Net neutrality is not a liberal-vs.-conservative issue

A new poll shows Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose Internet fast lanes -- not that you'd know it from the rhetoric in Congress

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All hopes for a reasoned discussion on Net neutrality seemingly flew out the window this week, as President Obama issued a strong statement calling on the FCC to reclassify ISPs as Title II carriers in order to preserve a free and open Internet. And though a new poll shows Net neutrality is not a liberal-vs.-conservative issue, that's undeniably how it will play out in Congress.

The results of a survey released this week by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication show that Net neutrality is an overwhelmingly bipartisan issue, with 81 percent of Americans opposing the idea of ISPs charging websites and services to prioritize their Internet traffic. Republicans were slightly more likely to favor Net neutrality, with 81 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Republicans saying they opposed fast lanes.

But Republicans in Congress have long carried the telecom's fight against regulation and -- surely this is not at all related? -- received the largest chunk from the $16.4 million Comcast has strewn on Capitol Hill this year. House Speaker John Boehner (who has received nearly twice as much from Comcast as any other member of Congress) was among the first to denounce Obama, saying, "It's disappointing, but not surprising, that the Obama administration continues to disregard the people's will and push for more mandates on our economy."

I guess he didn't have a chance yet to look at that survey regarding "the people's will" on this issue.

Senator Ted Cruz, who sits on the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, pithily labeled Net neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet" in his rebuttal. His communications director Amanda Carpenter elaborated, tweeting, "Net neutrality puts gov't in charge of determining pricing, terms of service, and what products can be delivered. Sound like Obamacare much?"

Apparently, she didn't listen to Obama's actual statement, in which he said, "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." That was toward the end of the video, which perhaps Carpenter couldn't listen to in its entirety in her rush to tweet a reaction. Oh well, at least Cruz didn't call Net neutrality "death panels for the Web."

Republican opposition to Net neutrality -- the principle that ISPs should treat all traffic on the Internet equally -- has baffled many, given that a level playing field is the basis for a free market system. Far from choking off innovation, as open Internet opponents claim, Net neutrality regulations are needed to ensure a level playing field for startups and innovators.

Arkansas entrepreneur Matt Hudson, who launched an app called VoteRockIt that helps smaller political candidates launch online campaigns, says Net neutrality affects his livelihood as a small-business owner. "The Internet is the only true leveling of the playing field that there is in our country," Hudson told PandoDaily."It's the only thing that gives the small guys the chance to compete."

Some opposition to Net neutrality stems from the belief that it is a thinly disguised "Fairness Doctrine for the Internet." Credit Rush Limbaugh for raising the prospect of an Internet where "Net neutrality would require that every search engine produce an equal number of results that satisfy every disagreement about the issue." Forbes reinforced that idea, saying, "Net neutrality is one way [for Democrats] to attain their goal of dominating the media."

In fact, Net neutrality has nothing to do with regulating content. "I don't see how that really enters the debate," said Diane Katz, a research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It doesn't have anything to do with the Fairness Doctrine."

The real sticking point with Obama's proposal, of course, is Title II classification. Title II is not the same thing as Net neutrality, and there are those who favor the latter but dislike the idea of more heavy-handed regulation -- and fear that ramping up the FCC's authority over the Internet will make it easier for government to extend its surveillance of Americans.

Comcast itself said it supports Obama's proposal -- all except that part about reclassifying broadband as a utility. "Being for Net neutrality and against Title II is completely consistent," Comcast Executive VP David Cohen wrote in a blog post this week. "We just believe that the courts have laid out a clear legal path to accomplishing that result under Section 706 which will enable the country to avoid the adverse investment and innovation impacts of Title II."

Too bad that Verizon -- and the federal courts that upheld its lawsuit against the FCC -- already poisoned that well. Without Title II classification, the FCC simply does not have the authority to enforce open Internet rules.

Underlying the need for those rules is the fact that the free market system doesn't apply when it comes to Internet access. Little competition exists in the United States, where a few telecom giants monopolize local markets. While paying lip service to Net neutrality, these monopolies are already pursuing fast-lane deals.

The prospect of an Internet where ISPs are free to act as gatekeepers for content, rather than passive conduits, fuels pro-Net neutrality sentiment. "The government is not the only force that can constrict freedom," Gizmodo  notes. "Corporations can be just as tyrannical as corrupt federal administrations, and we have been in danger of ISPs controlling and corroding the flow of information through the Internet in a way that would be detrimental to everybody."

Sounds reminiscent of the way unregulated corporate-owned media in the United States has the power to corrode the flow of information: ABC World News Tonight (owned by Disney, a major media conglomerate opposed to Net neutrality) completely ignored Obama's statement on Net neutrality, a major issue affecting the economy and the lives of all American Internet users. ABC thought there were more pressing issues of the day -- such as billionaire Richard Branson's offer to reunite Led Zeppelin.

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