President Obama's bold statement on net neutrality is pleasing many consumer advocates. The president's proposal on Monday was even more aggressive than what the New York Times has endorsed. But it's also coming way late: The Federal Communications Commission is supposed to decide how to regulate Internet service providers by year's end. With the holidays coming up, that's not a lot of time.
Why didn't Obama speak more plainly about net neutrality, and sooner? And how much will he be able to move the needle at the FCC?
It's impossible to talk about Obama's decision without referring to the midterm elections. Had Obama come out a few months ago calling for rigorous regulation of Internet providers under Title II of the Communications Act, it could have been a disaster for any number of reasons. First is that technology generally — and net neutrality, in particular — is not a winning political issue.
Second, Obama was toxic to Democrats this cycle. Candidates did as much as they could to disassociate themselves from the White House, given Obama's low approval ratings. If the president had promised voters magical flying ponies, his fellow party members would have run the other way. At best, Obama's strong position on net neutrality would've been ignored. At worst, the sight of Democrats fleeing from the policy (for purely political reasons) would have undermined the proposal.
Thirdly, Obama's net neutrality statement would have drawn instant backlash from a Republican Party eager to pillory an unpopular president. We've already seen some evidence for this in the GOP's reaction to Obama's statement on Monday.
What Cruz (R-Tex.) seems to be implying is that net neutrality is akin to a government takeover of the Internet, much like how some critics say Obamacare was a government takeover of health care. But the analogy is based on a flawed premise. Obamacare mandates that everyone have health insurance and subsidizes it for people who can't afford it. For it to work, Cruz's logic would have to lead to something like this on net neutrality:
The internal logic of the analogy doesn't hold up. My colleague Alexandra Petri puts it best:
This is why we can’t have nice things. Instead of saying “A is like B in specific ways! Let’s talk about those,” we have moved the conversation to “A is like B in the sense that I dislike the source of both A and B, and I will now just throw out anything I can come up with to justify that.”
Whatever its merits, imagine Cruz's rhetorical argument being played and replayed in countless political ads around the country, tying Democratic candidates to Obama's "government takeover of the Web." As it happened, the midterms could hardly have turned out much worse for liberals. But adding net neutrality to the mix would not have helped.
As for why Obama chose right after the midterms to drop his net neutrality statement: Remember that time is ticking at the FCC to make a decision. The agency must circulate its new proposed rules by Nov. 19 in order to bring up the issue for a vote at its December meeting, according to Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor and net neutrality advocate.
Some also speculate that perhaps Obama is trying to repair the bridges with Silicon Valley that burned when the public learned about the National Security Agency's domestic spying programs. Or perhaps it's an attempt to raise funds from tech groups. But if Obama's goal was to curry favor with Silicon Valley, then we would have expected him to drop the net neutrality statement during the election campaign, back when it might have made a difference in raising support. Or at least, when he could've made a case to that effect. Not after.
There are a couple of other possible reasons behind the president's timing on this statement (which an administration official says was in development for months). For one, Obama may feel he's giving Wheeler the cover he needs to fully reclassify Internet providers and regulate them under Title II of the Communications Act (what many net neutrality advocates have been demanding) right at crunch time, when the FCC has to make a call.
But Obama's aggressiveness on net neutrality also offers Wheeler a chance to take sort of a middle ground. There's some possibility that Wheeler won't simply do what Obama wants. Wheeler's response to Obama on Monday seemed passive, if not passive-aggressive — he noted that the president's comment would be treated just like all the other 3.9 million comments that have been submitted to the FCC to date.
"As an independent regulatory agency, we will incorporate the president’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding," Wheeler said. "We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act."
Underscoring the FCC's role as an independent agency downplays Obama's feedback, signaling that Wheeler might not go along with the president just because he asked. Last month, Wheeler told reporters that he had not been in direct contact with Obama on net neutrality but emphasized that the two were "in agreement and have always been."
Wheeler's claim was credible so long as Obama refrained from staking out a particular policy preference. Now that the president has endorsed reclassification, however, it will be more difficult for Wheeler to maintain that he and the president are on the same page — unless Wheeler also comes out in favor of Title II.