What is it about Net neutrality that invites such political posturing over a principal that enjoys huge bipartisan support among voters? While 85 percent of Republican voters oppose the creation of Internet fast lanes, presidential candidate Jeb Bush made headlines this week saying that if elected he would roll back Net neutrality rules passed under the Obama administration.
The Open Internet regulations still face legal challenges, but the biggest threat could come in 2016. President Obama has been a firm supporter of Net neutrality rules enacted by the FCC and a sure vetoer of any attempts by Congress to undo them. But what happens with the next president -- and the next FCC? The agency is directed by five commissioners appointed to five-year terms by the president, but only three commissioners may be from the same political party. The FCC approved the current rules along party lines, with a 3-2 vote, but in 2017 the next president will be in a position to appoint a new commissioner who could reverse that vote.
While Net neutrality is hardly an issue that will make or break a presidential candidate, their arguments and ability to handle technology policy are worth a look.
At a campaign stop in Iowa earlier this year, Bush said "the idea of regulating access to the Internet with a 1934 law is one of the craziest ideas I've ever heard. … It's not going to be good for consumers. It's certainly not going to be good for innovation."
The Communications Act of 1934 he was referring to mandated radio and telephones as "common carriers," and it doesn't seem to have hindered access to telephones. Besides, the FCC regulations have nothing to do with consumer "access to the Internet" -- they prevent ISPs from blocking or slowing Internet content. Bush also doesn't explain how allowing ISPs that power would result in more innovation and customer satisfaction.
In his recently released policy proposal, Bush laments that "rather than enhancing consumer welfare, these [Net neutrality] rules prohibit one group of companies (Internet service providers) from charging another group of companies (content companies) the full cost for using their services."
Wrong. The FCC not only specifically forbore from common carrier price regulation, but fast lanes in the form of CDN arrangements already exist and are perfectly legal under the FCC's rules.
The GOP leader in the latest poll on presidential candidates, Donald Trump shoots from the hip when it comes to Net neutrality -- and most subjects. In a tweet Trump thundered, "Obama's attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target the conservative media."
Given Trump's current war with Fox News, he may be reconsidering his defense of conservative media. But in any case, the defense is ill-placed: The Fairness Doctrine -- an FCC policy from the late '40s that said broadcasters must present issues in an honest, equitable, and balanced way -- was eliminated in 1987. It has nothing to do with Net neutrality.
As Wonkette noted:
How keeping the Internet accessible to everyone is somehow a power grab, or how it will somehow oppress conservatives, is beyond us. The Fairness Doctrine required equal time for opposing views; Net neutrality allows any idiot to use the Internet however he so chooses, without having to pay extra fees in order for people to actually see it. Like, hypothetically, if an idiot wanted to tweet his thoughts on Net neutrality. Hypothetically.
Currently running second in GOP polls, Carson spoke to David Brody at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year and denounced Obama and Net neutrality, saying anyone who wants to "impose another level of secrecy and control in the private lives of citizens is not our friend."
He went on to say that "we need to be exploring ways to allow people to do what they want to do. They've been doing it for years, so why should we now impose a layer of government control?"
I'm really not sure what any of that has to do with making sure Internet service providers treat all content equally.
The former CEO of Silicon Valley giant HP has touted her technology credentials -- and has been very vocal about Net neutrality. Like Bush, Fiorina would roll back Net neutrality if elected president. In April, she penned an opinion piece for CNN, warning, "Crony capitalism is alive and well. If you need proof, look no further than the Federal Communication Commission's new Title II regulations imposed in the name of ‘net neutrality' under pressure from President Barack Obama, and the big businesses that benefit."
No, it was not an April Fools' joke. Fiorina turns on its head the fact that opposition to Net neutrality came almost entirely from giant businesses like Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon, and public support for the rules was immense.
Fiorina goes on to say, "Title II regulation gives the Federal Communications Commission nearly unlimited authority to micromanage how, when and where Internet companies innovate."
No, really, it was not an April Fools' joke. Apparently Fiorina doesn't know the rules only impact Internet service providers, not Internet companies, who are still free to innovate however they choose. In fact, Internet innovators like Kickstarter, Etsy, Tumblr, and others were some of the strongest supporters of the new rules.
She continues: "The new Internet will require bureaucratic approval for the most mind-numbing minutiae and create huge areas of uncertainty. [Only] major companies … can afford the lobbyists and lawyers necessary to navigate the new Title II landscape."
Again, the new rules are directed at ISPs. Startups and other companies offering products and services on the Internet do not have to deal with the rules at all. (Sorry, lobbyists and lawyers.)
Just in case the reader is not sufficiently shaken up, she adds: "The new Internet will also lead to higher prices -- the very thing Net neutrality was supposed to prevent. ... the Internet economy will no longer benefit from the competition that has steadily driven prices down over the past two decades."
Again, the FCC rules have nothing to do with regulating prices; they were designed to prevent blocking and throttling of content. And Fiorina clearly has someone who pays her bills for her, or she wouldn't make a laughable comment about declining broadband prices.
The truest line Fiorina writes: "When influence trumps innovation, big entrenched companies benefit." Entrenched companies like the telecom giants, perhaps, who have spent years blocking competition and paying big bucks to have their interests protected by legislators.
The senator from Florida sits on the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over Net neutrality matters. Rubio penned an opinion piece for Politico that accuses the government of wanting to "crash the Internet party," and says "the issue of ISPs creating different speed lanes is not the injustice that it is made out to be."
Rather than regulating, Rubio believes "the answer to correcting injustice in an economy is to increase consumer power, not government power." He concludes: "[The Internet] is one of our people's greatest treasures, which is why it belongs in the hands of our people, not our government."
Stirring political rhetoric, perhaps, but it fails to address the problem. In a broadband market with little competition, consumers have no power. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) conducted a more in-depth critique when he took a red pen to Rubio's column.
Clinton came out in favor of the FCC's Open Internet Order but believes there was more that could be done. "As I understand it, it's Title II with a lot of changes in it to avoid the worst of Title II regulation," Clinton said. "It's a foot in the door ... but it's not the end of the discussion."
Specifically, the Verge writes, "Clinton wants to see changes enacted around incentivizing competition, something that's sorely lacking in the broadband market right now; more broadly, she hopes to see Internet connectivity treated more as an infrastructure problem."
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been a stalwart supporter of Net neutrality, which he frames as a fight against an "army of Comcast and Verizon lobbyists" who oppose the rules. He has spoken frequently about why it is necessary to "ensure that the Internet remains a space for the open exchange of ideas and information, free of discrimination and corporate control."
Writing in support of the Open Internet, Sanders said, "We must not let private corporations turn bigger and bigger profits by putting a price tag on the free flow of ideas."
While it's remains unclear that Biden will choose to run, the vice president had a mixed record on technology in the Senate and seemed skeptical about the need for Net neutrality rules in 2006, when the Commerce Committee took up the issue.
Regulation was unnecessary, Biden argued at the time, because if discrimination against content did occur, such a public outcry would develop that "the chairman will be required to hold this meeting in this largest room in the Capitol, and there will be lines wandering all the way down to the White House," Biden said.
Net neutrality may not be a major factor in the 2016 presidential election, but the outcome of the race will surely decide its fate.