In a more perfect world, Barack Obama's command of the nuances of tech policy would rival his grasp of health-care policy. But this world ain't perfect, and we're stuck with a president who strongly backs net neutrality principles but is occasionally clumsy on the details. We can wish he didn't do that, for the very reason that it gives cover to commentary like this from Digital Society -- a nonprofit affiliated with companies like Verizon, Microsoft, and AT&T -- that "pars[es]" Obama's voice of confidence in favor of neutrality regulation during his YouTube Q&A on Monday. Obama admittedly gave them something to sink their teeth into when he tried to put some political meat on the dry bones of neutrality policy:
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.
Where Obama slightly mis-struck here is that "bigger carriers," when you think about it, already "extract more money from wealthier customers." I have, for example, the option of paying $59 rather than $39 so that I can get faster broadband at home. Companies choose to have T1 lines for their employees. That's fine. That's well within our rights, and theirs.
But it's going too far to get from Obama's ham-handed statement to Digital Society's scary question, "Could the FCC and the administration be planning an assault on ISP pricing models?" All that, from a few ill-chosen words from Obama? The network neutrality principles currently on the table at FCC are concerned with whether Internet providers are allowed to discriminate against certain digital content that flows along their networks. Or if they can carve out one part of the broadband pipe running to my house to be dedicated to Comcast TV -- putting YouTube or Hulu, for example, at a disadvantage. That's the crux of the neutrality debate. It's not whether American telecom companies can continue to practice capitalism by making more money from people who want to pay more for available services.
This is confusing stuff, as Obama's inability to keep it straight demonstrates. Net neutrality is a policy debate that goes from sexy to mind-numbing in about 12 seconds. That's practically an invitation to obfuscating arguments on the details. How do you combat that? I'm not sure I know, or that anyone working on the pro-neutrality side has cracked it either. But the best bet in the short term is probably to play whack-a-mole on weak arguments.
-- Nancy Scola
-- Nancy Scola