Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 | 1:49 p.m.
A Nevada lawmaker’s longtime crusade against an equal web access mandate has officially gone viral in Congress -- but the timing may be putting the U.S.’s domestic Internet policy at odds with what we’re espousing abroad.
The issue is a debate over net neutrality rules, recently approved by the Federal Communications Commission, which would force Internet providers and government agencies to provide Internet access free of restrictions and at equal connection rates to all websites.
It’s a policy that Internet providers, and senators like Nevada’s John Ensign, have long been lobbying against, arguing that rules forcing companies to provide un-slowed access to data-heavy sites like YouTube, Facebook, and other peer-to-peer sites, or unfettered access to their competitors, are “anti-free market”, “anti-competitive”, and discourage innovation and investment.
Ensign is leading an effort in the Senate to stymie the FCC’s rules; meanwhile Republicans in the House, including Nevada’s Dean Heller and Joe Heck, voted last week to prohibit federal funds from being used to implement the regulations.
But the timing is threatening to put U.S. domestic policy on Internet access at odds with the Obama administration’s attempt at protecting Internet freedom abroad; an effort to support civilians in the Middle East relying on those very same peer-to-peer and social networking sites to stage a series of uprisings to depose dictators across the region.
Internet freedom has gained a new global strategic importance in the last few weeks, as uprisings have unfolded in the Middle East. In fact, Internet freedom is basically the one area in which the U.S. foreign policy apparatus has been able to craft a targeted message to project to countries trying to throw off their dictators, several of whom have clamped down or cut off access to the Internet entirely in an effort to muzzle protests. It’s a message that solidified shortly after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who has since stepped down, shut down nearly every Internet service provider operating in the country in late January.
“We are convinced that an open Internet fosters long-term peace, progress and prosperity,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week. “The reverse is also true.”
Of course, Internet providers operating in the states, like Verizon and Comcast, aren’t dictators; so any selective or tiered web access that they might provide is motivated by the economic desire to optimize a business model, not the political desire to cling to absolute power. But there’s a lesson from the examples of Egypt -- and Tunisia, and Bahrain, and even places like China -- that pro-net neutrality advocates say shouldn’t be lost on the United States, since regulation can’t arbitrarily stop at our national borders in deference to providers’ profits.
“For democracies, one lesson here is clear,” Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s former director of global public policy and the White House’s recently-departed deputy chief of technology, wrote in an op-ed appearing in the Guardian earlier this month. “Enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality...are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis.”
Anti-net neutrality activists have also been invoking the specter of Egypt, expressing fears that mandating open Internet access through the FCC, it will also centralize regulatory authority too completely with the federal government -- a sort of absolute power that could be abused down the line.
That’s not a position being espoused by anyone in the mainstream however -- even those like Ensign, who are accusing the Obama administration of “usurping the private sector role in our economy” -- but not for such politically nefarious ends.
“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” Ensign said. “This order will serve to smother creative new uses for the Internet, and it will slow the construction of advanced broadband networks.”
That in itself, however, could raise a whole new set of concerns, and contradictions, with newly-stated Obama administration policies.
Obama has turned a great deal of attention toward expanding nation-wide Internet access, taking an especially friendly tone toward wireless broadband.
As part of his fiscal 2012 budget requests, President Obama asked for $5 billion to build up a national wireless broadband network, and step up Internet access to rural parts of the country especially. That’s a potentially vital investment for a place like Nevada, where anybody who’s driven between Las Vegas and Reno can testify to the several phone and Internet service outages that crop up along the way.
Neither Ensign, nor Heller nor Heck, have commented on Obama’s specific broadband investment proposal -- though Ensign, at least, has been vocal in criticizing the president for not being serious enough about cutting spending in his overall budget request.
But in focusing acutely on wireless broadband, the President is actually avoiding any sort of philosophical head-butting over the helpful or hindering influence of net neutrality laws. So long as they don’t outright block access to legal websites, wireless Internet providers are exempt from all the other restrictions that come along with the FCC’s ruling.