President Obama shocked progressives and technology activists yesterday when he unveiled an aggressive plan for tackling the issue of net neutrality. Yes, yes, this is going to be a column about net neutrality but please don’t give up on me – it also features Ted Cruz and Obamacare and an exploration of the many evils wrought by Comcast, and those are all fun things that people on the Internet like to be angry about, so be angry about them with me.
Anyway, if you’re still here and you’re not clear on what net neutrality is, it’s basically a principle that says you are the person who determines the content you access on the Internet. There’s an important discussion to be had about the role Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon play in determining the online content you consume. They are extraordinarily powerful entities who control the infrastructure of the modern economy and are highly motivated to use that influence exclusively for their own benefit. But we can’t really have that conversation, and it’s because of people like Ted Cruz.
Liberal reporters, tech journalists, healthcare wonks, and basically the entire Internet were quick to point out that Cruz was absurdly wrong on the substance and demonstrated an ignorance of both healthcare and tech policy that is genuinely worrisome given that he’s a member of Congress who actually gets to vote on laws and regulations.
But Cruz doesn’t give a damn about being right or about looking stupid in the eyes of journalists. He cares about riling up Tea Party-types and the conservatives who form his base of support, and there’s no better way to do that than to stimulate the rage centers of their brains by dropping a reference to Obamacare. A subject like net neutrality, steeped as it is in opaque technical jargon, is highly susceptible to this sort of reductive treatment. What he's accomplished here is he's turned the net neutrality argument into a "Barack Obama versus Ted Cruz" argument, and that's how it will be covered by reporters who prefer personality clashes over complicated substance.
But in a certain sense, Cruz was on-point, albeit unintentionally. Healthcare and Internet service in America do share some common features – specifically, we pay a lot for both, and the product we get in return kinda sucks relative to how much we spend. Head to Europe or Asia and chances are that you’ll be able to purchase faster Internet access for far less money than you’d pay here. Also, Internet connections abroad are getting faster and cheaper, while prices and speeds are pretty much staying the same in the U.S.
The reason for this is that Internet providers in the U.S. enjoy local monopolies and can get away with charging you more for crappier service because, on a town-to-town basis, they’re the only game in town. Internet providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable are wildly successful companies, but they consistently get terrible customer service ratings because they don’t really have to worry about their customers switching to another provider. The notion of robust broadband Internet competition in the U.S. is a joke, and now that Comcast and Time Warner are trying to convince regulators to allow them to merge, Internet providers are signaling that they’ve grown tired of even pretending to compete.
The most important feature of President Obama’s net neutrality plan is actually a proposal that (some people argue) will boost competition among Internet providers. The principles he laid out for how ISPs can treat Internet traffic – no blocking of content, no throttling of content, no paid prioritization – were all part of the Open Internet Order that the FCC approved in 2010, and which was struck down by the courts earlier this year. With his new plan, Obama is going a step further by calling for the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet to make Internet service providers abide by “common carrier” regulations that apply to phone companies and other public utilities.
As Wired’s Robert McMillan explained back in June, the 2002 decision to exempt broadband providers from these regulations is responsible for the sorry state of broadband competition today:
In the 90s, “common carrier” rules offered millions of people their first on-ramp to the internet. The telephone companies had been forced to open up their networks to thousands of dial-up internet service providers, including companies like AOL and Earthlink. But classifying cable and DSL connections as “information services” changed that. The move has led to limited competition in the broadband internet market, with ISPs like Comcast and Verizon dominating the landscape, and now, it may undermine net neutrality–the notion that our internet should be fair for everyone and free of tampering from meddlesome ISPs.
Broadband Internet providers are obviously in opposition to this idea and will fight hard to maintain the status quo. Comcast spends well over $10 million annually on lobbying and cuts very large campaign checks to influential members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. The cable lobby has a tremendous amount of influence in Washington, D.C., and there are numerous telecom-funded front groups that churn out volumes of research on the innovation and entrepreneurship of the broadband industry.
Increased regulation, the pro-broadband forces argue, will sap ISPs of the will to develop new technologies and innovate. What they really mean is that they’re profiting handsomely from their “squeeze every last dime out of customers and treat them like human garbage because we can” business models and don’t want to lose the influence that comes with thorough domination of the broadband market.
And that’s what makes this political fight so interesting. Broadband Internet providers have built very successful empires for themselves, but that success has left them almost universally reviled and vulnerable to populist calls for reform and regulation. Political opportunists like Ted Cruz appeal to existing resentments and tribalism to attack Obama over net neutrality, and in doing so they provide political cover for the defenders of the status quo, which pretty much everyone dislikes. Cruz is claiming to stand up for free-market principles against big-government, but he’s actually poisoning a conversation about increasing competition among broadband providers that most conservatives would probably like to have.