With the FCC's approval of robust net neutrality rules on Thursday, a long political fight comes to a surprisingly abrupt -- and, for proponents of the measure, remarkable -- conclusion. It could have been a political battle royale. It wasn't. And the tagline meant to rebut neutrality -- "Obamacare for the internet" -- didn't go anywhere at all.
Even before President Obama offered his support for regulating Internet service providers as common carriers (similar to phone companies), it was safe to assume that pressure from Capitol Hill Republicans and cable companies with deep pockets would be a formidable political opponent. Then Obama made his statement, and then FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler agreed with it. A fight that had been simmering should have gone to full boil. But instead, it kept simmering.
At the New Yorker, former New York candidate for lieutenant governor (and, more significantly, Columbia professor of law) Tim Wu tries to parse how neutrality backers won so easily. (Wu is credited with coining the term "net neutrality," as you may know.) "It may have been the unexpected effectiveness of Internet-based activist groups, who protested the F.C.C. and helped convince millions of people to write and send comments about the potential rules," he writes. "It may have been the White House and the personal involvement of President Obama himself. Or maybe people just misunderstood the character of the F.C.C. chairman Tom Wheeler."
Maybe. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Republicans were giving up the fight. They'd hoped to pass legislation that would preempt the White House, but that is tricky when the last signature on the bill has to come from the guy who lives there. The FCC decision also overlaps with the fight between House and Senate Republicans over funding the Department of Homeland Security, the sort of short-term crisis that is both very common in Washington these days and also sucks up energy that could be used for other things.
There was an effort to try to generate public outrage against neutrality rules. In 2010, the Hispanic Leadership Fund's Mario Lopez called net neutrality the "Obamacare of the internet." When Obama announced his interest in strong net neutrality rules, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) picked up the mantra.
A few days later, Cruz used the term again in a Post opinion piece.
In short, net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet. It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.
"Net neutrality" is a complicated topic, centered around preventing providers from charging more depending on the type of content that is being transmitted over their networks. But the Obamacare analogy never really caught on. Even this week, as discussion heated up, it barely registered on Twitter. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) used the expression over and over -- but it still maxed out at 600 tweets in one day over the last month. Net neutrality, on the other hand, was registering in the tens of thousands.
As Wu points out, there were monied interests weighing in on behalf of the new rules, too -- and a cadre of online activists pushing for them. Such groups aren't often politically victorious, but facing off against "Obamacare for the Internet," they romped. Political pressure is the result of energy, as the upsurge in conservative rhetoric following the tea party uprising demonstrates. On this issue, a tepid Obamacare analogy in defense of Comcast couldn't possibly match the online outpouring of people backing the FCC proposal.
One last footnote. Just this week, for the first time since 2010, there was more search interest in "net neutrality" than "Obamacare" on Google.
Concerns about Obamacare are still potent for conservative activists. But this week, at least, Americans were more interested in learning about net neutrality.