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Conservatives Freak Out, Progressives Angered by FCC Net Neutrality Rule

I want to co-sign to Chris Bowers’ argument that there is basically no constituency for the net neutrality rule approved by the FCC yesterday. Progressives see the rule and find it riddled with loopholes and damaging to the principle of non-discrimination and Internet freedom; conservatives see the rule and literally go insane. As Bowers says, net neutrality is not the kind of issue that will garner national attention, so this middle course is just the wrong strategy.

In some policy areas, political observers might argue that angering interest groups on both sides is a sign that you are doing something right. However, on an issue that is unable to hold much attention for the public at large, that calculation doesn’t work. There is no constituency for this Net Neutrality compromise. There won’t be any legion of mushy-middle voters applauding the FCC, and the Obama administration, for telling the left and the right to go stick it on this one. There will only be pissed off activists on both sides.

In some cases, you need to pick a side, rather than just trying to make everyone either happy or angry. Net Neutrality is one of those cases.

I have to admit that I don’t know what conservatives are talking about when they talk about this development. “Government control of the Internet” is about the furthest thing from the truth of this rule; it’s a back door to more corporate control, but that’s a far different animal. They have to go through elaborate logical leaps, denying that the FCC rule is even the real intent, to arrive at this conclusion. Here’s noted technology expert Rush Limbaugh.

Today the FCC approved a proposal by chairman Julius Genachowski to give the FCC power to prevent broadband providers from selectively blocking web traffic. And that’s just a ruse. Net Neutrality is not what this is really all about. This is about the feds wanting to control the Internet just as they control the public airwaves. They want to be able to determine who gets to say what, where, how often — they want to be able to determine what search services are providing what answers to your queries. It’s total government control of the Internet, and the regime has just awarded it to itself.

It’s another gleaming aspect of free speech, free market, private industry Obama has decided to take over as a Christmas present to himself and the Democrat National Committee and to Mr. Soros. He’s even beaten Hugo Chavez to the punch. Chavez is just talking about taking over the Internet in Venezuela; Obama has got it done.

The only thing that’s close to true in that rant is the part about Hugo Chavez, and even that’s wrong: the Venezuelan parliament didn’t just talk about it, they passed the law.

It would be easier to mock this ranting from the likes of Limbaugh, however, if this rule had any merit. Jason Rosenbaum boils this down:

1: Corporate censorship is allowed on your phone

The rules passed today by Obama FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski absurdly create different corporate censorship rules for wired and wireless Internet, allowing big corporations like Comcast to block websites they don’t like on your phone — a clear failure to fulfill Net Neutrality and put you, the consumer, in control of what you can and can’t do online.

2: Online tollbooths are allowed, destroying innovation

The rules passed today would allow big Internet Service Providers like Verizon and Comcast to charge for access to the “fast lane.” Big companies that could afford to pay these fees like Google or Amazon would get their websites delivered to consumers quickly, while independent newspapers, bloggers, innovators, and small businesses would see their sites languish in the slow lane, destroying a level playing field for competition online and clearly violating Net Neutrality.

3: The rules allow corporations to create “public” and “private” Internets, destroying the one Internet as we know it

For the first time, these rules would embrace a “public Internet” for regular people vs. a “private Internet” with all the new innovations for corporations who pay more — ending the Internet as we know it and creating tiers of free speech and innovation, accessible only if you have pockets deep enough to pay off the corporations.

It’s not the government in control of whatever censorship could come about from this, it’s the corporate provider, and those decisions will not be made on the basis of politics but cash.

As Dan Gillmor notes, this ruling will only provide certainty for lobbyists and lawyers. The Republicans want legislation to overturn the rule, and Verizon may sue. If the advocacy community felt like these rules were worth preserving, we may have a fight on our hands. But they don’t. The rules don’t have a firm legal footing and no constituency working on their behalf. It’s a recipe for disaster.

And in the confusion, telecoms and corporate interests will be enabled to take more control of the Internet, the way they took control of other forms of communication over time. It’s possible this was inevitable, but with the FCC basically standing down in the face of the lobbying effort, it was assured. It’s industry capture to the extreme.

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David Dayen

David Dayen