Science & Technology

President Obama Supports Net Neutrality. But Does He Understand It?



Earlier this week, President Obama participated in a people-powered YouTube Q&A session, answering questions sent in from Real Regular People On The Internet. Mid-way through the session, the host reported that the number one question topic in the jobs and economy category was Net neutrality. He then proceeded to ask Obama the following question:

"An open Internet is a powerful engine for economic growth and new jobs.  Letting large companies block and fill their online content services would stifle needed growth.  What is your commitment to keeping the Internet open and neutral in America?"

Not surprisingly, Obama responded by reiterating his commitment to keeping the Internet open and neutral:

Well, I'm a big believer in net neutrality. I campaigned on this.  I continue to be a strong supporter of it. My FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, has indicated that he shares the view that we've got to keep the Internet open; that we don't want to create a bunch of gateways that prevent somebody who doesn't have a lot of money but has a good idea from being able to start their next YouTube or their next Google on the Internet. So this is something we're committed to.

We're getting pushback, obviously, from some of the bigger carriers who would like to be able to charge more fees and extract more money from wealthier customers.  But we think that runs counter to the whole spirit of openness that has made the Internet such a powerful engine for not only economic growth, but also for the generation of ideas and creativity.

Obama is right that some of the big ISPs have resisted the FCC's push for neutrality regulations. But what he doesn't note is that recently, a federal appeals court has expressed strong skepticism about whether the FCC has the authority to regulate neutrality. So it's not just greedy corporations who're providing the pushback, it's government-approved legal authorities.

But Obama's response presents a broader conceptual problem as well: For what he says to make any sense, you have to figure out what you mean by "open and neutral." Net neutrality activists have made a business of inventing non-neutral Net nightmares in which giant, money-hungry corporate monsters stalk the digital landscape blocking everyone's favorite websites and demanding that struggling start-ups and politically inconvenient policy organizations cough up big bucks in order to secure the access they need.

But as Ev Ehrlich points out in this effective and entertaining rant, this is a vision of an Internet that just doesn't make any sense. Why? Because it's an Internet that no one wants. Not businesses. Not non-profits. Not the government. And certainly not individuals. And Internet service providers, whether they like it or not, still have to find customers who will buy what they're selling. And if they suddenly start offering a totally worthless product, that's going to be awfully tough to do.

Not only is that vision of a closed-off, gate-filled Web not really believable, it's not really what's at stake in the Net neutrality debate. And, contrary to the framing of both the question and Obama's response, it doesn't have much to do with jobs or the economy. Here's Erhlich:

To me, "open" means you can find anything you want, so long as it's legal.  That's unequivocally good – it's what I pay a provider to do for me. But neutral means that everything that's carried on the Internet travels on the same speed and the same terms as everything else, and I'm not convinced that's as good as seeing everything I want to see. I've talked about this before –not everything should travel at the same speed and on the same terms.  I've used the example (in other postings) of a medical device that's attached to me at one end and a hospital on the other via the Internet, and how I want that signal to travel faster than a download of a cat playing the xylophone.

I thought I was being literary – you know, cats can't really play the xylophone – but then I found this clip, which isn't exactly the same thing, but nonetheless a good example of something that I want my heart monitor to go faster than.   

Are you telling me that the economy would be worse off if companies like Comcast or Verizon or ATT or Clearwire or whomever else could let the hospital pay to have an uninterrupted connection to my thorax and let that connection take priority over the cat video if there's congestion on the Internet?

So despite what Obama seemed to suggest, specialized services and traffic prioritization aren't likely to harm economic growth. But the larger point, I think, is that when people worry about what might happen in the absence of neutrality regulation, what they're really worrying about is a lack of openness. Neutrality, on the other hand, isn't something that most people give much thought to. Yet it's neutrality that Obama and his FCC support, and neutrality (along with openness) that their favored regulations would enforce.