The Public Isn’t Neutral On Net Neutrality

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President Obama’s proposal to classify broadband Internet service as a Title II utility cheered advocates of net neutrality, but FCC Chairmam Tom Wheeler has his own ideas for how to handle the issue, which don’t quite square with the president’s:

The dissonance between Obama and Wheeler has the makings of a major policy fight affecting multibillion-dollar industries. The president wants clear rules to prevent Internet service providers from auctioning the fastest speeds to the highest bidders, a scenario that could favor rich Web firms over start-ups. Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable and telecommunications industry, has floated proposals that aim to limit the ability of service providers to charge Web companies, such as Netflix or Google, to reach their customers. But critics have argued that his approach would give the providers too much leeway to favor some services over others.

While Obama and Wheeler may disagree on how, chances are the FCC will get there one way or another, since the general principle of net neutrality is overwhelmingly popular:

In a new survey, the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication found that support for neutrality is strong and widespread — regardless of gender, age, race and level of education. About 81 percent of Americans oppose allowing Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge Web sites and services more if they want to reach customers more quickly, that is, allowing what are often called “Internet fast lanes.” Most surprising of all, given comments by Republican lawmakers over the past couple of days, is that support for net neutrality is bipartisan. Indeed, Republicans were slightly more likely to support net neutrality than Democrats. Eighty-one percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Republicans in the survey said they opposed fast lanes. The poll’s margin of error was 3.2 percentage points.

Another survey, albeit by a pro-net neutrality outfit, finds similar levels of support among self-described “very conservative” voters. Jason Koebler, meanwhile, goes after Comcast, which claims to be totally on board with Obama’s proposal:

In a blog post titled “Surprise! We agree with the president’s principles on net neutrality: Reiterating our strong support for the open internet,” Comcast exec David Cohen notes that the company practices Obama’s proposed rules against blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, and that it supports increased telecom industry transparency. On the first three, he’s technically right, at the moment. On the last one, he’s dead wrong.

It’s true that Comcast practices those three principles of net neutrality— because it is legally obligated to under the terms of its last mega merger, the deal in which it acquired NBC.  … Meanwhile, before the NBC merger, Comcast actively lobbied against net neutrality. In the past, it violated [since overturned] FCC rules on net neutrality by throttling customers. It has helped put into place anti municipal broadband laws all throughout the country with the help of organizations like ALEC and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. It has run fear mongering campaigns about municipal broadband competitors.

“It seems inevitable,” Katie Benner writes, “that at some point in the future we’ll decide that Internet access is as essential to civilized life as running water, electricity and phone calls.” Thus, she concludes, it’s equally inevitable that we’ll decide to treat it as a public utility:

Messaging and self-driving car apps and health records will reside on your phone, along with the videos of panda cubs wrestling with zoo keepers. And you won’t be able to live without any of it. When that realization hits, it should follow that the Internet service providers –companies such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable now, and likely a company like Google in the future — will be regulated like utilities. They should be held to a different standard if they provide services that are essential to daily life. Water prices, for example, stay within certain bounds so that wild market swings don’t force swaths of the population to live without the ability to bathe, drink and cook. Remember the debacle of the Enron energy traders and the California power crisis and unnecessary brownouts? Regulating services as utilities is designed, in part, to keep things like that from happening.

Bershidsky observes that for all the appeals to “innovation” among proponents and opponents of net neutrality alike, actual innovations in the Internet economy will likely be so disruptive as to upturn both sides’ premises:

[T]he combatants mean two different kinds of “innovation.” Providers are talking about their ability to upgrade networks so they can carry more traffic at faster speeds. Their opponents focus on new services for consumers that might require a lot of bandwidth. In both cases, the i-word is applicable, but it’s not the type of innovation that could change the face of the industry. Not the disruptive kind. …

If the government leaves the Internet alone — letting broadband and content providers hatch whatever devilish plots they feel are in their interest — some startup, or a few of them, will inevitably come up with the next idea that will be far outside the current debate. It might involve advances in compression technology, making all talk of fast and slow lanes irrelevant because they could suddenly allow the existing infrastructure to carry more traffic, or breakthroughs in mesh networking, which might allow people to get broadband connections without using much of that infrastructure. Whatever the game-changing innovation might be, both sides in the current dispute would be forced to deal with it, pitching in with incremental innovations.

Obama Revives The Net Neutrality Fight

Yesterday, the president threw his full support behind the principle of net neutrality, urging the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet services as a public utility:

Obama’s argument explicitly rejects proposed rules that FCC considered earlier this year to allow paid prioritization, a plan by which content providers can make deals with ISPs to get faster service to their websites. (Those rules are still under consideration and have not been finalized.) The White House proposal calls for no paid prioritization, no blocking of any content that is not illegal, and no throttling of Internet services, where some customers have their Internet speeds artificially slowed down. The proposal also asks that any new rules include mobile broadband, which is already the primary access point for many users.

As the president himself reminds us, the FCC does not answer to him, and does not have to listen to (or even consider) his suggestions. So there are no guarantees that any of these rules will even come to pass. However, an endorsement by the White House would be the strongest push yet toward an FCC that treats all Internet traffic as equal.

Phillip Bump calls this politically smart:

[S]iding with people against Comcast (which actually is subject to a higher standard on neutrality than other companies for now) and other cable providers is hardly a political misstep. (Do you love your cable company? Right. Thought so.)

It also helps repair relationships with the tech community that were splintered in the wake of the National Security Agency’s spying revelations.

When leaks from Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the agency was infiltrating social networks, it put firms like Facebook and Google in an awkward commercial position. The administration reached out to the companies as it planned revisions. But an embrace of net neutrality —backed by big companies that don’t want to have to pay more to push out their content — is a big win for for tech. It could use one; its marquee midterm race went poorly.

Jason Koebler weighs the reaction from net neutrality proponents:

At first blush, it looks like  many of the most net neutrality supporters are happy with Obama’s announcement. Tim Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, who has organized many of the net neutrality protests called it “huge.” Tim Wu, who invented the idea of net neutrality, called it “100 percent on target.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation also backed Obama’s statement.

Of course, in the end, this is the FCC’s decision, and chairman Tom Wheeler has already proposed a  mostly maligned “hybrid” proposal that is apparently already being thrown out because of the backlash it received when its existence leaked more than a week ago. In that proposal, paid prioritization could occur between content providers and ISPs: Netflix, for instance, could pay to have its content delivered faster to consumers. In his statement, Obama said that’s no good.

David Dayen detects a message here about what kind of lame-duck president Obama plans to be:

As for the president, this maneuver signals that he’s not looking to be a caretaker in his final two years, at least on discrete issues. Net neutrality activists correctly reasoned that getting Obama involved would provide the surge of support they needed for reclassification, and they targeted him as much as the FCC over the past several months. Obama showed that he listened, and it should give some solace to other groups wanting him to use his executive authority. In other words, Obama’s action on net neutrality is very good news for those who want him to move on immigration.

Nick Gillespie remains staunchly opposed to what he calls a dumb policy:

The most likely outcome is that regulators will freeze in place today’s business models, thereby slowing innovation and change. That’s never a good idea, especially in an area where new ways of bundling and delivering content are constantly being tried. It’s a historical accident that cable companies, who back in the day benefited from monopoly contracts with local governments, have morphed into ISPs. That will not always be the case, as the rise of Verizon (originally a phone company) and Google’s rollout of its own fiber system, attest. Just a few years ago, the FCC frowned on the cell-phone company MetroPCS’s discount plan that allowed access to the World Wide Web but denied users multimedia streaming. The FCC and Net Neutrality proponents thought that was a bad thing. Customers on a budget had a different opinion.

James Pethokoukis also opposes Obama’s proposal:

Keep in mind that the Obama plan would give the FCC, according to R Street’s Steven Titich, “the widest range of alternatives for economic and technological regulation of broadband.” And, of course, make the agency an even more attractive target for the lobbying class. …

All this, then, just to lock in “net neutrality” – a situation that does not exist and never existed — despite the risk of limiting new investment and innovation, Obama wants the FCC to treat the internet like a public utility. But the Obama proposal is based on flawed model of how the internet operates. Half of the internet’s traffic comes from just 30 content providers such as Google and Facebook.  And they’ve already made special arrangements by plugging directly into the ISPs. “Fast lanes” already exist. Again, R Street’s Titch: “There’s nothing about network neutrality to “preserve.” A regulation that pretends there is would serve to remove an economic incentive needed to ensure that broadband infrastructure is sufficiently robust to support the demands contemporary applications have placed on it.”

But Adam Clark Estes argues that opponents are overstating the level and nature of regulation Obama is proposing here:

If the idea of using an 80-year-old law to regulate a super futuristic communications technology worries you, you’ll be very glad to know that the president’s got your back. In his statement, there is this brief but very important line: “I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services.” (Emphasis mine.)

So the first part of it is the big reveal. Obama wants the FCC to treat broadband companies as common carriers. Telephone companies are also a common carriers regulated under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. However, this does not mean that Obama wants the FCC to apply all of the same regulations for telephones to broadband internet.

Meanwhile, here’s Ted Cruz’s response:

Yglesias tries to translate:

What, if anything, that phrase means is difficult to say. But its political significance is easy to grasp. All true conservatives hate Obamacare, so if net neutrality is Obamacare for the internet, all true conservatives should rally against it.

The asinine analogy prompted Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman to create this explainer cartoon.