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‘The Fairness Doctrine for the Internet’ is a Conservative Strawman

[FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell at a Tech Policy Summit. Picture by TechPolicySummit used under a Creative Commons license.]

[digg-reddit-me]With some new information, I’m adding to the timeline I created to demonstrate the significance of FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell’s comments on net neutrality (which is also a useful link to check out if you’re unfamiliar with the Fairness Doctrine) a few days ago.

The situation:

The Politics:

Obama is in favor of net neutrality.

McCain thinks it’s all confusing ((His exact quote is: “I go back and forth on the issue.)) and claims he doesn’t know what his position is (though he has made definitive statements opposing it.)

The Democrats are generally in favor of net neutrality.

It has not been a big issue for Republicans, but a few have come out against it (see Ted Stevens.)  The conservative base hates the Fairness Doctrine though with a passion.

Since the idea occured to them: Big internet companies want to charge more for customers to access certain internet sites, or to allow certain sites to have priority and to slow down others, and in general to assert control over internet content.

October 2007: The Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank funded by companies opposed to net neutrality, publishes a report explaining that a good way to attack net neutrality is to call it “The Fairness Doctrine for the Internet (PDF).”

Spring 2008: Internet providers begin experiments with tiered pricing and other anti-net-neutrality practices.

After McCain secures Republican nomination: He begins to rake in large sums of money from AT&T, the US Telecom Association, Verizon, and other companies opposing net neutrality.

June 2008: A Republican Congressmen introduces a bill to outlaw the Fairness Doctrine (which has been illegal since the 1980s).

Later in June 2008: A conservative reporter publishes a story which alleges that Nancy Pelosi is considering reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

August 12, 2008: FCC Commissioner, Robert McDowell, says that net neutrality could lead to the regulation of political speech on the internet, as if it’s the Fairness Doctrine for the internet.

The Drudge Report publicizes the speech with the scare headline:

FCC Commissioner: Return of 'Fairness Doctrine' Could Control Web Content...

Now: Conservative talk radio hosts are talking about how net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine for the internet. (I heard Steve Marlsburg, a bete noir of this blog, who is so old he probably still calls the internet the world wide web ranting on this subject on his show yesterday.) Conservative bloggers are jumping on the bandwagon.

Next week, McCain plans on releasing the details of his Technology Policy which is reported to be “market-oriented.”

Then for my pessimistic speculation

These conservatives begin to raise the issue in attacks on Obama, liberals, etcetera. Progressives and liberals defend net neutrality.

And then: Independent-minded people and journalists who haven’t been paying attention to this issue finally notice now that conflicts are arising.  Journalists cover the issue giving “both sides” and independents throw up their hands, unable to pick a side.

And: Conservatives mount a campaign attacking Democrats.  Even those conservatives who support net neutrality are silent because they’re happy for any issue on which they can hit Democrats and which they can use to fund raise.

Finally, January 2009: After the election, Democrats attempt to pass net neutrality legislation.  A grass-roots structure has been created to oppose them, and many Republicans have publicly committed to oppose it.  An obvious policy choice that should have bipartisan support becomes a struggle to enact.

(On a hopeful note, I think this is a fight the Democrats and supporters of the internet can win.)

This is how public opinion is manipulated.  This is how our political system is corrupted as the obvious and clear policy is shrouded in spin and the consensus is replaced by deliberate polarization.

Matt Stoller of OpenLeft is more sanguine about the effects of this campaign to tar net neutrality:

Now, the question is not substantive, it’s whether this campaign will work to persuade people that up is down, that black is white. I don’t think it will.

But what I think Stoller is missing is that this propaganda campaign does not seem directed to the public at large, but at conservative activists.  The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling.  But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners.

And although these groups are not large enough to force their way, they are large enough to derail the political conversation and make it harder to enact this obvious policy. Even if some do realize they are being manipulated, many are willing to go along with the party-line and take the necessary positions to gain power.

All of which points to one thing: without Barack Obama as president, net neutrality may not have the necessary support.

384 replies on “‘The Fairness Doctrine for the Internet’ is a Conservative Strawman”


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