A tidal wave of partisan politics is about to hit the FCC as it weighs its options for net neutrality regulation. Today, President Obama abandoned his hands-off approach by strongly urging the agency to adopt the most rigorous provisions of the Telecommunications Act, which would regulate internet providers more like the public utilities they actually are. That involvement will come at a cost; Obama's closeness to the issue has already prompted rebuttals from Republican leaders who thrive on painting anything Obama does as nothing short of a total government takeover.
One of those Republicans is prominent Tea Party member and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who quickly responded to the president's statement this morning by saying "'net neutrality' is Obamacare for the internet." This statement is utterly meaningless to people who understand both the Affordable Care Act and net neutrality policy, and it makes Ted Cruz look like an idiot. But Ted Cruz isn't an idiot; equating net neutrality with Obamacare is a thick brush stroke in the art of political manipulation.
"If you want real 'net neutrality' I suggest you move to China, you idiot!"
If you don't believe me, take a look at this email I received from a reader, shortly after I criticized Cruz's comments this morning:
Do you not realize "net neutrality" as proposed by Obama is an attempt to limit free speech? Did you not watch the White House proposing to put government regulators in the editorial offices of newspapers to "monitor and advise" the newspapers on content? Did you not observe the same "fairness" proposals as they related to talk radio in an attempt to stifle free speech, especially opposition to leftist/statist orthodoxy, and ignore market forces concerning what listeners want? If you want real "net neutrality" I suggest you move to China where all Internet traffic is censored by the government. I will say it once again---you idiot!
Or this one:
Ted Cruz postion on government intrusion into the private sector is consistent and supported by those of us who love liberty and freedom from an encroaching too big government. Whether it is seizing 1/6 of the nations economy like the disastrous obamacare of the governmental regulation of the internet (what next radio and then press?). It is obvious you have either misread the will of the vast majority of the voters from the elections last week or you wish to push your liberal agenda on those who read your piece - or both!
Neither of these missives indicate a basic grasp of the principles of net neutrality or facts about the internet marketplace. They are raw, emotional responses to something Republicans hate (government takeovers!) and the leader who will crush us under the weight of liberal bureaucracy (Obama!). All you need to do to win an election in some parts of the United States is to compare something or someone to Obamacare.
But Republicans should be wary of that kind of cynical heresthetic. Lumping net neutrality in with big government is not only internally inconsistent, it doesn't represent authentic conservative values. Opposition to net neutrality from GOP leadership (and also from some Democrats) has so far reflected the interests of the powerful telecommunications lobby.
Conservative voters actually have compelling reasons to break from the Republican party's rhetoric and should support net neutrality and reclassification of ISPs as public utilities. Here are some of them.
1. Regulating the internet like a utility makes sense because ISPs don't actually compete
Free markets are great in theory because they allow people to decide for themselves the kind of products and services they want, and the consequence is that businesses will compete for their attention by making the best possible stuff at the lowest possible price. So it makes sense that Republicans would want broadband internet to be sold with as little interference as possible from the government.
There's just one huge, glaring problem: there's actually no meaningful competition in the broadband market. "None. Zero. Nothing. It is a wasteland." The market is fundamentally broken; people can't make real choices about who to buy internet from. In a lot of places, your only option is Comcast. Regulating broadband like a utility will provide more options for consumers and make the broadband market more like the ideal kind of market conservatives value.
2. There is no evidence net neutrality will kill jobs
Republican leaders have given dire warnings this year that net neutrality regulations will stifle innovation and kill jobs. Incidentally, this is a key talking point from major ISPs. But so far there's been no evidence that net neutrality will create net job losses.
ISPs, they argue, will have less incentive to make network investments that improve broadband service. But this point is actually completely counter-intuitive — unless the broadband market is completely broken. (It is.) In a competitive market, businesses invest money to make service better and cheaper because they have to if they want to survive. Nobody was talking about gigabit internet until Google Fiber lit a fire under their ass.
In fact, there are several companies and municipalities that have tried to make investments in high-speed broadband but were rebuffed or intimidated by incumbent ISPs. AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable have all used the state to curb competitors.
3. Net neutrality is the only way to protect the free market of the internet from monopolists like Comcast and Verizon
Monopolies are as much of a threat to free markets as meddlesome governments, but monopolies can't really exist without the government's help; ironically, killing net neutrality will do more damage to the free market by preserving a status quo that already transfers massive amounts of wealth and power from the government to just a few companies. So far these companies have been reined in slightly by net neutrality rules, which prevent them from completely manipulating who gets to use the internet and how they use it.
Mobile internet, for example, relies on doling out precious bands of the electromagnetic spectrum to companies that build and operate networks. Spectrum is a finite resource managed by the government, and ISPs like Verizon and AT&T have dominated the market by cornering spectrum sales and wielding huge influence over how their networks can be used. Consumers can't make useful decisions that will have real impacts on ISPs if the providers are powerful enough to ignore their preferences. In the case of wireless networks like Verizon and AT&T, many upstart competitors are literally locked out because of the laws of physics.
4. Net neutrality will expand liberty and free expression
The great irony of net neutrality becoming a partisan issue is that it is, by its very definition, about creating a level playing field that doesn't discriminate against types of expression. Net neutrality is just that: neutral.
Net neutrality is nothing like, as one of those emails I received had insinuated, the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" — an FCC policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses to present competing views on issues of public importance. Republicans have rightly blasted recent efforts to revive this kind of policy for being a heavy-handed form of governmental interference in the marketplace of ideas.
Net neutrality is actually the opposite of something like the Fairness Doctrine. The fundamental principle of net neutrality is equality: the idea that all information being carried on the network should be treated the same. It means that data coming from Senator Ted Cruz's website should be treated exactly the same as data coming from President Obama's website, and that companies like Verizon and Comcast shouldn't manipulate how that data is delivered.
5. Net neutrality represents the opposite of a government takeover of the internet
The only companies that will face a squeeze from utility-style regulation are monopolistic ISPs. So far, these companies have used government bodies at the state and federal level to expand their holdings, maximize profits, and stifle competitors.
By establishing some ground rules and making ISPs subject to common carrier regulations, these companies won't be able to manipulate vague statutes for competitive advantage. For instance, Verizon has played the FCC and its customers by arguing against Title II regulation as "ancient" and unwieldy while at the same time claiming it is a utility in order to receive government benefits.
6. Classical small-government liberalism supports the idea that government should provide public utilities, like roads and internet service
Even Adam Smith favored government expense on public works that facilitated commerce. The internet has been compared to the Interstate Highway System for great reasons: it's a system of communication and transportation that has created enormous wealth and opportunity. There's an enormous public interest in government-provided internet service, and some municipalities are trying to make it a reality, even though huge ISPs are trying to stop them.
But net neutrality isn't even a government-provided service like the highway system. It's just a set of rules that allows private companies to profit from providing essential services while protecting consumers and the vast majority of businesses from manipulative, anti-competitive behavior.
ISPs argue that they provide all of the innovation and investment in the internet, but they're not what makes the internet special. Businesses large and small, from Facebook to Airbnb, make the internet what it is. Net neutrality has allowed them to start, to compete, and to prosper — all because consumers can largely make decisions based on cost and merit rather than what Comcast or AT&T prefer.