It’s no secret that the cable lobby really, really hates the FCC’s net neutrality rule, and is cheering on its potential demise. So the industry’s biggest trade group is trumpeting a survey it commissioned to show that Americans’ support its view… except what the results actually say is that yeah, most Americans think net neutrality is a pretty good idea, actually.
The NCTA — formerly the National Cable Television Association, now rebranded as the Internet & Television Association — has for years and at every stage been one of the fiercest opponents of the 2015 Open Internet Rule, which prohibits internet service providers from interfering with the things you do online..
After the rule passed, the group, along with its wireless industry counterparts, was one of the organizations that sued the FCC to try to have the rule thrown out. (They lost.) Its head honcho, former FCC chair Michael (Colin’s son) Powell, has since regularly gone on the record to make clear how “distressing” he finds regulation and competition to be.
Since the cable industry hated these rules so much, they apparently assumed Americans did too.
The NCTA hired polling firm Morning Consult to survey people about their attitudes toward net neutrality. In the results [PDF] and a blog post about the survey, the organization crows that clearly, everyone thinks regulation is bad.
“Light Touch” Or Else
The NCTA’s headliner takeaway from this survey is that 53% of Americans want “light touch” regulation of the internet.
But there are big problems with this question, which verges on “push poll” territory.
Those 53% of respondents approved of the following statement: “The government should have a light tough approach to the Internet that allows regulators to monitor the marketplace and take action if consumers are harmed.”
First off, this statement refers to the generic “internet,” which could be taken to mean all online content and services, not just internet service providers. The net neutrality rules do not place any restrictions on content companies. In fact, the intention of the rules is to prevent ISPs from restricting access to content.
Second, there is no option given that represents the current net neutrality rules. Instead, the poll presents the option, ““The government should have the ability to set specific prices, terms and conditions for internet access” — even though the Open Internet Order explicitly bars the government from doing so.
Then there’s the other option, to which 25% of people agreed: That “The government should not regulate the Internet at all.”
But here’s the thing: “Regulating access to the Internet” isn’t at all what net neutrality is about. The law has nothing to do with choosing what you can access, or how, when, or where you can access it. The law has to do with your provider being required to provide you what you want to access, without blocking, throttling, degrading, or charging extra for it.
Additionally, a system that “allows regulators to monitor the marketplace and take action if consumers are harmed” is exactly what we have right now. That’s what the Open Internet Order set up: By regulating ISPs under Title II of the law, the Commission has the authority to prevent a bunch of consumer harms. And it uses the general conduct rule — which is exactly the part of the Open Internet Order that ISPs hate the most — to monitor the marketplace and take action if consumers are harmed.
The survey also tries to highlight another industry talking point by asking, “if government were to regulate internet access as a utility, do you believe internet and technology innovation would get better, get worse, or stay about the same?”
43% of respondents believe that regulation would hurt innovation, which is the only figure that NCTA touts. What the lobbyists gloss over, is that more people (44%) don’t believe that regulation will have any negative effect on innovation.
The survey does the same thing with a question on private sector tech investment, spotlighting the 40% of respondents who see the potential for decreased investment while ignoring the fact that the exact same percentage of respondents predict no negative effect on investment.
The survey posed another question about public utilities, saying, “A public utility is an essential public service, such as electricity, water, or gas, that is regulated by government. Knowing this, which of the following do you agree with more, even if neither is exactly right?” To that question, 51% responded that internet access “should not be considered a public utility regulated by the federal government” while 33% responded that it should.:
These questions are also somewhat misleading, however. While Title II classification of broadband services does make them subject to common carrier rules, that puts them in the same category as your phone service — not your electricity or gas. And even inasmuch as the FCC does regulate internet access like a utility — which, again, is debatable — it already has done so for two years, and the sky has yet to fall.
People Actually Want Neutrality
Meanwhile, when the survey starts asking about general principles, it actually finds strong support. One question defined net neutrality and laid out terms, saying, “Net neutrality is a set of rules which say Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon cannot block, throttle, or prioritize certain content on the Internet.” Knowing that, it asked, “do you support or oppose net neutrality?”
A total of 61% of respondents indicated their support to that question; another 21% registered as unsure. A total of 18% opposed or strongly opposed neutrality when the terms were made clear. That’s a pretty clear 40-point majority supporting net neutrality.