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Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

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

[digg-reddit-me]Yesterday marked the opening of the political battle over net neutrality.

To this date, all the talk of “serieses of tubes” and the sporadic and localized attempts to create a tiered internet have been mere skirmishes.

But yesterday, Robert McDowell, an FCC Commissioner, attempted to push net neutrality into the political fray during an election season – and unleashed the first coherent attack on net neutrality.  To date, the arguments of opponents of net neutrality have focused on two fronts: pure incoherence (see Ted Stevens) and scapegoating “pirates.” 1

McDowell attempted to attack net neutrality (which has not been an especially polarizing or partisan issue to date) in a way that was both clever and dishonest – by linking net neutrality to the Fairness Doctrine reviled by conservatives.

(Because I feel there is a lot to explore with this topic, I’ve divided it up into three section – a synopsis of the situation/timeline; a more in-depth explanation; and an explanation of why it is so dishonest to equate the Fairness Doctrine and Net Neutrality.)

The situation:

The Politics:

Obama is in favor of net neutrality.

McCain thinks it’s all confusing2 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.

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.”

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

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: An FCC Commissioner 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...

Next: Conservative talk radio hosts begin talking about how net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine for the internet.  Conservative bloggers agree and publicize this as well.

Then: 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 fundraise.

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 becomes a struggle to enact.

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.

The backstory

The Fairness Doctrine (which required companies that licensed public airwaves “to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner deemed by the FCC to be honest, equitable, and balanced”) had been considered a key impediment to a conservative agenda after many conservatives came to believe that that the media played a key role in their eventual defeat as they fought against the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s and anti-war movement in the late 1960s. They believed that the media was essentially liberal and that the battling liberal and conservative opinions that were forced onto the airwaves because of the Fairness Doctrine merely ended up legitimizing the inherent liberal bias of the news itself rather than effectively getting across conservative viewpoints. After legal challenges beginning in the late 1960s, the Fairness Doctrine was finally abolished in 1984.  This led directly to the right-wing talk radio boom in the late 1980s – from Rush Limbaugh to Bill O’Reilly to Sean Hannity.  This talk radio boom was an essential part of the creation of the right-wing echo chamber and conservative successes that followed, beginning with the 1994 Gingrich revolution.  Without the end of the Fairness Doctrine and the launch of talk radio, even Newt Gingrich acknowledges that the Contract With America would not have been possible.

This history is not well known among liberals – but it is common knowledge among the millions of right-wing radio listeners.  And there are many such radio listeners.  Rush Limbaugh’s audience alone is estimated to number over 20 million a week (and his recent contract extension has him making $50 million a year until 2016).  After the 2004 election, many Democrats, trying to re-group and understand the Republican dominance of the ideological debate since the 1980s, saw the attacks on the Fairness Doctrine as an essential part of the Republican strategy take control of the political debate.  (Democrats John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Durbin, and others have all made positive comments about the Fairness Doctrine, although none has declared explicit support for it’s return.)

This June, John Gizzi of Human Events magazine (which has been spouting conservative propaganda since 1944) reported that Nancy Pelosi was in favor of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.  This revelation – though not picked up by the mainstream media – echoed through the conservative blogosphere and talk radio energizing a dispirited conservative movement.

Putting aside policy considerations, the Fairness Doctrine is as anathema to conservatives as the tiered internet is to the web-savvy.  They see it as a threat to their power, to free speech, and as an attempt to marginalize them and their politics.

Which is why McDowell’s comments today are so savvy.  By equating the Fairness Doctrine with net neutrality, he is attempting to polarize the public away from a consensus in favor of net neutrality into two competing camps. This is not all McDowell’s genius idea.  The Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF) published a paper in October 2007 laying out this exact argument titled Net Neutrality: A Fairness Doctrine for the Internet (PDF).  The PFF of course is an “independent-minded” organization and think tank bankrolled by Comcast, AT&T, Clear Channel, Time Warner, and Microsoft among other enormous companies that stand to profit from opposing both the Fairness Doctrine and net neutrality.

What struck me when reading McDowell’s description of net neutrality as a kind of Fairness Doctrine for the internet was how off the comparison was – and I knew immediately that it was either the result of idiocy similar to Ted Stevens’s tubes or a deliberate attempt to mislead the public about net neutrality.  After finding this white paper above and tracing the history of how the Fairness Doctrine suddenly and conveniently became a political issue in this electoral cycle – it seems clear that this is part of a Republican attempt to energize their base in opposition to net neutrality and find an issue on which to attack the Democrats come November and most important, to boost fund raising among those companies that oppose net neutrality in the meantime.

Which is why I say: The battle over net neutrality has been joined.

The forces that oppose net neutrality are now attempting to break up the bipartisan coalition that has supported efforts to legislate net neutrality. They are finally advancing serious (if dishonest) arguments against it.  With the Democrats likely to expand their majority in Congress and the frontrunner for the presidency a Democrat who has been a vocal advocate of net neutrality, this is the big corporations’ only chance to push net neutrality through.

If you’re wondering about McCain’s position on net neutrality, he’s not sure.  He told Brian Lehrer of WNYC that he “goes back and forth on the issue” – although conservative sites have reported that he flat-out opposes it.  Of course, McCain still doesn’t know how to “get online by [himself].” Given John McCain’s recent history of giving up principled positions in order to win over the right-wing, I think it’s a safe bet that a President McCain would finally figure out his position on the issue of net neutrality to the detriment of all internet users.

Why Net Neutrality is Very Different from the Fairness Doctrine

While the Fairness Doctrine forced broadcasters using the public airwaves to include dissenting opinions when discussing controversial issues, net neutrality prohibits internet service providers from discriminating based on content.  It’s comparing bananas to strawberries.  Both involve government regulation.  Both involve content.  Both involve media.  One forces the media to add content they would not otherwise.  The other prohibits those delivering the content to discriminate and favor some content over others.

This inherent openness is widely described as the core strength of the internet.  It allows dissenting voices to be heard.  It allows a more free market to emerge.  It is one of the essential characteristics of the architecture of the internet.

The Fairness Doctrine, despite a vogue among certain Democrats who have flirted coyly with the idea recently, seems outdated in this world with far greater media options.  It was designed for a world in which the national media was dominated by three television stations and dissenting opinions could be quashed merely by ignoring them.  Lawrence Lessig, a great proponent of net neutrality, has said that in today’s media environment, he believes that the Fairness Doctrine is unconstitutional. Barack Obama, another liberal and a strong supporter of net neutrality, has also indicated he is opposed to reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine.

Net neutrality and the Fairness Doctrine are entirely seperate and distinct.  The Republican efforts to confuse the public on this issue have begun.  Stay on the lookout – for you can bet this isn’t the end of this campaign.

  1. AAAAAARGH! []
  2. His exact quote is: “I go back and forth on the issue. []

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