Republicans are going ballistic over President Obama's plan for tough net-neutrality regulations, vowing a knock-down, drag-out fight over the issue.
And that appears to be exactly what Obama was counting on.
Democrats believe that defending net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, will be a winning issue for them. Republicans are going to put up fierce resistance, warning that the rules will hurt investment in high-speed Internet networks, ultimately meaning higher prices and worse service for everyone. But Democrats believe that the public is on their side, and the fight will make it clear which party is really in favor of an open Internet.
Republicans just won control of the Senate, and they seem sure to clash with the White House on a range of issues over the next two years. By pushing net neutrality, the administration is able to pick a fight on what it believes will be favorable terrain.
Obama's political machine is already using net neutrality to fundraise and rally the base.
Organizing for Action, the president's political organization, sent an email Tuesday asking supporters to sign a petition to ensure that cable giants won't be able to "charge you extra if you use a service like Facebook or Netflix." The group wrote: "The President is out there, fighting for net neutrality, because none of us can afford to take it for granted."
Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who coined the term "net neutrality" and who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for New York lieutenant governor this year, thinks the battle will benefit Democrats. "It pits the president, who is the only official elected by the whole country, against an industry that is widely despised by consumers," Wu said. "The industry is defended by a Republican Congress already widely seen as the putting industry interests before consumers—their opposition to common-sense rules just reinforces the sense that Congress puts its donors first."
There is evidence that net neutrality is broadly popular. According to a poll this week by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance, a pro-net-neutrality group, 44 percent of voters support net neutrality, with only 29 percent opposed. And even the vast majority of conservatives say Internet providers shouldn't be allowed to "influence content" or create Internet "toll lanes," the poll found.
Obama has supported the concept of net neutrality since he first ran for president, but for the first time Monday, he outlined a specific path for new regulations. Under his plan, the Federal Communications Commission would invoke a controversial authority to essentially treat Internet service like a public utility.
"The time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do," Obama said.
The statement thrilled liberals and Internet activists who argue that classifying broadband Internet as a "telecommunications service" under Title II of the Communications Act is the only way to enact net-neutrality rules that can survive legal challenges from industry groups. Obama urged the FCC to use the provision to ban Internet providers from blocking websites, throttling Internet service, or creating any special Internet "fast lanes" for websites that pay more. The rules would apply to home Internet connections and mobile devices.
As expected, Republicans pounced. While most GOP lawmakers are skeptical of net neutrality generally, they are adamantly opposed to utility-style regulation of the Internet under Title II.
Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who is poised to become chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the president's plan would "stifle our nation's dynamic and robust Internet sector with rules written nearly 80 years ago for plain old telephone service." House Speaker John Boehner vowed that Republicans will continue their efforts to "stop this misguided scheme to regulate the Internet."
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, had the most memorable comment, calling net neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet."
The fight will likely drag on for years. The major broadband providers have threatened to sue the FCC if it invokes Title II, which would mean drawn-out court battles. And Republicans will probably do everything they can to kill the rules, such as passing repeal legislation, trying to defund the FCC, and dragging agency commissioners into oversight hearings.
Democrats aren't worried about a long showdown with Republicans over the issue though. In fact, they appear to be relishing it.
In the fundraising pitch, Organizing for Action said net-neutrality supporters will have to face "an absurdly well-funded opposition" with "plenty of allies in Washington." The group specifically highlighted Cruz's "Obamacare" comment, saying "as far as I can tell, [it] makes sense to exactly no one."
Katie McAuliffe, the executive director for digital liberty at Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative group led by Grover Norquist, predicted the Internet regulation fight will ultimately backfire on Democrats. People will realize they don't want the government to have sweeping powers over the Internet, she said.
"Net neutrality sounds nice, but that's not what this is," she said. "I think a lot of people are going to be gung-ho on this, and then they're going to find out they were sold a raw deal. It's a bait and switch."
Berin Szoka, the executive director of the libertarian group TechFreedom and a net-neutrality skeptic, admitted the issue is "absolutely a political winner" for Democrats.
"Republicans are playing checkers when Democrats are playing chess," he said. "Republicans are their own worst enemy on this issue. When they bash net neutrality, they just shoot themselves in the foot with millennials and the tech industry."
The key, Szoka said, will be for Republicans to take a more nuanced position on net neutrality. They should support legislation giving the FCC "narrow" authority to prevent Internet providers from blocking websites and requiring them to publicly reveal how they manage traffic, he said. Republicans need to show that it's possible to protect consumers online without imposing utility-style regulation, he argued.
"If early next Congress, Republicans haven't come out with a legislative fix, you'll know they're not serious," he said.
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