The Republican core philosophy has always been based on individual freedom and opportunity for all. But it is a philosophy that can lead to conflict. Especially when the financial support Republicans need to fund elections comes from large corporations and wealthy elite, who favor freedom and opportunity—but for only the few.
This past week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted by a 3–2 margin to declare the Internet as essentially a public service that should be available to all on a neutral and equal basis. The theory driving the FCC’s decision is that dependence on the Internet has become so pervasive and critical to communication and commerce in the country that – like public utilities and interstate commerce – unfettered access to it should be protected.
(In May of 2014, I published a blog that discussed “net neutrality.” You might find it helpful to review the issues raised at that time.)
In reporting on the FCC’s action, the media pointed out that the vote was “along party lines,” with the Democrats on the Commission voting in favor of an open and free Internet, while the Republicans voted against that concept. Last year, President Obama came out in support of what is called “net neutrality.” In his comments Obama said, “An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life.” Nevertheless, when the FCC decision was announced, the Democrats praised it and the Republicans condemned it.
While acknowledging both the importance and impact of the Internet, Republicans prefer to grant the large corporations that control access and content delivery over the Internet the right to determine what fees are charged for access and speed of content delivery. The result of that action would be to limit the best aspects of the Internet to the haves, keeping others as have-nots.
None other than the intellectually irrepressible stalwart Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas led the opposition to the FCC ruling by referring to net neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet.” What’s going on here? We have been led to believe that the Republicans are committed to individual freedom and opportunity. In today’s world nothing speaks more to individual freedom and opportunity than does an open Internet. Companies and services such as Google, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Angie’s List, Pandora, YouTube, Amazon are children of the Internet that could not have come into being if it were not for free and equal access to the Internet. Countless millions of commercial and non-profit websites have charted the same unfettered course, websites that could have ended up here.
How can the Republicans be so entrenched in opposition to an idea – net neutrality – that goes to the very core of their professed political philosophy of individual freedom and opportunity? Don’t they constantly speak of their commitment to small business and entrepreneurs? Maybe this anti-net neutrality is simply an unthinking knee-jerk reaction to oppose anything that Obama favors. After all, this has been the operational philosophy of the Republicans from the first day Obama took office. On the other hand, the Republicans could be hiding behind their often-stated belief that any government regulation of commerce is, by its nature, bad and should be resisted. The Republicans argue that the FCC ruling is just another landmark expansion of the government’s regulatory agenda that is an anathema to individual and corporate freedom and opportunity.
Biting Your Nose to Spite . . .
The Republican logic seems a bit convoluted here. Opposition to net neutrality is consistent with their dogged rejection of virtually any government regulation, but for a political party that positions itself as the champion of small businesses and entrepreneurialism, its anti-net neutrality position is at best confusing, if not downright hypocritical.
It has been the very openness of Internet access and service that has given individuals and new businesses the freedom and opportunity to develop and flourish. The reality is that an open Internet is the only way small businesses and entrepreneurs with a creative vision can be on a level playing field with the biggest companies. It is the only way startups and the next great new idea can compete and potentially flourish.
Government regulation of the Internet may be contrary to Republicans’ belief in a free market, but restricting access to the Internet or allowing bigger companies better service, would serve only to inhibit innovation, small businesses and entrepreneurs. Why would, of all people, the Republicans now be willing to allow the Internet to fall under the control of huge, virtually monopolistic corporations, bent only on making more profits for themselves? And in the process shut off the freedom of opportunity and access for all.
There is an interesting historical irony here. Republicans have a better track record of using government power and regulations to create opportunity and protect the interests of small business and entrepreneurs than do the Democrats. Teddy Roosevelt and his successor William Taft, both Republicans, were the first to use the power of government to attempt to create a level playing field for small businesses and entrepreneurs by breaking the monopolist power of huge companies. These two Republicans did this by declaring certain activities as essentially a public service that should be regulated to assure equal access to all. The best example of this is how Roosevelt dealt with the Internet of his day – the railroads.
In the late 19th century, the railroads meant as much to commerce in this country as the Internet does today. As the railroads spread across the country there was what could be called “railroad-neutrality.” Scores of railroad companies were formed to compete for the business of transporting goods all across the country. Railroads were open and available on an equal basis to any and all who wished to ship goods to market. As a result, new businesses were created and the economy flourished. But then, unable (or unwilling) to meet the competition, railroads began to consolidate. Before long the entire railway network was under the control of only two or three “railroad trusts,” which met the competition by conspiring together to eliminate competition.
No longer were railroads “neutral” and open to any business. Those who controlled the railroads were free to charge any price they decided and to favor large shippers over smaller ones. Since there was not viable a alternative to the railroads, just as there is no alternative to the Internet, individual freedom and opportunity was suppressed; while the rich got richer. In 1906 Roosevelt pushed through legislation (the Hepburn Act) that basically declared railroads to be a public service. The law (later strengthened by Taft) gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to regulate railroad rates and forbid preference for larger companies. The effect was to ultimately restore “railroad neutrality” that provided access to all on an equitable basis. The result was greatly expanded opportunity and commerce.
It is sad that today’s Republicans have not learned this lesson from the Republicans of the past. There are times when the use of government power to regulate is the best way – maybe the only way – to assure a level playing field that will create individual freedom and opportunity for all. You would think the Republicans would rush to accept this concept, but instead they fight it. Then again, maybe they are just too conflicted between the principles of their party and the hundreds of millions in principal that the corporations opposed to net neutrality contribute to the Republican Party to fund their election campaigns.
Republican Teddy Roosevelt must be rolling over in his grave.