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Republicans in Congress don't know what internet freedom means

Republicans in Congress don't know what internet freedom means


...unless it means the freedom to kill the internet

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Chip Somodevilla

In 2011, Janus Kopfstein wrote a killer piece for Motherboard titled "Dear Congress, it's no longer ok to not know how the internet works." Back then, the clumsy ignorance of our lawmakers allowed a charade called the Stop Online Piracy Act to make serious steps toward becoming law. The brief history of SOPA is this: the music and movie industry lost the battle against online piracy in the 2000s, and then decided it would just be easier to get Congress to blow up the internet. The bill was so odious that it led to unprecedented efforts to kill it, including an internet "blackout" intended to inform internet users that Congress was about to embark on a disastrous adventure in legislative stupidity. It worked, and the bill was tabled indefinitely, but the fundamental problem Kopfstein rightly underscored hasn't been fixed. The government is still pretty dumb when it comes to the internet. If you don't believe me, just look at how well turned out.

It's 2014, and the future of the internet is still at stake, and there's still a lot of ignorance about technology on both sides of the aisle. But right now there's only one party in Congress that's actively threatening to kill the founding principles that have made the internet the booming success it is today.

Just like it was during the SOPA crisis, people who love and understand the internet are mad again. This time it's about the looming death of net neutrality: the set of principles that so far have kept companies like Comcast and Verizon from kidnapping the internet and demanding ransom from users and other businesses on top of the fees they already pay to get internet access. As the FCC now considers caving on net neutrality with a "paid prioritization" scheme, after years of trying and failing to establish net neutrality protections, the issue is back in Congress.

Republicans are buying into the ISP's bullshit scare tactics

People who understand the history of the internet and the value it now provides to everyone accept the obvious conclusion that the internet is a utility, just like water and electricity. (As The Verge's Nilay Patel aptly pointed out, anybody who says otherwise is lying for money.) Right now advocates are trying to convince the FCC to just say that obvious fact, and do what it should have done years ago but lacked the courage to accomplish: to declare that ISPs are common carriers, subject to restrictions on how they handle the speech that travels through their cables. But internet providers don't want to be treated like common carriers, because it would, in short, stifle profits. So what's their response? To cast reclassification as "heavy handed" regulation from Big Government. And Republicans are buying it.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

There are two major themes to GOP objection that were crystalized in today's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on net neutrality regulation: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and "big government is bad," a talking point that's probably less useful in governing than just sitting quietly and never saying anything. While each Republican member of the committee took turns trying to convey the idea of the internet to the public, turning it over in their hands like an exotic, alien object (at one point, a senator even tried to use air conditioning as a metaphor for the internet), it was Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX) who managed to sound the most aggressively clueless.

"The FCC's latest adventure in net neutrality in my view would only serve to stifle innovation and would potentially subject the internet to nanny state regulation from Washington," Cruz said today. "Net neutrality is a wolf in sheep's clothing." Cruz's thesis, something ISPs and Republicans have been spinning since Title II regulation was first whispered, is that net neutrality regulation amounts to a government takeover of the internet. To be blunt, that's simply a lie; the only thing that happened when the telephone monopoly was put in check was that telephone service got better and cheaper.

The idea that net neutrality is a government takeover of the internet is a lie

The internet is free precisely because of net neutrality principles it has always enjoyed. And the idea that the internet isn't broken and thus requires no care is like standing on the beach as a tsunami approaches, claiming that everything is fine simply because it hasn't reached shore. Remember AT&T and T-Mobile's "sponsored data" plans that privilege traffic from some companies over others? How about when AT&T blocked FaceTime and Hangouts video chatting on its mobile network for completely arbitrary reasons? The reality is that ISPs are actively trying to mess with net neutrality and have been for years. The only thing traditionally standing in their way is the FCC, and Republicans have been working for years to cripple it. "The FCC shouldn't be endangering future investments," Cruz said. "A five member government panel should not be dictating how internet services should be delivered."

Internet freedom does not mean what you think it means

Republican politicians are famous for saying that the government shouldn't pick winners and losers in the marketplace, but their alternative for the internet is actually much worse: they want companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T to be in charge of the internet. These companies don't even really care what the laws say as long as they can be used to their benefit; Verizon, which is currently fighting against Title II reclassification, actually uses the Title II designation when it's convenient to gain access to infrastructure for a low price set by the government. Verizon told the FCC that Title II is an "arcane regulatory framework... crafted for 19th century railroad monopolies and the early 20th century one-wire telephone world," and that it has "no place in today's fast-paced and competitive internet marketplace," unless, of course, Verizon wants to gain competitive advantage on the government's dime.

"I believe we should protect the freedom of the internet," Senator Cruz said today. "Those who are fatally strangled so often by these regulations are the little guys." What Cruz doesn't get, and what many of his colleagues either fail to understand or are being dishonest about in service of corporate interests, is that the only winners in a world without net neutrality are the big guys. That's why 50 leading tech investors who know how the internet startup game works told the FCC that ending net neutrality would cripple young companies.

"Title II is definitely not just (so-called) heavy handed regulation for utilities or monopolies," Free Press policy director Matt Wood told The Verge following today's hearing. "The core of Title II are the common carrier principles that keep networks open. Those principles prevent discrimination. They keep the ISPs from telling you what websites you can go to, which apps you can use, or what you can watch and say online."

What's most confounding about Republican support for monopolistic ISPs is that they are exemplars of a broken market, long overdue for intervention. ISPs are insular, lumbering Goliaths whose incentives often directly oppose the interests of consumers. Republicans ought to know that unregulated monopolies are far worse than government takeovers. If they don't, they might want to start listening to Comcast customer service calls.

The little guys that Ted Cruz says he wants to protect have already spoken. It's time for Republicans to listen.