Politics of Net Neutrality Shift before F.C.C. Vote ; Push against Regulation Puts Republicans on Side of Maligned Cable Giants

By Weisman, Jonathan | International New York Times, January 21, 2015 | Go to article overview

Politics of Net Neutrality Shift before F.C.C. Vote ; Push against Regulation Puts Republicans on Side of Maligned Cable Giants


Weisman, Jonathan, International New York Times


A fight over big government versus small has put Republicans in the awkward position of defending the much maligned cable giants.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Last November, when President Obama proposed strict rules to prevent broadband companies from blocking or intentionally slowing down the web, Republicans pounced on what they called yet another heavy-handed liberal proposal. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas pronounced the regulations "Obamacare for the Internet."

But what was, on the surface, a simple fight over big government versus small has put Republicans in the awkward position of aligning themselves with the cable giants, among the most maligned industries in the United States, against the sad Netflix viewer waiting for "House of Cards" to break through its "buffering" vortex.

In the intervening weeks, politics on the so-called net neutrality issue have shifted so much that House and Senate Republicans are circulating legislation that would ostensibly do exactly what the president wants: ban the blocking or "throttling" of web traffic and prohibit the creation of paid "fast lanes" for Internet content providers willing to pay for faster delivery. But it would also prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from issuing regulations to achieve those goals -- the approach favored by the Obama administration and most Internet companies.

"The ground has shifted," said Chip Pickering, a former Republican House member now lobbying for small Internet service providers who support net neutrality regulations. "Republicans lumped net neutrality in with the carbon tax and Obamacare: 'He's taking over everything and now he wants to take over the Internet.' But it was a reactive, visceral response without a real understanding."

The arcane fight over net neutrality is about to burst into the open. House and Senate panels will hold hearings on Wednesday pitting the heads of the cable television and wireless lobbies against Amazon and Etsy, an online craft market.

Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who now heads the commerce committee, hopes to have legislation ready the following week -- before the F.C.C.'s February meeting.

"By turning the F.C.C. away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs," Mr. Thune said about his legislation in a statement.

Internet companies and online activists say Republicans have adopted the language of the net neutrality movement, even as they carry the water of the cable companies, and they are preparing for battle.

Some of those same players blackened their website, appealed to their customers and ultimately torpedoed bipartisan legislation in 2012 to combat online piracy in a major new economy-old economy fight.

Once again, an Internet regulatory showdown might be guided as much by grass-roots guerrilla tactics as the lobbying of Comcast and Verizon. The F.C.C. has received four million comments on net neutrality -- overwhelmingly in favor -- ahead of its Feb. 26 decision day, second only to Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl in 2004.

After Mr. Cruz called net neutrality "the biggest regulatory threat to the Internet" on his Facebook page, the entry was flooded with comments like "Senator Cruz, you are risking alienating a huge part of your base by such a pro-monopoly stance. The battle for net neutrality is a conservative cause. …

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