WASHINGTON - Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor Tuesday to warn that the Obama administration is on the verge of nationalizing the Internet, charging that the president has already seized large swaths of the economy.
The charge is a familiar one and reflects the Republican strategy of opposition to net neutrality, which portrays regulation of major broadband companies as a form of nationalization and control of the Internet itself. Advocates of net neutrality want the Federal Communications Commission to write rules preventing companies such as Comcast from giving priority to certain websites while making others slower to load. Such rules, said McConnell, the Senate minority leader, would amount to a takeover of the Internet. But without such rules, advocates of net neutrality say, a few major corporations would instead control the web.
The FCC will vote today on what rules should govern broadband providers.
McConnell (R-Ky.) also signaled the GOP will attempt to block such rules in the next Congress. "Today, the Obama administration, which has already nationalized health care, the auto industry, insurance companies, banks and student loans, will move forward with what could be the first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet by establishing federal regulations on its use," said McConnell.
While arguing against net neutrality, McConnell relied on the very same rhetoric about a free and open Internet that is used to bolster it, exploiting the confusion that surrounds the issue.
"Later today the Federal Communications Commission is expected to approve new rules on how Americans access information on the Internet. There's a lot of people rightly concerned. The Internet has transformed our society, our economy, and the very way we communicate with others. It served as a remarkable platform for innovation at the end of the 20th century and now at the beginning of the 21st century. And all of this has been made possible because people have been free to create and innovate to push the limits of invention free from government involvement. Now that could soon change," he said.
McConnell warned that regulating the Internet could reduce investment. "This would harm investment, stifle innovation and lead to job losses. That's why I, along with several of my colleagues, have urged the FCC chairman to abandon this flawed approach. The Internet is an invaluable resource and should be left alone," he said. "Many Americans will wonder as many already do if this is a Trojan horse for further meddling by the government. Fortunately, we'll have an opportunity in the new Congress to push back against new rules and regulations."
In 1996, the Telecommunications Act updated the original 1934 Communications Act, New Deal legislation that prevented monopolies from dominating the means of communication. In 2002, under pressure from the cable and phone industry, the Bush administration's FCC classified broadband as an "information service" rather than as a "telecommunications service." It is, quite plainly, a telecommunications service, but the FCC deemed it otherwise for the sole purpose of avoiding the legislative requirement that neutrality rules be written to protect the Internet from control by major corporations.
By 2005, the phone and cable companies had begun publicly discussing their plans to subvert net neutrality. "Why should [companies] be allowed to use my pipes?" Southwestern Bell CEO Ed Whitacre told BusinessWeek. "The Internet can't be free in that sense ... for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!"
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC could not regulate broadband as an "information service." It had already ruled in 2005 that the FCC could classify broadband as a "telecommunications service." So, following the 2010 court ruling, the FCC announced plans to reclassify broadband as what it actually is.
Telecom lobbying went into high gear. The GOP launched an attack arguing that Obama was attempting to take state control of the Internet, as if regulating broadband the way that phone lines are regulated amounted to nationalization.
The telecom lobbying effort soon came to focus around an effort to pressure FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski not to reclassify broadband, but to leave it unregulated until Congress acts - which, with Republicans in control of the House, it has no plans to do.