Obama on Net Neutrality: Principle or Politics?
The week before last, our President made a pronouncement on Net Neutrality that pleasantly surprised activists and won him favorable coverage in the newspapers: both rare outcomes these days.
In both timing and content, the short speech (aptly broadcast over the Internet) was stunning. The President hit all the major points of contention and controversy in what has become a searing debate over the Internet's future and his talking points mirrored all the arguments progressive Internet activists have been making. It was among Obama's most forward-looking speeches.
Not only did he land on the right side of issues like assuring full and equal access and speed for all users and content providers but he came out in favor of the demand that has now emerged as the focal point for the Net Neutrality campaign: applying Title II to all Internet providers. In layperson's language, that means treating all Internet companies like FCC-governed utilities. That's what they did with phone companies and that's why phone service is, today, "service neutral" and the change would lay the groundwork for Net Neutrality's protection.
While calling it a victory for the Net Neutrality movement, however, activists salted their celebrations with a bit of skepticism. This is the man, after all, who has turned the Internet into the largest surveillance network in history while forging one of the most aggressive interventionist and homicidal foreign policies in the country's history. The speech was great but will it make a difference? And does the President really care? The President is, above all, a master politician and so the question arises: was this speech less policy than politics?
We've covered the Net Neutrality debate extensively but, to recap: Net Neutrality is the principle that service providers -- like Verizon and Comcast -- can't discriminate in the delivery of content or provision of access based on user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication. If you go on-line, you can reach everything anyone else can and you should never have to pay more to reach certain content.
This past January, a federal court determined that high-speed providers like Comcast aren't subject to the neutrality rules that govern telephone companies -- the Title II provision -- and so net neutrality doesn't apply to them. They are, after all, cable companies and anyone who subscribes to cable television with its multiple "programming packages" that give you a monthly dose of sticker shock knows there's nothing "neutral" about cable.
Since that court rebuke, the FCC floated a proposal calling for a two-tier Internet -- a faster, paid Internet and a slower, free, one -- insisting that the slower connection will be as fast as any around.