Thanks for the Sideshow, Let’s Get Back to Work

Net neutrality wasn’t a major campaign issue in yesterday’s election, although it was raised by a few candidates. California’s Kevin de León, co-author of the Golden State’s moribund net neutrality law, went down by 8 points to Sen. Dianne Feinstein despite Feinstein’s lackluster polling and dubious behavior during the Kavanaugh hearing.

In Colorado, endangered Republican Congressman Mike Coffman was turned out of the House after five terms by a political rookie despite endorsing the CRA resolution that would vacate the 2017 RIF Order. Coffman also offered his own net neutrality bill and worked closely with Incompas, a Silicon Valley-oriented lobbyist that backed the CRA resolution.

Net Neutrality Wasn’t a Winner Anywhere

Coffman’s fate mirrored that of California Republican Steve Knight, who criticized the RIF Order as anti-innovation and made restoring net neutrality (really, Title II) a major issue. Knight is the son of former State Senator Pete Knight, a very popular and polarizing figure.

In Texas, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke made net neutrality a major issue in his challenge to incumbent Ted Cruz through a Facebook video. Despite raising a mountain of money – $70 million – and running against a very unpopular and polarizing figure, O’Rourke lost.

In Utah, Congressman John Curtis – whose net neutrality roundtable I attended – easily won re-election after serving a partial term despite refusing to sign the CRA resolution supported by a handful of his constituents.

Nobody Really Cares about Net Neutrality

Comments filed by real people in the FCC’s RIF docket show very low understanding of the issue. In terms of word count, the pro-net neutrality comments mentioned “companies” and “corporations” ten times more frequently than “discrimination” or any form of “priority”. The highly-touted public support for net neutrality has more to do with anti-business sentiment than a desire for fairness, freedom or innovation.

Some tech bloggers continue to stress the issue, but leading progressives are openly expressing disdain. A serious analysis in The Nation termed net neutrality a “political sideshow” and a “tepid Obama-era reform” that solves no real problems.

This article drew attacks on Twitter from the usual suspects – Free Press, Fight For the Future, and Public Knowledge – but they couldn’t refute the analysis.

But Lots of People Care About the Internet

While the nuances of Internet traffic management have never excited a crowd, people do care about safe, affordable, fair, and fast Internet access. And there’s no doubt about the fact that net neutrality offers no help with these issues; in fact, it makes them worse by redirecting attention to the sideshow.

Internet users clearly have good reasons to believe that information about their personal tastes and browsing habits isn’t always kept safe and used ethically. We learned that from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and from the extensive coverage of Facebook’s history. Frontline just did a two-part series on that.

Growing public concern about the safety of the web has inspired Sir Tim Berners-Lee to propose a redesign for the web itself. Berners-Lee wants to hide data from ad placement services in personal online data stores (“PODS”) guarded by moats of permissions that would make the web extremely painful to use.

Berners-Lee’s Contract for the Web is virtually incoherent, so we’re not going to get much help from the Web Foundation despite its overblown claims. This leaves us where we were when the idea of net neutrality was initially floated as the panacea for all of the web’s looming issues in 2002.

We need clarity about our antitrust standards as they apply to the Internet, safeguards for personal data, and reverse auctions to bring better broadband to rural America. None of that is terribly sexy, but it’s all important.

Can we stop watching the sideshow and get back to the main event?