Is Net Neutrality Obamacare for the Internet? Or What?

In order to attack Obama's plans for the Internet, Republicans first have to decide what to call it.

“In the time I’ve been in the Senate,” said Texas Senator Ted Cruz, “what I’ve tried to do more than anything else is bring a disruptive app to Washington.”

The first Lincoln Labs #RebootCongress conference was wrapping up, and Cruz was sitting on one of the not-quite-chairs, not-quite-stools that are contractually obligated for any tech event. Lincoln Labs, founded in 2013 by veterans of Jeb Bush’s and Mitt Romney’s tech teams, asked conservatives to compete in a developer’s arms race that progressives thought they’d won already. And here was Cruz, sitting across from the lobbyist for car-share company Lyft, comparing his Senate crusades to the battles of developers.

“As Lyft knows, I’m sure the taxi commissions don’t welcome them with open arms,” said Cruz.

“That would be correct,” said the lobbyist, Chris Massey.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” said Cruz, launching into a story about how he and American citizens killed gun safety legislation in 2013. “The conventional wisdom was that this was unstoppable.”

As Cruz went on, crafting a story of angry voters jamming Senate phones, the cavernous ballroom of the Chamber of Commerce–which resembles the dining hall at Hogwarts far more than it resembles a conference room–stayed quiet. The panel that had just ended, a discussion on “hacking the beltway,” had dealt with how ridiculous it was that “melting down phone lines” was still a barometer of success.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz  speaks at the Iowa Freedom Summit, 1/24/2015

Texas Senator Ted Cruz speaks at the Iowa Freedom Summit, 1/24/2015

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The modern Democratic Party, which owes plenty to the tech-driven campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama, has little internal disagreement about tech policy. It’s welcomed the news that Obama’s FCC will issue rules to classify the Internet as a public utility, under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Those rules will effectively mandate net neutrality, preventing Internet providers from charging divergent prices for different “lanes” to content. Obama’s supported the idea since at least 2006, while still a senator from Illinois.

Of course, the surest way to rally Republican opposition to any idea is for Barack Obama or his administration to support it. The news of the looming FCC ruling brought Republicans into the fight with sharpened swords – a fight that formerly cut across party lines. Cruz, in particular, had rallied conservatives against “net neutrality” with a succinct kill-phrase: “Obamacare for the Internet.” In speeches, he took to pointing to a rotary phone – “this is regulated by Title II” – and holding up an iPhone – “this is not!”

Some conservatives worried that Cruz had toxified the debate. After Cruz’s Lincoln Labs speech, TechFreedom president Berin Szoka bemoaned the “Obamacare for the Internet” phrase.

“Net neutrality and copyright have been the issues that grew this new Tea Party of the left,” Szoka said. What he clearly should have said is that Title II is Obamacare for the Internet. What Republicans really need to say here is that this debate is not really about net neutrality anymore. This is now about imposing 1934 regulations on the Internet.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) campaigns for Georgia Senate candidate David Perdue (left) during a campaign stop at the McDonough Square on October 24, 2014 in McDonough, Georgia.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) campaigns for Georgia Senate candidate David Perdue (left) during a campaign stop at the McDonough Square on October 24, 2014 in McDonough, Georgia.

Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

To be fair to Cruz, that was what he’d started saying. Other Republicans preferred to call net neutrality an “Internet power grab.” Some had taken on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as an unaccountable, czar-like figure. Meanwhile, freshly-gaveled House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, had launched an investigation to see “views expressed by the White House potentially had an improper influence” on the FCC.

Those approaches perplexed some technologists at the Lincoln Labs forum, the fuller title of which was #Reboot Congress: Get Sh#t Done. Between speeches, and over cups of coffee from a constantly-refilled carafe, they did not sound as ready for war against net neutrality. Derek Khanna, a consultant and former Hill staffer who’d become a thought leader for conservatives and tech policy, pointed out that the Supreme Court long ago allowed the president to make statements in favor of any agency’s decisions. Garrett Johnson, the co-founder of Lincoln Labs, diplomatically urged Republicans to accept reality and pass a new communications bill.

“Lincoln Labs’s position is that we want people to be informed,” he said. “My personal position is that there needs to be a legislative solution, because in the absence of that, the rule’s going to come down on January 26. There’s going to be uncertainty, because AT&T and the telecoms have lawyered up and Congress has failed to act.”

That’s the escape pod some Republicans (though not Cruz) have settled on. In his speech to the conference, South Dakota Senator John Thune let forth with the standard condemnations of the White House, then restated the need for Congress to pass “clear and responsible rules” for the Internet. It sounded like resistance. It actually meant admitting that the White House had outmaneuvered conservatives, and that Republicans would meet them halfway, even if their legislation would restrict the rules the FCC could make.

“They moved over to us aggressively,” said Marvin Ammori, a scholar at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society who was speaking on a Lincoln Labs panel. “The Thune talking points from last year were: Solution in search of a problem, we don’t need anything. Now it’s: We need to get this right in Congress. I think they lack credibility because they’ve been against net neutrality, then they scrambled after a public outcry.”

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who’d eschewed the “Obamacare for the Internet language,” used his time at Lincoln Labs to just warn that the government couldn’t be trusted to manage complex things. In an interview with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, asked if internet service providers–the opponents of net neutrality–had “local monopolies” that needed to be broken up.

“The way to fix this, and to correct this, is to open up competitions in those monopolies,” said Paul, “instead of regulating these businesses as utilities, which will completely stifle innovation.”

Paul went on, describing the competition for ISP service that could grow and thrive if the government backed off. He ended, and applause echoed around the opulent room. Arrington had gotten the answers he wanted from Paul, but wasn’t blown away by the senator’s knowledge of net neutrality.

“It’s pretty one-inch deep,” said Arrington on his way out of the Chamber. The good news was that Washington could not do too much harm if its debate about the Internet was polarized and silly. “The general population doesn’t give two fucks about that.”

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