On Monday, Ted Cruz lashed out at President Obama's call for aggressive regulation of Internet service providers by comparing that effort to the president's signature health-care law. It was pure red meat for conservatives.
"Net Neutrality" is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) November 10, 2014
Cruz was quick on the draw, and the tweet quickly eclipsed all other Republican responses to Obama's call for greater oversight of Internet service providers. But the rhetorical coup soon backfired as the Internet began to poke holes in Cruz's analogy.
— David A. Graham (@GrahamDavidA) November 10, 2014
So Net Neutrality mandates everyone get Internet service and subsidizes broadband bills for the poor? Huh, who knew.
— delrayser (@delrayser) November 10, 2014
Vox's Matthew Yglesias put Cruz's logic succinctly: "All true conservatives hate Obamacare, so if net neutrality is Obamacare for the internet, all true conservatives should rally against it."
It's popular to bash Cruz's attempt at political theater. But what if we gave the senator the benefit of the doubt? In fact, net neutrality really is a lot more like Obamacare than you might think. Here's how.
Both have been subject to extensive litigation.
This is an easy one. The Affordable Care Act squeezed past the Supreme Court in a narrow 5-4 decision that upheld its constitutionality. Although that case allowed the government to move forward and set up a system to ensure that everybody gets health insurance, the legal fight isn't over yet. Another case, King v. Burwell, challenges the legality of Obamacare subsidies and, as Vox's Adrianna McIntyre explained, could undermine the entire health-care law.
Like Obamacare, Internet service providers and regulators have been fighting a protracted legal battle over net neutrality, the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. The Federal Communications Commission published its original net neutrality rules in 2010. The rules said ISPs were forbidden from blocking or slowing down Internet traffic. Verizon sued in response, arguing that the government lacked authority to regulate ISPs this way. In January, a federal court agreed with Verizon, striking down most of the net neutrality rules under the argument that the FCC could only apply them to ISPs if it 1) started "reclassifying" broadband companies under a different part of the FCC's charter known as Title II or 2) wrote different rules using the language that currently governs ISPs, known as Title I.
Now broadband providers are threatening to take the FCC back to court if the agency opts to reclassify the industry under Title II. That's the option Obama and many consumer advocates prefer, because it gives the FCC much greater power to police ISPs. But industry groups (not to mention conservative lawmakers) stand opposed.
Both attempt to address what many perceive to be a market failure…
Before Obamacare, not everyone had access to health insurance. Some were getting denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, and others were getting charged sky-high premiums. This was all because insurance companies had no financial incentive to cover the riskiest patients, and of the ones they did cover, they had every financial incentive to charge them as much as they possibly could. This produced distortions in coverage and prices that the Affordable Care Act aimed to fix.
Without net neutrality, Americans could see certain Web sites slowed, blocked or sped up at the expense of others. Policy experts argue this would be less of a problem if three things were true: 1) If Internet providers added more capacity they wouldn't have to prioritize some traffic over others; 2) if Americans had more broadband providers to choose from in their local area; and 3) if it were easier to switch between carriers. Unfortunately for many consumers, the broadband market fails this test. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said there is a "duopoly" in broadband service in many parts of America. To buy high speed plans, 82 percent of Americans can choose from only two Internet providers. There's not enough competition in Internet access.
...By adopting a legally complex regulatory proposal...
As we've seen with the lawsuits, both Obamacare and net neutrality are legally fraught. That's because the proposals on the table are so complex and have so many legal twists and turns that it's relatively easy for critics to target a piece of it for attack. In the case of Obamacare, it was first the individual mandate, and now the subsidies. With net neutrality, the FCC has proposed a complicated system that allows ISPs to strike commercial deals with content companies. Under the existing proposal, those deals must then satisfy a complex "reasonableness" test. It's all very arcane, and arguably addresses the core issue of competition only indirectly.
…That could be more easily solved with a simpler (but politically controversial) solution.
Many health-care reform advocates would just as soon adopt a a single-payer health-care system, as other countries have, or if the federal government offered a public option — which would perhaps be administratively less complex. By the same token, net neutrality advocates argue that it would be simple, legally, for the FCC to reclassify ISPs under Title II. (Industry groups argue that Title II wouldn't be enough to prevent traffic discrimination, but that's for another time.) The point is that the Obama administration and federal regulators have a tantalizingly appealing policy option that they could adopt — but for political reasons, it's a nonstarter.
Cruz's tweet exposes a strained relationship (again) with GOP leaders.
Finally, Cruz effectively upstaged his party's leaders when the story about how Republicans responded to Obama on net neutrality became all about him. Although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) both issued statements of their own, neither dominated headlines the way Cruz did. This actually has happened once before, when Cruz got out in front of then Rep. Eric Cantor on Obamacare, revealing an internal split in the GOP over how to "fix" the health-care law.