Nut Neutrality (2014)

Let’s say the final score in Tuesday’s 2014 baseball All-Star Game is National League 97, American League 3. It’s a tie, right?

ADDED UPDATE: The All-Star Game ended in a tie, with a score of National League 3, American League 5.

Congressman Blackburn

Despite the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists believe urgent action is needed to address the potentially catastrophic environmental changes caused by the burning of fossil fuels, “The science is inconclusive,” says Marsha Blackburn, the Congressman* from Tennessee’s 7th District.

Similarly, Congressman Blackburn believes that the theory of evolution and the hypothesis of creationism deserve equal emphasis in the science curriculums of American public schools. The score on this one is even more lopsided: Scientists Who Believe In Science and Evolution 99.99, Scientists Who Believe the Universe, Planet Earth And All Its Life Forms Were Created By A Supernatural Entity Six Thousand Years Ago 0.01. Again, she says the science is inconclusive.

But on the issue of net neutrality, Congressman Blackburn argues, the score is absolutely conclusive: Broadband Internet Providers 100, Consumers 0. There is not a shred of evidence, she wrote last week in the conservative National Review Online, that consumers need net neutrality rules for the Internet. In fact, she says, any attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to regulate America’s broadband infrastructure gatekeepers will actually harm consumers, kill jobs, slow innovation, and push freedom-loving Americans farther down into the burning pit of socialism.

And she is an expert on this. According to her Congressional website, Congressman Blackburn “has earned a special reputation as a bi-partisan leader and policy expert on telecommunications issues.” Her lifetime voting record in Congress is Conservative 96, Liberal 4, according to the American Conservative Union. I suppose that in the current political climate you could score that as bipartisan. (She was not always so willing to reach across the aisle; in the majority of years since she entered Congress her A.C.U. score has been Conservative 100, Liberal 0.)

By the way, her Congressional website says Congressman Blackburn “is also a strident support [SIC] of the 287(g) grant program which she helped bring to Davidson County.” (For readers who aren’t Latino and therefore might not have heard of it, 287(g) is the widely discredited program that deputizes local sheriffs and police officers to assume the role of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and to stop, question, arrest, and possibly deport people who don’t look sufficiently “American.”)

I suspect the Congressman did not mean “strident.”


But maybe she did.

Anyway, back to Net Neutrality. At the risk of being strident, here’s why Congressman Blackburn is wrong: There is plenty of evidence that consumers will be hurt if the F.C.C. fails to hold Comcast and Time Warner Cable and Verizon and AT&T to the principles of net neutrality.

However, on one point I do agree with Congressman Blackburn (the first time that’s happened since Fred Flintstone rode his dinosaur to church): She says that consumers neither know about nor care about net neutrality. Percentage Of Americans Who Believe The Sun Revolves Around The Earth 26, Percentage Who Talk About Net Neutrality At Dinner Parties .0001.

Net neutrality is the precept that private telecommunications companies are subject to the same free speech principles as individuals. Net neutrality requires them to offer Internet service on a neutral, non-discriminatory basis. They can’t block or discriminate against legal Internet traffic just because they disagree with the message, or because they want to stifle competition. The rule requiring net neutrality was called the Open Internet Order. It prevented discrimination on the Internet the same way that other regulations prevent phone companies, electric utilities, water districts and other “common carriers” of essential services from discriminating against some customers and not others.

Six months ago, a federal appeals court ruled that the F.C.C. lacked jurisdiction to enforce the Open Internet Order, because the Internet was classified as an “information service,” and not as an essential “common carrier” service under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. The court scolded the F.C.C. for trying to regulate the Internet as if it were a Title II entity, without classifying it as a Title II entity.

As a result of that ruling, the F.C.C. no longer has the authority to enforce an open Internet playing field. Cable and telecom companies and Congressman Blackburn rejoiced.

“This ruling is a historic victory for America’s innovators and the free market,” Congressman Blackburn said. “I have been fighting these socialistic regulations since former F.C.C. Chairman [Julius] Genachowski first proposed them. At that time, I cautioned that these egregious rules would be overturned. Instead of putting in place more rules that restrict our freedom, this administration should be working with Congress to enact solutions that encourage more innovation and job creation.”

This seems to be the current meme in conservative politics: The government violates or restricts your freedom if it tries to stop you from discriminating against women, gays, non-Christians, ethnic minorities, and poor people.

The court ruling sent the F.C.C. back to the drafting table, leaving it with basically three choices:

  • Abandon the Internet to unregulated free market forces (Congressman Blackburn’s solution);
  • Craft new net neutrality rules that will upset everyone more or less equally; or
  • Reclassify the Internet as an essential service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 (my solution).

Fortunately for freedom-loving cable TV and telecom executives, the decision on how to craft new net neutrality rules is now in the hands of the F.C.C. chairman, Tom Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler is a Democrat, and thus might be expected to side with consumers over corporate interests. However, he is also the former top lobbyist for the cable TV and telecom industries.

George-Orwell-Animal-Farm-All-Animals-EqualPerhaps in the spirit of compromise, Mr. Wheeler’s proposed solution is to give the F.C.C. some powers to enforce net neutrality principles, but also to allow cable TV and telecom companies to effectively divide the Internet into “fast, reliable, and very expensive” and “slow, less reliable, and merely expensive” lanes. Content providers wanting to deliver their websites, applications, and services to consumers quickly and reliably would have to pay the cable TV and telecom gatekeepers a premium. Small businesses, startups, nonprofits, schools, and other content providers that can’t pay the premium, or choose not to pay, would be limited to basic service.

Keep in mind that basic Internet service, as defined by Comcast, is so pathetic and expensive by global standards that if it were forced on countries like Lesotho or Estonia or the Czech Republic, it would be considered an act of war.

The “tiered Internet” proposal places the interests of corporations above the interests of consumers. If enacted, the proposed rules will allow the Internet infrastructure companies, which own effective monopolies, to charge extra for access to its customers, who also must pay extra for faster service. Comcast, which operates its own streaming video and music services, could charge large competitors a premium just to compete, and make it financially difficult if not impossible for new market entrants to challenge them.

The term robber baron comes from unscrupulous German barons (Raubritter) who strung chains across the Rhine, demanded exorbitant tolls and tariffs from passing ships.

The cable and telecom companies would be able to reap billions of dollars in new profits by selling access to their pipes at both ends, without actually producing new services or new value.

Congressman Blackburn and other conservatives say the Internet has thrived since Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which dialed back government oversight and regulation. Adding regulation now, the conservatives say, will lead to less competition and less innovation.

You remember the 1996 Telecommunications Act, don’t you? We were told that removing regulations would lead to more competition among cable TV and broadband providers, and thus lower prices for consumers.

How did it turn out? There is less competition today than there was in 1996, and prices have soared. If the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is allowed to proceed, Comcast will have a broadband monopoly in 19 of America’s 20 largest metropolitan markets, and control approximately 40 percent of all broadband connections.

The innovation Congressman Blackburn cites? The United States created the Internet. The World Economic Forum now ranks the United States 35th out of 148 countries in available Internet bandwidth. The only category in which American broadband leads the world is in cost. The most notable innovation I see is in the business models of the monopolies: erecting toll booths at both ends of the same road, not just one. Not even the Robber Barons of medieval Germany thought of that.

Jobs? I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, the only new jobs likely to be created by the proposed telecommunications policy change will be gardeners, pool boys, and maids for the cable and telecom execs.

* In defiance of both the AP Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Congressman Blackburn wishes to be referred to as Congressman rather than Representative Blackburn or Congresswoman Blackburn. We will honor her wishes.