Today The New York Times is reporting that the legislative fight over net neutrality is all but over:
Senior Republicans conceded on Tuesday that the grueling fight with President Obama over the regulation of Internet service appears over, with the president and an army of Internet activists victorious.
The Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to approve regulating Internet service like a public utility, prohibiting companies from paying for faster lanes on the Internet. While the two Democratic commissioners are negotiating over technical details, they are widely expected to side with the Democratic chairman, Tom Wheeler, against the two Republican commissioners.
And Republicans on Capitol Hill, who once criticized the plan as “Obamacare for the Internet,” now say they are unlikely to pass a legislative response that would undo perhaps the biggest policy shift since the Internet became a reality.
Net neutrality has always struck me as an outlier issue in modern American politics. We hear all the time about moneyed special interests and their corrosive effect on the democratic process, but net neutrality seems to be a glaring exception to this general trend — with one huge qualification: while Congress may have surrendered, there’s little chance the telcos are quite as willing to resign themselves to their fate. So the chances of seeing litigation, as opposed to legislation, attempting to overturn the expected Thursday FCC ruling approach 100%.
Nevertheless, I believe there are several reasons for net neutrality’s present-day victory:
1) It is not entirely accurate to paint net neutrality proponents as Davids facing off against the telco Goliaths. Here are just a few of the major brands who’ve come out, at one point or another, in favor of net neutrality:
- Google: “If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies’ content over others, that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome.”
- Twitter: “Through The Internet Association, Twitter has joined other leading Internet companies to urge the FCC to promulgate common sense net neutrality rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed securing the legal foundation for these rules in Title II of the Communications Act (along with other statutory authority). We strongly support ensuring that such rules include prohibitions against blocking or throttling of sites and services as well as the paid prioritization of some traffic over others. These rules should govern Internet service whether users are at their desk at home or on their smartphone across town.”
- Netflix: “Strong net neutrality rules are needed to stop Internet service providers from demanding extra fees or slowing delivery of content to consumers who already have paid for Internet access.”
- Tumblr: “The FCC has a tool available to them called ‘Title II.’ Rules written under Title II could act as a bill of rights for traffic on the internet, and ensure that cable companies can’t abuse their positions as carriers of that traffic. Through Title II, we can make certain that the future of the internet is in our hands. Not theirs. The internet belongs to everybody. Let’s keep it that way.”
- Etsy: “That’s why I, along with many others in the startup and public-interest communities, started encouraging the FCC to establish new rules protecting real net neutrality under the strongest legal authority available to them — Title II of the Communications Act — allowing them to ban paid prioritization, throttling and blocking. The previous rules were overturned by the courts because the FCC used the wrong legal authority to justify them. This time, we want them to get it right.”
- Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Amazon, Reddit, Dropbox, eBay, etc.
In other words, the battle lines are more precisely described as existing between old-guard Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon on the one hand and new-school content companies like Google and Facebook on the other. Did all indications originally appear to favor the well-connected, rent-seeking old guard? Absolutely. But the upset was hardly a pure-and-simple triumph of the vox populi. There were moneyed interests at stake for the good guys too.
2) Prominent political writers and journalists are both a) unusually focused on this issue and b) unusually united in their views on it. Net neutrality occupies a strange space in the political landscape in that its general contours are widely supported by the public (even if most people don’t truly understand what it means). This is especially so among the digital-native political set, as you might expect: the dissolution of net neutrality would have especially negative connotations for journalists and writers whose livelihood depends in large part on their ability to propagate content easily and cheaply on the Internet. A world in which establishment outlets like, say, The New York Times, The Economist, and CNN fork over large amounts of cash to obtain preferential treatment from broadband networks is not one in which any other journalist or freelancer wants to live.
3) Net neutrality is generational. Like marriage equality, another issue to which younger people are especially attuned, net neutrality is a generationally-weighted concept that tends to attract similar viewpoints from across the political spectrum. In this way it stands in stark contrast to culture-war issues such as gun control and abortion, which hew to regional and ideological fault lines. Kids and young adults intuitively grasp the transformative nature of the Internet in a way that baby boomers and their elders simply cannot: in short, we’ve seen the Internet, we love it, and we don’t anyone changing it. And like gay marriage, politicians sense which way the wind is blowing and would rather not be remembered for their opposition to something that’s so fiercely defended by so many.