Nothing brings home the peculiar nature of “the D.C. Beltway Bubble” than listening to the local news station WTOP. Lets start with the fact that our local 24-hour news station is actually the most popular radio station in the D.C. market. It’s also fun when some incident around the White House or the Capital ends up sequentially on the national news, the local news, and the traffic report.
But what really sets D.C. apart is our advertisements. The political ads never stop. Particularly when a major vote is about to happen — such as the upcoming vote in the Senate on S. J. Res. 52, aka the “net neutrality CRA,” aka the repeal of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal. Today (May 9), Senator Markey will file the resolution to force the vote — which is expected to actually happen next week. So, naturally, we are getting all kinds of ads from broadband companies and their various associations (e.g., Broadband for America) trying to push the public to get their Senators to vote against the resolution.
The problem for the anti-net neutrality folks, however, is that network neutrality remains enormously popular with the general public. Which leaves these groups trying to rally the public with a problem. Die-hard anti-net neutrality folks like Rep. Marsha Blackburn may think “let ISPs discriminate so that your online experience can be more like going through a TSA security line before flying” is a selling point, people who actually sell stuff for a living recognize that “make your browsing experience like your airline experience with long waits and hidden fees” is kind of a loser. So if you just advertise “The Senate is considering a resolution to restore the network neutrality rules the FCC repealed last December, call your Senator today and tell them to stand up for ISP freedom to
throttle competitors charge new fees ‘innovate’!” — odds are good you will actually drive lots of people to call their Senator and tell them to vote for the resolution and restore net neutrality. (Which, btw, you can do here.) So how do you campaign against network neutrality without actually telling the public you are voting against restoring the net neutrality rules?
UPDATE: Jay Cassono has this piece in Medium providing details on a similar scam opposing net neutrality while pretending to be in favor.
As with everything ISPs oppose, the answer appears to be “make it about Google and Facebook.” This morning a bit after 6:30 a.m. I got to hear an issue ad with no obvious connection to anything broadband or net neutrality related. Sponsored by conservative PAC “American Future Fund,” the “ominous voice” narrator listed a litany of sins against Google and Facebook: the consumer complaint against Youtube for potential violations of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, and general privacy issues. Then the punchline call to action:
“Call your member of Congress today and tell them you want one set of rules for the entire Internet.”
That’s it. Not even a bill number (which you would expect if this were about drumming up support for something like the Blackburn privacy bill). Just a code phrase: “one set of rules for the entire Internet.”
As those of us who live the net neutrality fight know, “one set of rules for the entire Internet” (and variations thereof) is the code word for opposing net neutrality and setting lowest-common-denominator privacy rules — although in deference to conservative anti-Silicon Valley crazy, this now includes a lowest-common-denominator no blocking rule as well. But your average person doesn’t know that. They think this add is about supporting something to do with more privacy. But every Republican office that gets calls repeating the magic catchphrase “one set of rules for the entire Internet” gets to count it as a cal against voting the net neutrality CRA rather than for it.
Please note, it’s not like the ISP issue add is even arguing that edge providers or online services generally ought to all be subject to some form of non-discrimination (something I’ve talked about at length over here). The advertisement doesn’t even mention net neutrality or non-discrimination. It doesn’t mention ISPs. (As I and others have repeated endlessly for years, broadband providers are not “the Internet” but provide access to the Internet. For those confused on this point, consider the difference between your telephone and the take out place you call to get food.)
My point is not about the dishonesty per se. This is Washington D.C. after all. “That issue advertisement is deceptive” falls in the “water is wet” category. Nor is my point (primarily) that folks should warn their friends and relatives about this particular little trick — although obviously everyone should.
No, my primary point is to highlight just how enormously unpopular Ajit Pai’s repeal of net neutrality rules is, and how much people actually support real net neutrality. You would think given the endless polling and survey evidence showing broad bipartisan opposition to the net neutrality repeal that this point would be obvious — but I still find plenty of people (including some industry reporters who roll their eyes at the idea that net neutrality is sufficiently bread-n-butter at this point to be a campaign issue) trying to tell me otherwise.
So lets be clear. My wife, who has a pretty lengthy (for normal standards, short for DC) morning commute tells me that this advertisement is in non-stop rotation on WTOP. That is not cheap. American Future Fund is a major conservative PAC with deep ties into the Republican Party and the conservative movement. But even these guys understand that you can’t advertise against net neutrality directly. You can’t even mention net neutrality in your issue ad without generating lots of pro-net neutrality traffic. The only way to generate phone calls to the Hill opposing net neutrality is to trick people into thinking they are supporting something else.
Lawmakers who are going to have to explain their votes back home may want to think about the CRA vote really hard. Because while American Future Fund may hide the fact that they are pushing an anti-net neutrality agenda today, voters in November will know where their members of Congress stand.
Stay tuned . . .