In the aftermath of his party’s defeat in the midterm elections, President Obama surprised many when he reaffirmed his overwhelming support for net neutrality, proposing that the Internet should be treated as a public utility. On the other side of the political spectrum, Senator Ted Cruz sparked a firestorm of ridicule amongst net neutrality advocates when he tweeted a response to the president, calling net neutrality “Obamacare for the internet” and stating “the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.” House Majority Leader John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell affirmed the Cruz position.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans in Congress have chosen to side with the large, corporate telecom companies in the ongoing debate about controlling the so-called “pipes” of the Internet. Forty-one Republican senators and representatives recently sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler protesting a proposal to reclassify Internet service providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 — this would acknowledge that Internet service is a regulatable “telecommunications service” and not an “information service” open to commercial tampering.
This Republican call to action comes from the aftermath of the controversial Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposal earlier this year that would allow Internet service providers to implement “fast lanes” for certain data of their own choosing, presumably at a premium cost. Nearly 4 million comments — a record — were submitted to the FCC objecting to this proposal.
It doesn’t take active use of the Internet to see that at its core the fight about net neutrality is a fight about big corporations trying to stratify and limit the rights and options of consumers.
It’s the same old song and dance — corporations want more control at the expense of consumer choice and at the expense of a fair market. Net neutrality is about whether or not corporations have the right to seize this control and obtain the ability to give preferential treatment to certain websites, companies or services.
An apt historical comparison is the movement to control the public airwaves. The FCC has a giveaway history of allowing giant broadcast corporations to acquire valuable radio and television licenses free across the country with no rent payable to the citizens who own them. When it comes to the airwaves, the FCC has chosen to largely ignore citizen speakers, writers, and artists who need and deserve a platform to share their message and values, in favor of big money “marketplace forces.” As such, there are no meaningful requirements anymore for broadcasters to provide useful, educational information or ascertain the needs of local communities.
The Internet, in an idealized sense, is an open medium far greater and more wide-reaching than even the public airwaves. Unlike any other time in history, people can freely share ideas, coordinate events or movements, have a platform for films and art, start businesses, do research or schoolwork, acquire and read books and more. If you walk into any college classroom in the United States today, you’ll see the majority of the students with laptops in front of them, taking notes and using the Internet to do their work. If it’s not laptops, it’s smartphones. The Internet, for better or worse, has fundamentally changed the way that people communicate, operate and see the world. Even job seekers rely on the Internet to search for openings, submit applications, and field responses. There are many ways the Internet is abused for trivial social exchanges, data collection and advertising, but comparing its benefits and its potential against its negatives, the argument for treating it as a public utility is overwhelming.
One of the main issues facing President Obama in his new push for net neutrality is his counterintuitive choice to head the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler. Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, has been criticized for his past involvement with the big corporations that seek to end net neutrality. At this point, it’s not clear how Wheeler intends to proceed, although some reports state that he favors a middle-ground approach, which is an unacceptable compromise for open Internet advocates.
It’s no surprise that companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are battling the open nature of the Internet because they cannot control how their customers use it. In fact, some op-eds have shown up in the major papers in the past week arguing against net neutrality, written by authors with industry ties, in a thinly-veiled effort to sway public opinion. Recent polls, however, have shown that the majority of Americans — including conservatives — are in favor of net neutrality.
I’ve written in the past about left-right convergence (see my book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.) It is vitally important for those on the left and right to unite on this common ground. After all, nothing shakes up lawmakers like the rumblings from both ends of the spectrum.