Froma Harrop: Open Internet survives weird politics
Net neutrality won the day in Washington, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. Republicans indignantly opposed regulating Internet service, currently dominated by a few cable giants. Texas Republican Ted Cruz called it “Obamacare for the Internet” (in his world, fightin’ words).
The lobbying money and muscle of Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner no doubt stoked the lawmakers’ passions. And when the Federal Communications Commission voted to prevent Internet service providers from establishing fast lanes for favored customers, its two Republican members voted against it.
So why, when the FCC said the Internet would be treated as a public utility, like telephone lines, did Republicans retreat rather than battle on? The most cited reason was the successful campaign by open-Internet activists working alongside heavy broadband users, notably Netflix, Twitter and Mozilla, proprietor of the Firefox browser.
But there’s another reason. A lot of ordinary Americans hate their cable company. They fume with every month’s astronomically high TV-Internet-phone bundle bill, the product of the company’s monopoly or near-monopoly power.
High-speed Internet is seen no longer as a luxury but as the staff of commercial and personal life. Many Americans know that they are paying vastly more for far slower service than their friends in France, in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. For huge numbers of us, hating the cable company transcends politics.
Faced with these realities, the ideologically motivated voices on the right do what they do so well, avoid them. You have Holman Jenkins in The Wall Street Journal writing that the big tech names — Google, Facebook, Microsoft — didn’t fight against the net neutrality decision “because they didn’t want to be attacked by left-wing groups.”
(Yeah, Google, Facebook and Microsoft are so shy about defending their interests.)
In the real world, these big content providers have been for — not against — net neutrality. In a letter last spring to the FCC, they warned that permitting the Internet service providers to slow traffic for some sites and speed it for others would pose “a grave threat to the Internet.” Did they make themselves clear?
As for the politics, Barbara van Schewick, an Internet expert at Stanford Law School, offers a wildly different analysis of why Google and the others didn’t rush into the fray. She told Wired they “risked drawing the ire of the Republicans in Congress who might retaliate in various ways.”
Elsewhere in the real world, the cable companies don’t seem devastated by the FCC decision. The stocks of Comcast and Time Warner Cable actually rose in its wake. Their proposed merger was being held up by fears of creating a monolith that couldn’t be regulated. Now there are regulations, lowering those fears and making the merger likelier.
Meanwhile, Wall Street analysts have dismissed Republican claims that net neutrality will throttle the cable companies’ investment in infrastructure. After all, the service providers paid $44 billion to buy a new wireless spectrum at a recent FCC auction.
“They wrote that check full knowing that this was coming,” Daniel Ernst, an analyst at Hudson Square Research, said on CNBC.
Google is pro-net neutrality, though it did have some reservations about regulating the Internet like a phone company. That’s because Google’s business interests have spread into broadband. But note that the head of Google Fiber said the impending FCC decision “did not have any specific impact on (Google’s) plans to build more Fiber cities.”
All this solves the mystery of why Republican lawmakers did not bark after the FCC rejected their position. What’s left for the pure ideologues is a bowl of kibbles about the evils of regulation and the selfless good deeds of corporations. That bowl never empties.