Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Switch

This poll gave Americans a detailed case for and against the FCC’s net neutrality plan. The reaction among Republicans was striking

December 12, 2017 at 3:53 PM

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo)

On the eve of a pivotal vote that would deregulate the broadband industry, a fresh survey from the University of Maryland shows that large majorities of Americans — including 3 out of 4 Republicans — oppose the government's plan to repeal its net neutrality rules for Internet providers.

The results paint the picture of an electorate that is largely at odds with the GOP-led Federal Communications Commission, whose chairman, Ajit Pai, plans to vote Thursday to lift key rules for corporations such as AT&T;, Comcast and Verizon. The move would permit such companies to speed up some websites, and slow down or block others, as Internet providers seek new business models in a rapidly changing media and technology environment.

The survey by the university's Program for Public Consultation and Voice of the People, a nonpartisan polling organization, concluded that 83 percent of Americans do not approve of the FCC proposal. Just 16 percent said they approved.

Americans in the survey were far less likely to find the FCC's arguments for repeal persuasive, and far more likely to agree with arguments for keeping the regulations. While 48 percent said they found the government's case convincing, 75 percent said they found the contrasting arguments of consumer groups and tech companies convincing.

About one in five Republicans said they were in favor of the FCC's proposal.

The PPC survey highlights a significant consensus between members of both political parties at a time when much of the country is divided on other social and economic issues. It also differs from previous polling on the subject of net neutrality in methodology and approach.

Unlike polls that solicit respondents over the Internet on an opt-in basis — a tactic that polling experts say is problematic because the resulting sample can be unscientific — PPC relied on a panel of respondents that had been assembled randomly using traditional mail and telephone techniques by the market research firm Nielsen Scarborough.

In addition, rather than asking survey-takers their opinion on net neutrality without much prior context, PPC prepared respondents ahead of time with a policy briefing laying out the case from both sides of the debate. The survey content was reviewed by experts in favor and against the net neutrality rules, including by a government official who represented the administration's position, according to Steven Kull, PPC's director.

"We think that's critical to getting a meaningful response," said Kull. "I think it's fine to do a poll that just says, 'There's this thing called net neutrality; what do you think?' That tells you something — it tells you the politics of it. But our orientation is, how do you bring the public to the table in a way that gives them a real meaningful input?"

The FCC cast doubt on the survey results in a statement Tuesday.

"This is a biased survey that, among other things, makes no mention of the role that the Federal Trade Commission will play in policing anti-competitive or unfair conduct by Internet service providers. Earlier polling by Democratic pollster Peter Hart showed that most Americans believe that utility-style regulation of the Internet is harmful, and this is the regulation that the Restoring Internet Freedom order will eliminate," the statement said.

The Hart poll asked 800 adults in 2015 by telephone whether they thought it would be helpful for the government to "regulate and oversee the Internet similar to how it oversees the electric or gas public utility industry" and found more adults believed this would be harmful than helpful. (Critics of the rules tend to characterize them as direct regulation of the Internet, whereas supporters tend to describe the rules as regulations applied to Internet providers.)

That same study found that 75 percent were unfamiliar with the term "net neutrality" and what it meant. The survey was conducted on behalf of the Progressive Policy Institute, which two months later published a study supporting the broadband industry's claim that the net neutrality rules have prevented Internet providers from investing in and upgrading their networks.

Public opinion on net neutrality is largely unstudied and can vary widely depending on how the questions are asked, Paul Brewer, director of the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication, was quoted as saying in yet another survey of 901 U.S. adults in 2015 showing that a majority of Americans opposed using "government regulations" to defend net neutrality. The survey also showed that solid majorities — more than 70 percent — opposed letting Internet providers charge websites or streaming video services "extra for faster speeds ('fast lanes')."

Questions surrounding the wording of polling questions is what drove PPC to equip survey-takers with fleshed-out arguments from supporters and opponents of the FCC rules.

In its report, PPC did not outline the full battery of questions it asked of respondents; the other questions, said Kull, dealt with issues such as national monuments and a proposed Senate health care bill. But the arguments for and against the FCC proposal tracked the positions put forward by Internet providers, tech companies, trade groups and consumer advocacy organizations.

One question asked respondents to consider that the rules currently stifle innovation and "hold back the development of the Internet in the United States." It also made a case that some companies might be better off if they could access faster speeds from their Internet providers than they can today, and that it could lead to lower Internet prices for consumers. And it also argued that as long as Internet providers are required to tell consumers about their network practices, "the market will make sure that the ISPs do not overreach."

Another question asked respondents to consider that the FCC plan could lead to higher broadband prices for consumers "and make it harder for websites to get the necessary traffic to be profitable." Large, wealthy businesses would have an advantage over small ones that could not afford to pay for faster download speeds, it said, and that Internet providers could block websites for any reason they liked, including to harm competitors.

Americans in both parties found the latter arguments more convincing than the former — Democrats by a 42-point margin, Republicans by a 13-point margin.

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.


Brian Fung covers business and technology for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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