Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) had perhaps the most memorable reaction to Obama's Monday announcement about net neutrality: reclassifying broadband under common carrier laws was "Obamacare for the internet." Beyond the fact that Cruz hates both these things, the comparison didn't make a lot of sense, but it was good enough for him to elaborate upon at length today in a speech at Austin incubator Capital Factory.
Yes, we'll all be using rotary phones
The talk, which laid out a four-point "future of the internet" platform, was peppered with folksy and familiar rhetoric. Ted Cruz thinks an internet sales tax would hurt new entrepreneurs if, say, "you formed a company and you wanted to make retro lava lamps." He supports ICANN, the US-based group that manages the internet's domain name system, and opposes giving the UN or any international group more control. He's a co-sponsor of the USA Freedom Act, a limited NSA reform bill that's about to be brought to a vote in the Senate. And he thinks net neutrality will kill freedom of speech and take away your smartphone. "Mark my words, everyone who is interested in innovation, who is interested in freedom online, I believe would come to regret" putting broadband under Title II, he said, pulling out a black rotary phone. "This is regulated by Title II." He pulled out an iPhone. "This is not. Your smartphone, the internet, the apps, all of this is outside of Title II." And then, back to the rotary: "You ever tried to put one of these things in your pocket? It just doesn't work!"
If Cruz could make calls or text with that smartphone, his statement wasn't quite accurate, because wireless phone service is still covered under Title II. But that aside, his point is encapsulated here: "when you think of regulated monopolies, regulated public utilities, what are the adjectives that come to mind? They are not bold, innovative, fair." The whole thing is a perfect inversion of the liberal arguments for net neutrality. If net neutrality proponents argue that it will stop big players from locking out small companies, Cruz says it will help the "big boys" and lock out the startups. If Reddit's Alexis Ohanian can use "don't mess with the internet" as a slogan to protest the Republican-led SOPA copyright bill in Texas, Cruz can use it to tell off the FCC.
The problem is that "bold, innovative, and fair" aren't words that come to mind when you think of today's unregulated ISPs. In fact, Ted Cruz's nightmare scenario doesn't seem like a radical departure from what we've got right now. If its merger with Time Warner Cable goes through, Comcast will run over half the wired broadband market, and the "innovation" that net neutrality would prevent has so far involved blocking the BitTorrent protocol and giving its Xfinity video app a boost on the Xbox. Real competition — from Google Fiber or even municipal broadband projects — is what's actually led to, well, competition.
"Which is more innovative, the US Postal Service or Facebook and Twitter?" asks Cruz. No matter where you fall on net neutrality, that's a terrible comparison. The Postal Service isn't Facebook, it's Comcast. And while it's far from a perfect comparison, net neutrality is less "picking winners and losers," as Cruz calls it, than making sure post offices don't give one company special sorting privileges.