Yesterday morning, President Obama made a call for Net Neutrality—something that many on the Internet have been lobbying the President to do for years. Shortly thereafter, Senator Ted Cruz weighed in with a tweet that quickly attracted a lot of attention.
“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) November 10, 2014
Observers in the tech industry, which overwhelmingly supports what we’re all calling “Net Neutrality,” quickly and ruthlessly mocked Cruz’s declaration: Tech blog Gizmodo declared that “Ted Cruz’s Net Neutrality Take Isn’t Just Dumb, It’s Dangerous,” and the ornery, wildly popular webcomic The Oatmeal responded with a profane explanation of the many ways in which Net Neutrality has nothing in common with Obamacare.
Declaring Net Neutrality to be Obamacare for the Internet is a good soundbite, but—as the critics have pointed out—it’s also pretty much nonsense. Net Neutrality refers to a preservation of the way the Internet has worked since its inception, not a new program that changes how it operates. The Internet we use right now is built around the principles of Net Neutrality: That is to say, the principle that your Internet service provider (AT&T, TimeWarner, Grande, etc) is required to treat the information you’re receiving neutrally beacause the internet is classified as a “common carrier” by the FCC. As ABC writes, “Common carriers are public like telephone networks, and they cannot discriminate against consumers.” Verizon, for instance, can’t ban you from calling up Sprint. Your phone carrier isn’t allowed to shape what you’re allowed to do with its service, its job is to connect you to the person you called.
The question around Net Neutrality surrounds whether your internet service provider (ISP) is classified as a common carrier or not. In 2010, the FCC adopted rules that prevented ISPs from prioritizing certain kinds of traffic, but in January, an appeals court ruled that the policy was overreaching.
If you’re interested in wading further into the details of Net Neutrality and how it works, here are some good primers from ABC, Wired, and Scientific American. But if the specifics of common carriers and the debate between whether ISPs are “information services” or “telecommunications services” is a bit too technical for you, there’s another question worth asking: Why wouldn’t Ted Cruz support the principle behind Net Neutrality?
The reason the Internet has come to dominate the way business, commerce, education, socialization, entertainment, and more work is simple: Someone with a good idea and the ability to see that idea through can succeed beyond his or her wildest dreams through the Internet. While there are arguments against portraying the Internet and the tech world as a pure meritocracy, it remains inspiring to countless people around the world that somebody with a good idea, a laptop, and a dorm room can start a business empire worth billions. In many ways, that idea is the distillation of the Libertarian philosophy that Cruz champions: Build something, work hard, and reap the rewards.
That math changes, though, if people aren’t able to access the thing you’ve built. If, for example, Facebook becomes the official social network of Comcast, then the person who starts the next Twitter, or Instagram, or Ello.co could be denied the opportunity to reach the market. An Internet without Net Neutrality isn’t an Internet without any sort of regulation—it’s merely an Internet in which regulation is provided by ISPs.
The questions surrounding Net Neutrality are ultimately questions of opportunity. It’s unlikely that Senator Cruz would argue that innovation is best brought out through competition, but the competition that leads to innovation on the Internet is between users and entrepreneurs, not between—say—TimeWarner and Comcast (who are still hoping to merge). Someone with a good idea and a dream is unlikely to be able to build an $11 billion fiber optic network to compete with the TimeWarner/Comcasts of the world, but—under Internet rules that treats all information equally—they can start a WhatsApp, or an Uber, or a Netflix, or another company that builds value and improves lives.
It’s hard to imagine that that’s what Senator Cruz meant to criticize with his Tweet.