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Half The Battle Over Net Neutrality Is Defining What It Means


A new presidential initiative is touching off heated debate about the Internet. President Obama is calling for stronger rules to protect what's known as net neutrality. That's the idea that broadband providers should treat all traffic on their networks equally. The president's critics accuse him of trying to regulate the Internet, which they say would hurt innovation and investment. That may be a catchy critique, but as NPR's Joel Rose reports, it also may be misleading.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been leading the latest charge against net neutrality. At an event in Austin this month, Cruz brought an old black rotary phone up on stage to make his point.


SENATOR TED CRUZ: The Telecommunications Act of 1934 was adopted to regulate these.

ROSE: Cruz is unhappy that President Obama wants to regulate broadband Internet access under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934, a law that was written for the old phone monopoly. Cruz and other critics say it would be a mistake to apply that to broadband.


CRUZ: Don't mess with the Internet. The freedom that has enabled this to develop - the worst thing that could happen is letting a whole bunch of politicians come in and regulate every aspect of what you're doing.

ROSE: But supporters of net neutrality say there's a crucial flaw in Cruz's argument.

MARVIN AMMORI: We're not regulating the Internet. We're regulating access to the Internet.

ROSE: Marvin Ammori is a fellow at the New America Foundation, and he says that's a big distinction. Ammori says no one is talking about regulating what websites you can visit or what you can say in your e-mail or what service you can use to send that e-mail.

AMMORI: All we're making sure is that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T can't interfere with your access to your e-mail or anything else on the Internet. That's all we're talking about.

ROSE: Net neutrality advocates want to ensure that broadband providers can't block competitors' access to their pipes or charge companies like Google or Netflix more to deliver their data to you faster. Here's how President Obama put it in a video message earlier this month.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Cable companies can't decide which online stores you can shop at or which streaming services you can use, and they can't let any company pay for priority over its competitors.

ROSE: The Federal Communications Commission has tried before to create net neutrality rules, but they've been struck down in court. Supporters of moving to Title II say it would give the FCC broader power to enforce its rules. But the broadband industry and its allies worry it would give regulators too much power. Rob Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington.

ROB ATKINSON: Moving to Title II is certainly a heavy-handed regulatory step. It's a very, very detailed top-down regulations of what you can do. There are over 200 separate provisions in there.

ROSE: Including some that would allow the FCC to put a cap on how much your broadband provider can charge. Critics say Title II would give the FCC the power to regulate the broadband industry like a public utility. The Obama administration says it does not want the commission to do that. Obama is urging the FCC to exercise forbearance, which is basically bureaucrat speak for we'll skip the parts of the law we don't like. But Atkinson is skeptical.

ATKINSON: It's just unclear what's going to happen. We don't know how Title II - if it were applied, how it would be applied.

ROSE: The broadband industry would prefer rules that would allow it to create special fast lanes on the Internet for companies that can afford to pay more. That would probably include such big names as Netflix, Amazon and Google. Senator Ted Cruz describes this as a fight between big boys on both sides. And he says federal regulators should stay out of it.


CRUZ: I promise the regulations over and over and over again will favor the big guys that have armies of lobbyists in there and will end up putting more burdens on the startups and the entrepreneurs.

JULIE SAMUELS: I have a hard time taking that seriously. Title II is what's going to maintain a level playing field so that all startups can get online.

ROSE: Julie Samuels is the director of Engine Advocacy which represents about 500 startups and small companies, including Etsy and Kickstarter. She says the biggest Internet companies can afford to pay more for faster access to their customers.

SAMUELS: They can afford to pay Verizon or Comcast or Time Warner more, even if it sucks for them. But let me tell who can't afford that. That's the small companies and the startups and the ones who are just trying to get out there and reach consumers and reach users.

ROSE: Samuels says strong net neutrality rules won't just enrich those entrepreneurs; they'll benefit everyone who uses the next killer app that hasn't been developed yet. If that's regulating the Internet, she's all for it. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.