Ted Cruz Reduces the Net Neutrality Debate to One Blindingly Bad Question
But that question might miss the point of why it's such a divisive issue.
During Thursday’s Senate hearing to review activity by the Federal Communications Commission, an exchange between Ted Cruz and Ajit Pai became colorfully partisan with Cruz peppering on the hyperbole in a style that’s become associated with the Texas Senator.
“Indeed, we heard that the world was going to end when the net neutrality rules were repealed, not withstanding the fact that they had been implemented only in 2015,” Cruz began in his remarks to Pai. “So for the entire history of the internet, the FCC had not declared the authority to regulate prices and terms of the service on the internet.”
But if you examine his premise, Cruz’s words should come under scrutiny from anybody paying attention to internet technology, infrastructure, and business: Net neutrality rules largely became necessary when streaming video became widely accessible.
Net neutrality wasn’t required for the “entire history of the internet,” and that reference nakedly puts forth an idea that internet technology has remained static since forever. Cruz knows that’s not the case, having likely gone from dial-up modems while he was preparing testimony for the impeachment of Bill Clinton in the ‘90s to LTE data service he was using to read tweets after he told Republications to “vote your conscience” during the 2016 GOP convention.
There were other comments in this bit of political theater that played out between Cruz and Pai, specifically when Cruz capped off his opening remarks with a blindingly dumb question: “Has the internet ceased to function?”
“It has not, Senator,” responded Pai, with this smirk:
It was objectively goofy and probably a little too chummy for anybody in the room or watching the livestream (thanks, C-SPAN 3).
Reducing the debate over net neutrality — the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally, from the smallest dot com websites to the Netflix’s streaming videos — to whether the internet still functions misses the reason why people are so divided. The internet will always function, it’s just that some sites might load faster, based on a person’s internet service provider, while others will load at a glacial pace. For instance, if your service provider is Comcast, know that Comcast owns NBCUniversal Media, and that programming might load faster than say, Netflix programming, which is not owned by Comcast and competes with NBCUniversal Media for eyeballs. At the bottom of the food-chain are small businesses on the web. Those sites won’t get any preferential treatment from the outset, which is why a growing list of companies that started on the web support an internet with an equal playing field.
In proposing “light-touch” internet regulation, the FCC might find itself regulating more in the long-term, too.
The FCC and Federal Trade Commission will have to monitor transparency and fairness of internet speeds to make sure that certain types of internet content — political or media websites, for example — aren’t being throttled because the ideas expressed on those sites clash with those who control internet speeds. If it sounds Orwellian because it has to do with idea suppression and technology, know there’s always been the suppression of unpopular ideas; they were just in newspapers and on billboards. Now they are on websites that host their own video.
Still though, Cruz didn’t appear interested in facts, only in creating a strawman that Pai could knock down.
“The parade of horribles that people were told [about] … is there any evidence that they have come to pass?” Cruz asked in another rhetorical.
“They have not and even if many were, we now have in place an FCC transparency rule and an FTC enforcement to make sure it would be addressed quickly,” Pai said.
Cruz’s verbal detour served him and other advocates for a tiered internet well, though: By reducing the question to “does the internet still function?,” he and Pai — a former lawyer for Verizon — effectively tell the public to look away from the removal of a consumer protection that will only become more important as internet technology — like 5G speeds — advances further. The internet will continue to exist without net neutrality; it just won’t be as recognizable as the one we have today.