TIME technology

Why 2016 Republicans Oppose Net Neutrality

Republican voters overwhelmingly like net neutrality. The likely GOP candidates for president do not.

According to a raft of recent national polls, Republican voters approve of government action to ensure that Internet service providers treat all web content the same. A November 2014 University of Delaware survey, for example, found that 85% of Republicans (and 81% of Democrats) were opposed to allowing ISPs to charge web companies a fee to deliver their content to customers more quickly—an arrangement they call “Internet fast lanes.”

Yet five likely Republican presidential contenders have come out against net neutrality in no uncertain terms. Last fall, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz referred to the Federal Communications Commision’s proposed net neutrality rules as “Obamacare for the Internet,” while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has called them a “direct attack on the freedom of information.” Last weekend, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential race in 2016, said the FCC’s plan to ensure net neutrality was “one of the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard.”

So what gives? There are basically three explanations, and which one you prefer depends a lot on how you view the messy business of politics.

1) It’s All About Obama. Some people think the reason is simply partisan polarization. President Obama championed net neutrality and nudged the FCC to take action, therefore Republican politicians are going to oppose it. That’s just politics, especially in a presidential campaign season.

This issue is particularly vulnerable to political grandstanding because it’s so confusing. Pollsters have found that Republican voters often say they don’t like “net neutrality,” but they say they like it when the issue is explained instead. According to one poll by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance and Vox Populi, 83% of “very conservative” voters thought the government should take action to ensure that cable companies aren’t allowed to “monopolize the Internet” by charging some companies more to access customers.

But taking that position as a presidential candidate means wasting a lot of time out on the hustings explaining the issue and opening yourself up to easy attacks from your rivals.

2) It’s All About Campaign Donations. Some people think the reason is all about the money. Cable and telecom companies, after all, oppose net neutrality and pour tens of millions of dollars every year on politicians’ campaign coffers, PACs and philanthropic projects and spend tens of millions more on lobbyists and letters and advertisements on the subject. To name one example, Comcast spent more on lobbying members of Congress in 2012 than any other company in the entire country, except Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor that makes the B-2 bomber.

But those contributions go pretty equally to Republicans and Democrats, and there’s a counterbalance from tech companies such as Google, Amazon and Netflix that are spending gobs of money, sometimes on the same politicians.

3) It’s the Means, Not the Ends. Some people think this is just about how the fight for net neutrality went down. The way the FCC’s new rules came out in the end was not most people’s first choice. Not Obama’s. Not Hillary Clinton’s. Not even Netflix CFO David Wells, whose company was instrumental in lobbying the FCC.

That’s because the FCC’s new rules give the federal government much more power over the broadband industry than it really needs to effectively ensure net neutrality. For example, under these rules, the government could theoretically regulate how much Comcast or Verizon can charge you for an Internet connection. The FCC has promised not to use those those powers, but the idea that it could gives many Republicans the willies.

Politics is often the art of finding the second-best solution. In this case, the FCC was forced into claiming the broader authority after industry lawsuits threw out earlier attempts to ensure net neutrality through less expansive powers. But that means it’s vulnerable to criticism from Republicans who think it overreached.

TIME 2016 Election

Five 2016 Republicans Oppose Net Neutrality

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, listens to a question during an interview with Sean Hannity at (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, listens to a question during an interview with Sean Hannity at (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.

A rough consensus is emerging among the Republican presidential field against net neutrality.

Five major candidates for the 2016 nomination have come out against a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to regulate how cable companies handle Internet speeds.

The FCC decision would prevent cable companies from creating “fast lanes” on the Internet, holding to the current system in which all web traffic is treated the same. President Obama and likely Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton have backed the FCC’s moves on net neutrality.

The five Republican contenders, meantime, argued that the regulations are unnecessary at best and harmful to the free market at worst.

Here’s a look at what they said, in order from least to most opposed.

Gov. Scott Walker: “I think on that … the guiding principle should be freedom.” (The Hill)

Sen. Marco Rubio: “We are regulating where regulation is not needed. We are regulating based on speculation, regulating in search of a problem.” (The Hill)

Jeb Bush: “The idea of regulating access to the Internet with a 1934 law is one of the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard. … It’s not going to be good for consumers. It’s certainly not going to be good for innovation.” (TIME)

Sen. Ted Cruz: “‘Net neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.” (Twitter)

Sen. Rand Paul: “These attempts to regulate the Internet are a direct attack on the freedom of information and an innovative market. The government needs to stay out of the way.” (Newsmax)

TIME 2016 Election

Jeb Bush: Net Neutrality Decision Is ‘Crazy’

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, speaks during the Iowa Ag Summit at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa on March 7, 2015.
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg Finance LP 2015/Getty Images Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, speaks during the Iowa Ag Summit at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa on March 7, 2015

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said Saturday that he opposes the Federal Communications Commission’s attempts to regulate broadband Internet providers.

Echoing arguments made by cable companies and many Republicans in Congress, the likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate argued that the FCC’s decision last month to approve the strongest-ever rules on net neutrality would “stifle competition, stifle innovation.”

Taking questions from Iowa voters at a Cedar Rapids Pizza Ranch, Bush noted that the decision rested on an interpretation of the Communications Act of 1934.

“The idea of regulating access to the Internet with a 1934 law is one of the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard,” he said. It was the first time Bush had weighed in on the subject since the FCC voted.

“Just think of the logic of using a 1934 law that was designed when we did have a monopoly for wire-line service as the basis to regulate the most dynamic part of life in America,” Bush said. “It’s not going to be good for consumers. It’s certainly not going to be good for innovation.”

Bush said that Netflix and other backers of net neutrality are already regretting the scale the FCC’s action. “There is no support for this now,” Bush said. “The people who were concerned about this, the content providers like Netflix and others, have now disowned this.”

Netflix has backed the concept of net neutrality, even using a much noticed tweet to argue that without it cable companies would slow down Internet speeds. Its chief financial officer recently said he wasn’t happy with the FCC decision, but the company has since restated its support.

President Obama strongly supported the FCC’s action, calling it consistent with the principles of net neutrality he backed as a presidential candidate. Bush accused Obama of “steamrolling” the independent FCC by calling on it to make the decision.

“I hope that Congress acts on this” to reverse it, he added.

MONEY Net neutrality

Why Net Neutrality Isn’t Worth Celebrating

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler (C) holds hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn (L) and Jessica Rosenworcel during an open hearing on Net Neutrality at the FCC headquarters February 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. Today the FCC will vote on Net Neutrality seeking to approve regulating Internet service like a public utility, prohibiting companies from paying for faster lanes on the Internet.
Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Net neutrality doesn't fix the most pressing problem with our internet service.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission officially approved net neutrality regulations intended to protect consumers and businesses from internet service providers.

The new rules, broadly outlined earlier this month by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, will restrict ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner from blocking or slowing down traffic to certain websites, or allowing certain companies to pay extra for better treatment.

These regulations are positive step, but those swept up by the hype might end up disappointed when the real thing finally arrives. That’s because net neutrality doesn’t seriously address anything cable companies are currently doing, nor will it help with the number one issue most people care about: the price and quality of their service.

What Net Neutrality Really Does

Let’s start with the restrictions against blocking or slowing down websites. It’s obviously good that cable companies will now be prevented from actively censoring content, but this isn’t something ISPs ever actually practiced.

“I think it’s funny that the three big rules are no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization,” Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan and owner of StreamingMedia.com, told MONEY. “That’s all great, but do we have a single instance of an ISP doing any of those things?”

That might sound surprising to those who’ve heard Netflix’s repeated complaints that various ISPs, particularly Comcast, were intentionally degrading its service unless the company paid a “toll.” Isn’t that exactly what net neutrality is meant to stop?

Well, sort of. What Netflix and Comcast are really fighting over is something called “interconnection” or “peering,” where sites with especially heavy traffic have to pay more for extra capacity. Comcast says Netflix should be charged for using additional resources, whereas Netflix thinks it’s being strong-armed into forking over more than it should.

The new net neutrality regulations give the FCC some oversight over these agreements to determine if they’re “just and reasonable,” but that standard is so vague as to make an already complicated issue difficult to enforce. In Chairman Wheeler’s proposal, broadband providers are allowed to pretty much do whatever they want as long as they defend their actions as “reasonable network management,” which, as The Verge points out, is “a term which the ISPs have already been using to justify congestion at interconnection points.”

What Net Neutrality Doesn’t Fix

The upshot of all this is very little will change for the average U.S. internet user in a post-net-neutrality world. That’s a bad thing, because America does have a very serious internet problem desperately in need of regulatory assistance: namely, the fact that our internet connections are slower and costlier than the rest of the developed world’s.

The solution to this problem is simple: more competition. FCC data from 2013 shows 55% of American households have no choice in their broadband provider, and the agency has said Comcast will be the only broadband provider for nearly two-thirds of consumers if the company is allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable. It’s not hard to see why cable companies don’t have to compete very hard for your business.

Competition is scarce because it’s prohibitively expensive for a new company to build its own fiber network. The FCC could have fixed this problem by requiring “last-mile unbundling,” a policy that would force major broadband providers to lease their own networks to competing ISPs, when it reclassified broadband under Title II of the Communications Act. However, Chairman Wheeler explicitly ruled unbundling out of any net neutrality regulation.

This means the average internet user is going to be paying more for subpar internet for the foreseeable future. The Obama administration is planning to address this by encouraging cities to develop their own broadband networks, which, if effective, should create more competition and faster internet service. But such a solution is far away and will likely face significant legal hurdles.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying net neutrality is actively bad. We’re better off in a world with these kinds of restrictions. That said, the new rules should be seen as little more than a preventive measure for abuses that have largely yet to occur. For more meaningful reform, Americans should throw their support behind other policies that will break broadband monopolies and actually improve their connections. The fight for a better internet isn’t over. It’s barely begun.

A previous version of this article said a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger would increase the number of consumers with no choice in broadband providers to two-thirds of Americans. The FCC says a merger would indeed result in two-thirds of U.S. households having only one broadband provider, but this is not likely to be an increase.

TIME technology

Grumpy Cat Grounded By Blizzard

"Grumpy Guide To Life: Observations From Grumpy Cat" Book Event At Indigo
George Pimentel—WireImage Grumpy Cat attends the "Grumpy Guide To Life: Observations From Grumpy Cat" Book Event on Aug. 9, 2014 in Toronto.

A mischievous plan by net neutrality advocates to hire an airplane to tow a banner-sized image of Grumpy Cat past Comcast’s corporate headquarters in Philadelphia on Thursday morning has been thwarted by a snowstorm.

The fly-by was originally timed to happen just after the Federal Communications Commission votes on rules safeguarding net neutrality.

The banner would have featured Grumpy Cat, whose look of withering contempt has become a popular meme for Internet lovers, next to the words: “Comcast: Don’t Mess With the Internet. Public wins. Team Cable loses. #SorryNotSorry.”

The three net neutrality advocacy groups behind the hijinks—Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Free Press—perhaps chose the plane’s intended flight path to thumb their noses at Comcast, the nation’s largest broadband Internet provider, which has spent millions this year attempting to stop the FCC from passing the version of net neutrality rules it is considering today.

The Flight of the Grumpy Cat has been tentatively rescheduled for tomorrow.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: The Net Neutrality Vote

The FCC will vote on Net Neutrality legislation Thursday. (We already know what Hillary Clinton thinks about it.)

Watch the latest #KnowRightNow to find out what you should know.

MONEY The Economy

Internet Activists Near Win in Fight for Net Neutrality

Republicans appear to be ceding the fight against net neutrality for now, but the FCC’s plan still faces stiff opposition.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 19

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Are rising tensions between nuclear powers and an increased risk of rogue actors getting weapons spurring a new nuclear age?

By Rod Lyons in RealClearDefense

2. Psychological barriers — not science — are holding back progress on treating wastewater, improving crop yields and more.

By Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker

3. Massive computing power and better tools are making it harder to hide submarines. Are they becoming obsolete?

By Harry J. Kazianis in the National Interest

4. It’s too soon to celebrate a win in the Net Neutrality battle.

By Blair Levin in Re/code

5. Mumbling isn’t lazy speech. It’s data compression.

By Julie Sedivy in Nautilus

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Internet

AT&T Just Showed Us the Only Way We’ll Get Better Internet Service

150217_EM_ATTCOMPETE
artpartner—Getty Images

Competition is the key to faster, better internet.

Internet service in the United States is just plain bad. That’s a fact. Compared to consumers in most other industrialized countries, Americans pay more money for slower access. The question then is how to do we make our internet better, and on Monday, AT&T gave us an answer: more competition.

The internet provider announced that it would match Google Fiber’s hyper-high-speed internet service in Kansas City. Under AT&T’s newly announced plan, users can get up to one gigabit per second for $70 a month, and that same speed plus cable TV for $120. That’s the same price Google offers for equivalent service, and a significant speed boost over what was previously available to local AT&T customers.

The move confirms what many analysts have long said about internet service. Namely, that when it comes to giving consumers what they really care about—how well their favorite sites perform—the only sure fix is to make companies fight over your business. In Kansas City, AT&T may have been able to provide better service, but it saw no reason to make the effort until another company’s offering threatened to siphon away paying customers.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, most of the country still lacks a competitive broadband market. Google Fiber has improved service in markets where it appears, but Fiber covers just three cities, with four more listed as “upcoming.” FCC data from 2013 shows 55% of American households have no choice in their broadband provider, and the agency has said Comcast will be the only broadband provider for nearly two-thirds of consumers if the company is allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable.

The Obama administration has taken steps to improve broadband competition, but the results are mixed. The president recently announced programs aimed at encouraging cities to develop their own broadband infrastructure and provide a sort of public option for the internet. This initiative, if embraced by local governments, has the potential to significantly improve competition and lower broadband prices.

However, another administration-led initiative, new “net neutrality” rules for broadband providers, represents a missed opportunity to immediately improve broadband competition in one fell swoop.

The proposed regulations, announced by Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, would reclassify broadband to regulate it more like a utility and restrict internet service providers from artificially degrading access to certain sites. But in reclassifying broadband, the FCC declined to force existing broadband companies lease their infrastructure to competing providers. This requirement, known as “last-mile unbundling,” has been widely used outside the U.S. to lower the barrier to entry for new broadband providers and create a more competitive market.

In rejecting an unbundling rule, the FCC has essentially left the task of expanding available broadband options to municipal networks and the very few private companies large enough to take on Big Cable.

For the average internet user, this means two things. If you live in a Google Fiber city, your service will continue to get better as broadband providers fight for your business. Conversely, if you don’t have Google Fiber in your area and your city won’t invest in its own high speed network, don’t expect your internet service provider to make any massive upgrades anytime soon.

A previous version of this article said a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger would increase the number of consumers with no choice in broadband providers to two-thirds of Americans. The FCC says a merger would indeed result in two-thirds of U.S. households having only one broadband provider, but this is not likely to be an increase.

MONEY Net neutrality

Viewpoint: Here’s What’s Wrong With Today’s Net Neutrality Proposal

US-POLITICS-FCC-WHEELER
Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

The new rules will ensure a level playing field for internet companies, and that's good—but they don't address the real problem for most Americans.

On Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler gave a broad outline of his forthcoming net neutrality proposal.

The news is mostly good. Wheeler says his proposal will reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, giving the FCC the legal authority to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing down services they don’t like or letting certain companies pay extra for priority treatment.

That will ensure a level playing field for internet companies, and that’s good—but for most Americans, the new rules really won’t affect their internet experience at all.

The reason is that overt content discrimination by broadband providers is very rare and possibly non-existent. Disputes over throttling do occur, such as when Netflix accuses companies like Comcast of purposefully slowing down its service. But these conflicts involve something called “interconnection” or “peering,” a necessary practice whereby sites like Netflix and Youtube, which use a disproportionate share of a provider’s resources, pay for extra capacity.

The FCC has promised to give these agreements closer scrutiny to determine if they’re “just and reasonable,” but it’s unclear what that standard means or how regulators would decide what’s fair and what isn’t. As a result, Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan and owner of StreamingMedia.com, doesn’t see the new rules making a real impact on how broadband providers do business.

“I think it’s funny that the three big rules are no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization,” says Rayburn. “That’s all great, but do we have a single instance of an ISP doing any of those things?”

The real problem

In fact, while net neutrality has become a pet issue of the technorati in recent years, it won’t solve the one thing that plagues most Americans: lousy service. Compared to their counterparts in other industrialized countries, U.S. internet users pay far more for far slower internet speed.

Why has America fallen behind? The answer is a simple lack of competition: FCC data from 2013 shows 55% of American households have no choice in their broadband provider, and the agency has said Comcast will be the only broadband provider for nearly two-thirds of consumers if the company’s merger with Time Warner Cable is approved. When consumers have no choice, ISPs have little incentive to invest in better service.

In reclassifying broadband, the FCC could have created a much more competitive environment by mandating something called “last-mile unbundling.” The reason the U.S. has virtually no broadband competition is because any aspiring provider would need to build it’s own immensely expensive fiber network. Last-mile unbundling would force existing service providers to lease their infrastructure to competing companies, removing this roadblock and opening the competition floodgates.

Unfortunately, chairman Wheeler’s statement explicitly states “there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling,” so many Americans will still have virtually no choice of service providers. In that regard, this announcement just affirms the sad status quo.

The silver lining

Despite Wheeler’s decision, President Obama is clearly aware competition is an issue. His plan to encourage municipalities to start their own public broadband providers could give consumers real choice, and motivate major ISPs to better serve their customers or risk losing them. There’s even evidence municipal internet leaves users with better service than last-mile unbundling can provide.

But while Obama’s municipal internet plan is great in theory, it will take a long time for cities to create their own ISPs, and it’s unclear whether the FCC has the authority to remove legal hurdles that bar many areas from creating an internet public option.

In the end, it boils down to the fact that Chairman Wheeler had the power to enable more broadband competition in the near-term with the stroke of a pen, and he chose not to do so. As a result, his net neutrality rules can hardly be considered a true win for internet users.

A previous version of this article said a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger would increase the number of consumers with no choice in broadband providers to two-thirds of Americans. The FCC says a merger would indeed result in two-thirds of U.S. households having only one broadband provider, but this is not likely to be an increase.

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