Is net neutrality really 'Obamacare for the internet'?

US Senator Ted Cruz speaks in Washington on 26 September, 2014. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Senator Ted Cruz is not a fan of net neutrality - or Obamacare

President Barack Obama said that the Federal Communications Commission should view access to the internet as a basic right - strongly endorsing a concept called "net neutrality".

He proposes defining the internet as a public utility, making it difficult for service providers like AT&T, Cox and Time Warner to create frameworks that could put up barriers to getting online, such as faster speeds for users who can pay for it.

"We cannot allow internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas", Mr Obama said in a White House video.

Most net neutrality critics argue that the principle is anti-free market and gives the government too much power over the how the internet operates.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has a different problem, however.

"'Net neutrality' is Obamacare for the internet; the internet should not operate at the speed of government," he tweeted.

Mr Cruz's opinion carries weight, too. Besides being a 2016 Republican US presidential hopeful, he is on the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

He also has accepted campaign contributions from the telecom behemoth Comcast.

Many net neutrality advocates threw up their hands at Mr Cruz's comparison, accusing him of getting basic facts wrong.

The Oatmeal, a popular web-comic, was one of the first to lock horns with the Texan. Speaking directly to the senator, cartoonist Matthew Inman says that either he has been asked to attack net neutrality by companies from which he has accepted campaign contributions, or he just doesn't know what net neutrality is in the first place.

"Net neutrality is a bipartisan issue," Inman writes. "It's something liberals, conservatives, sinners and saints, sasquatches, cyborgs and all the crab-infused-Tex-Mex-loving men, women and children of this great country of ours can get behind. Because net neutrality isn't about control ... it's about freedom."

This debate isn't even about net neutrality anymore, writes Salon's Simon Maloy. Instead, Mr Cruz has turned it into yet another ideological battle with Mr Obama.

There's a valid conversation to be had about the role of internet providers, he says, but it's one that people like Mr Cruz prevent us from having.

Image copyright White House
Image caption President Barack Obama urges the FCC to ensure open access to the internet in a YouTube video

The senator is right in some ways, Maloy says, even if he stumbled into the comparison by accident. There are some parallels between the internet and healthcare.

For instance, Americans pay a lot but don't get much in return.

Web users in other countries have greater access to high-speed internet for less, and their access is only getting faster and cheaper. Here though, he says, prices and speeds are stagnant.

Maloy writes that the entire internet quickly pointed out that Cruz was making a false comparison between net neutrality and Obamacare.

"But Cruz doesn't give a damn about being right or about looking stupid in the eyes of journalists," he writes. "He cares about riling up Tea Party-types and the conservatives who form his base of support, and there's no better way to do that than to stimulate the rage centres of their brains by dropping a reference to Obamacare."

Gizmodo's Kate Knibbs also sees the tweet as a "disingenuous" political manoeuvre.

Comparing net neutrality to Obamacare is not only incorrect, but also dangerous, given the sway Mr Cruz holds, she says. It is the most damaging connection a conservative senator could make, but the senator's team is ignoring the fact that the government wouldn't be in charge of pricing. Saying that they would is simply a lie.

"Obama is not saying the government should wrest control from private companies and start administering the internet itself," she writes. "He is trying to keep the internet as an equalizer. There is no need for political polarisation here."

While it may be easy to point out the differences between Obamacare and net neutrality, the Washington Post's Brian Fung says, there are some similarities to keep in mind.

Both have been embroiled in lengthy legal battles and are trying to fill a gap caused by a problem with how the market is structured. While the government is pushing complex legal proposals, both issues could be solved with simpler - albeit more controversial - solutions.

For instance, he says, while healthcare reform advocates would be happy to adopt a single-payer system or a public option like other countries, both of which would be less complex than the Affordable Care Act, it isn't politically realistic.

When it comes to net neutrality, the FCC would just have to reclassify service providers as Title II, or common carrier services. This classification would put the power in the government's hands to regulate these companies and promote competition in the market. But, he says, there are huge political obstacles.

As for a public option, it's already happening on a city level in places like Chattanooga, whose network operated by the publicly owned power company offers some of the fastest broadband speeds in the country.

And while Republicans were chalking up big wins across last week's US mid-term elections, seven voted to set up publicly operated high-speed internet service.

There's a limit to this movement, however, as 20 states have passed laws preventing publicly operated internet systems.

With Ted Cruz eyeing the 2016 race, statements like his will be increasingly common. Just by using the word "Obamacare", he can convince supporters to oppose net neutrality - especially because "net neutrality" is far too bland for most people to learn what it actually is.

The government isn't trying to seize control of the internet. If they ever do, however, just hope that they don't put the people who were in charge of the healthcare website rollout at the controls.

Maybe that's all Mr Cruz is trying to say.

(By Kierran Petersen)

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