So Senator Ted Cruz said this on Twitter today:
His jab was a response to President Obama's call yesterday for the FCC to "implement the strongest possible rules to protect Net Neutrality" and classify Internet service providers as utilities like phone, power, or water companies.
Now, as John Oliver makes abundantly clear, Net Neutrality a terribly boring name for a deeply important issue. The basic idea (and foundational tradition of the Internet) is that the companies we pay to access to the Net should be Neutral to its content, i.e. they can't slow, block, or overcharge our actions online. Still awake? It's not that boring or complex, if you ask me. The information superhighway has one speed limit and the cops can't pull you over without fair cause. John Oliver is pretty funny though.
Ted Cruz's tweet is just a tweet, but it still left me concerned. In a characteristically funny and informed piece in the Washington Post titled "‘Obamacare for the Internet’? Net neutrality, Ted Cruz, and the danger of bad analogies," the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri sounded the war horn: "So begins the battle for the metaphor."
The Internet has been subject to many metaphors, including some particularly unwieldy and uninformed ones when it comes to Republican Senators named Ted. The late Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens famously said "The Internet is not a big truck. It's a series of tubes."
Senator Ted the Elder's statement was so comically off base that it's entered the online vernacular, enough that the remark even has its own KnowYourMeme page. However, Ted the Younger's isn't as funny, even if it's wildly off base as well. Now, I don't want to dig into why his view of Net Neutrality is "bad news for everyone" (see The Verge for that) or why it's just plain wrong (see The Oatmeal for that). I want to dig into the parts of his view that instead seem right to a casual audience. Tennyson called "a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies" so let's confront that blackness.
Health care and Net Neutrality are not the same thing, but simple metaphor could convince someone otherwise.
Today, as with five years ago, Obama argued for a fundamental right of access: then it was to health care, today it's to the Internet. At the outset of the health care battles, Democrats assumed that insurance companies hated for denying coverage and chasing patients into bankruptcy could be vilified for leverage. They were wrong. The same mistake is now on offer with cable companies. Comcast and Time Warner are the two most hated companies in America, as Petri notes.
The individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act was originally an idea put forward by the conservative Heritage Foundation and first implemented by some obscure Massachusetts Republican governor named Mitt Romney. The idea was meant to offer an alternative to single payer: individuals, rather than their employers or the government, would be responsible for their health care. The individual mandate must have been uncontroversially bipartisan then right? Like Net Neutrality is now?
We know how that story played out. The individual mandate went from an alternative to government-run healthcare to a "Trojan Horse" for it and the Supreme Court had to weigh in with one of their highest profile decisions in decades. Net Neutrality is bipartisan, say many. Well, with President Obama advocating for the Internet to be treated as a utility (a designation shaded with government takeover) and Senator Cruz's tweet, I worry Net Neutrality might not be so bipartisan for so much longer. Strong language like Death Panels and the invocation of Nazism now color the Republican view of the Affordable Care Act. One Senator even compared his fellow Republicans funding of Obamacare to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. Of course, that Senator was Ted Cruz. Made during his 2013 filibuster that wasn't actually a filibuster, that analogy may have been as tortured and wrongheaded as today's tweet.
Of course, Net Neutrality is not the health care battle all over again. Five years ago, the fight was over a change to the law, and a dramatic one at that. Today, Net Neutrality is about keeping things as they are. If progressives are about bringing change to society and conservatives about honoring the status quo of society, then the issue is already primed for conservatives. Net Neutrality also isn't personal in the way health care is. Dismantling it could have dangerous consequences for innovation and free expression, but Death Panels aren't in the offing. (I said I wouldn't write about why Cruz's view is wrong, so I'll stop myself. Seriously, check out The Oatmeal on that. He's fantastic.)
Frankly, the topic is so pliable to metaphor that I could just as easily call the FCC deliberations on Net Neutrality the Death Panels of the Internet as Cruz could call Net Neutrality the Obamacare of the Internet.
Ultimately, I worry that Cruz's tweet was a preview of politics over Internet freedom. It may have been an offhand online remark by a Senator with a financial stake in telecoms and an electoral stake in bashing Obama, but it may also herald the politicization of a once uncontroversial topic, as was the case with health care according to Gallup.
Now that Republicans have the Senate and he's a truly lame duck, I understand President Obama taking some rare positions (which his Net Neutrality stance unfortunately is). However, as with many candidates this past cycle and many issues before, his support may do more harm than good. I personally applaud his announcement, but also wonder if his gesture might paint a target on the issue for Republicans in a way that the comparably obscure topic wouldn't otherwise. It was after his announcement that Cruz sounded the Obamacare war horn. Once the bully pulpit, now the hot potato.
That said, a tweet by freshman senator doesn't stand up to a video of the Commander-in-Chief. Here's his brief statement.
It opens with an old school "buffering" animation which I have to admit is pretty clever. It reminds me of the Buy ‘n Large logo playing after the credits of WALL-E. It speaks to you there in the chair watching this and tells you: your experience right now is exactly the experience we're talking about, so listen up.
Seriously, read Alexandra Petri. She's excellent.