Missing in midterms: Net neutrality debate
By Alex Byers | 10/28/14
The debate about the future of net neutrality has inched into the mainstream — but not the campaign trail.
After drawing almost 4 million messages to the FCC and surpassing Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” the issue of how the agency should rewrite the open Internet rules has received little traction in the midterm elections. Candidates are sticking with tried-and-true issues, like national security or the economy, to lure voters. A big reason: Net neutrality is not a simple issue.
“That debate is pretty deep in the weeds; it’s not something that lends itself very well to a typical campaign where you have to condense your message to a 30-second TV ad,” said Rick Boucher, a former 14-term Virginia Democrat who chaired the House telecommunications subcommittee. “There’s so many other things to talk about that lend themselves very nicely to sound bites.”
In tech policy circles, net neutrality has emerged as perhaps the most contentious debate of 2014 — especially in the wake of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s controversial effort to rewrite the agency’s open Internet rules in a way that could allow some broadband providers to charge Web companies for faster access. And the topic has received more general attention of late thanks to a couple mentions from President Barack Obama, HBO comedy host John Oliver’s rant and even an online protest that involved the likes of Netflix and Reddit.
Tech topics are rarely in heavy rotation on the campaign trail — the most active ones from the 113th Congress, like government surveillance and patent reform, have been similarly low on the radar. But policymakers and members of the public raised a ruckus back in May when the FCC’s proposal was first voted on — and they’ve continued the debate through the summer and fall as the agency nears crunch time on a decision, which could come as early as December.
All the hullabaloo raised the potential for 2014 candidates to pick up the mantle or paint themselves as in touch with next-generation issues. But lawmakers and challengers have largely left it alone — a reflection, perhaps, that buzzy tech issues like net neutrality or data breaches don’t hold voters’ attention well, said former Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.).
“At the end of the day, the consumer seems to mostly be protected from these events so far,” she said. “They care briefly, but there’s no real impact. They pay attention, and then they move on.”
Even aggressive net neutrality advocacy groups, which have loudly pushed the FCC to reclassify broadband service as a utility and launched online protests against the agency’s plan, have stopped short of pitching the open Internet as a campaign issue.
That’s partly because while Democrats and Republicans are generally split on how or whether to install new open Internet rules, the issue isn’t bluntly partisan. What’s more, Democrats’ split on whether to reclassify broadband as a utility has muddied anyone’s ability to paint net neutrality as a campaign-style us-vs.-them issue.
“Net neutrality isn’t one of those issues that, if you pass it through an ideological filter, you get a guaranteed result,” said Public Knowledge Vice President Michael Weinberg. “I suspect people outside of Washington don’t identify net neutrality as a partisan issue the way they would guns or immigration. It’s not something that lends itself to the ideology of one side or the other.”
A few lawmakers, like Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), have talked about their net neutrality stance as part of the campaign arsenal. But even some of those cases have been largely opportunistic: Rep. Gary Peters, who’s running for Senate in Michigan, invoked net neutrality at times this summer after his opponent, Republican Terri Lynn Land, gave a rambling answer on the issue that indicated a lack of familiarity. Elsewhere, big net neutrality-oriented lawmakers like Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) aren’t in close races.
Incumbents and campaigns are likely to keep sidestepping tech issues until they determine that taking a stand will secure a good chunk of votes. For now, voter demographics don’t indicate that will happen in this election — younger voters tend to be more active on tech issues like net neutrality, but voters 45 and older encompassed two-thirds of the electorate in the last midterm elections, according to exit polling.
“I think you saw in the [Obama presidential elections] he brought a lot of young people into electorate for the first time, and maybe for the only time,” said Jim Jochum, a Republican lobbyist that works on tech issues. “That remains to be seen.”