemoths like Google and Microsoft are unable to fairly enter the market. What hope does a smaller company even have? Why should Nokia and HTC even try to build a business in the United States when they have no real access to their own customers?
To be fair, Obama's record on net neutrality is far from perfect. After saying on the campaign trail in 2007 that he would "take a backseat to no one on net neutrality," the 2012 Democratic platform lightly dusts over the issue, saying only that "President Obama is strongly committed to protecting an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, creativity, consumer choice, and free speech, unfettered by censorship or undue violations of privacy." And Genachowski's FCC has tred a cautious path, playing politics instead of progress. But other prominent Democrats like Senator Al Franken have pushed strongly on net neutrality, calling it "the foremost free speech issue of our time." That type of leadership within the party is critically important as "internet culture" inevitably blends into simply "culture": our shared norms about the limits of free speech and decency should be defined by messy public debate, not by the cable company turning on an obscenity filter.
The internet is the foundation for an entirely new economy, and we need to protect it
There are many other valid reasons to vote for Obama — from health insurance to women's issues to immigration policy, his platform offers the most complete path to recovery for a nation still badly damaged by a terrible recession and two costly wars. But true economic recovery requires more than just replacing what was lost; it requires building something new. The internet is the foundation for an entirely new economy, and it's vitally important we select a candidate that will protect it. In this election, that candidate is Barack Obama.