Whether You’re Red or Blue, You Should Love the FCC’s Internet Plan

This Tea Party guy gets it. Why don’t DC Republicans?

One day two years ago, while I was doing a public radio call-in show for a station in North Carolina, I heard a Tea Party member say something completely reasonable.

It had been a long day. I’d been in a windowless conference room in midtown Manhattan making calls every half hour to different programs and I was up to Hour Four, so I was a little punchy. I was talking about high speed Internet access and the need for open, cheap, fast fiber access across the country, and a guy called in — let’s call him Scott — saying he agreed with me wholeheartedly.

He said (paraphrasing), “I want my freedom and I can’t stand the idea of government messing with our lives, and that’s why I like the Tea Party. But I also can’t stand that there’s a company that can tell me what kind of Internet access I can get — I can’t run my business from my home because I can’t buy the connection I need here.” Scott and I had a kind of symphonic talk after that, a hum of convergence: we were on the same page and I was delighted, egging him on, until he suddenly went off on immigrants destroying the country. The producer swiftly drew the conversation to a close and we were on to the next call.

I remembered Scott this past weekend as political reactions to the FCC’s Open Internet and muni fiber decisions swirled. The fiercest objections came from the right. (As in wing, not direction.) Here’s one from Examiner.com: “Like Obamacare and Common Core, the primary objective of net neutrality is control. They all represent government growth on a grand scale as well as the loss of individual liberty and economic freedom.” And the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page called the ruling “Obamanet” and said, “The FCC is grabbing political control over a vibrant market that until now has been driven by inventors and consumers.”

The pro-Open Internet side seems to be standing in a different galaxy. Free Press said the FCC’s decisions were “the biggest victory for the public interest in the agency’s history,” and MoveOn.org crowed that “by protecting the open Internet from big cable companies that want to limit access, this victory levels the playing field for consumers, small businesses, and Main Street.”

At this point, we could just shrug and say the whole thing is like that blue-black/red-gold dress optical illusion that swirled around the Internet last weekend along with the net neutrality brouhaha: people see the Open Internet issue one way or another, and no amount of persuasion is going to make a difference.

But I’m an eternal optimist. Scott, my Tea Party friend of two years ago, told me he couldn’t stand being bossed around by companies that didn’t feel building fiber to his house was worthwhile. For him, a fiber connection was just like electricity or a street grid, and it was government’s role to make sure that facility is cheap, ubiquitous, and fast. He wanted to run his business, and he couldn’t—because when it comes to ubiquitous high-capacity Internet connectivity the unregulated “free market” isn’t working. Everyone in America wants to run his or her businesses, and hold conversations, and have healthcare and education services at their fingertips.

Here’s the thing: the wonky “reclassification” move the FCC made last week — the administrative relabeling of high speed Internet access services as “telecommunications” — has two major consequences. Yes, it will make it possible for the Open Internet rules to withstand a legal challenge. (The D.C. Circuit has already said twice that regulating by way of a rulemaking while keeping these services in an unregulated administrative category doesn’t make sense.) But the relabeling also makes it far more likely that the free market of online services and wide-ranging, liberty-loving enterprises that Scott wants to be part of will happen effectively in America.

That’s because the relabeling will put the Commission on solid legal footing to do more to require a high standard of competitive Internet connectivity, to insist that barriers to those connections be lowered, and to push for the kinds of policies that will add up to world-class connectivity for more Americans.

No one — not the left, not the progressives, not the moderates, not the far right — likes to see cartels controlling basic highways. (Okay, yes, the handful of companies doing this are acting out of reasonable profit motives, and they’re not anxious to see a change to the status quo. They make enormous political contributions to ensure legislators will vote their way.) Everyone wants economic freedom. What the FCC has done is not aimed at controlling speech. It’s aimed at getting a better, more open, basic, world-class, two-way communications network in place around the country. That goal should not be controversial.

But that dress really is blue-black, people.

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