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The GOP, Online Politics, and Internet Regulation

(cross-posted at Red State and The Next Right)

The Politico today has a column penned by David All, a young GOP internet consultant, and Saul Anuzis, Chairman of the Michigan GOP. The column looks at the premise that the GOP is behind its Democratic counterparts online, and suggests one possible reason why – we don’t support the idea of big government intervention in regulating the Internet.

As Republicans, we must not only adopt the new techniques and structure of Internet democracy, but also understand the importance of preserving the open nature of the Net as a policy issue.The tools that are available at low cost to Republicans are only there because of an Internet ecosystem that has managed to remain open, despite the efforts of phone and cable companies.

Republicans need to adopt a lighter approach that will preserve the values of decentralization and freedom — essential conservative values — on the Internet. If we fail to engage in this effort, the Internet service providers, who control the last mile of the tubes into a customer’s house or small business, will choke off the affordable tools available to conservative activists.They have already started exercising their market power to block applications that enable Internet users to distribute information across the Net.

They will make the Internet look a lot more like cable TV, where citizens lack access to every legal channel available and where, consequently, conservative activists get shut out. Taking away these free tools will come at the major expense of the activists and small-businesspeople who are the core of our party’s strength.

Given the attacks on cable and telephone companies in this diatribe, it would be easy enough to discount any response from me as shilling on behalf of cable. Look at my bio, however, and you’ll see that I may be the one person uniquely qualified to address every inaccuracy and outrageous claim in his post. Prior to coming to work in the cable industry, I was the eCampaign Director for Bush-Cheney ’04, and the Republican National Committee. I’ve been involved in Republican politics – and online politics – since I launched one of the first state party websites (EVER) at the New Mexico GOP in 1995. At that time, there were only about 5 state parties online.

Since I have been active in GOP politics, and specifically online politics, since Andreesson released the browser in 1994, I have a bit to say about the reasons the GOP is behind (which virtually nobody argues). As an employee of the cable industry, I have a bit to say about what , if anything, that has to do with net neutrality.

The Cyclical Nature of Politics

To begin with, I, and many others, believe the GOP is behind online for the simple reason that it has never had to be ahead. When the GOP was previously in the minority it turned to talk radio to communicate and organize. In the early 1990s, talk radio was the most interactive medium and the party out of power generally gravitates to the best available method of message disbursement and organization.

In 2000, when the Democrats were out of power, they did the same and gravitated toward the Internet. The Republican Party still dominates talk radio, though the Democrats have been making inroads. Unfortunately, you can‚Äôt give money through your radio, so the media focused on the Internet and long ago stopped writing the “Why aren’t Democrats on talk radio?” stories.

Just as there is nothing preventing Democrats from building an audience on talk radio, there is nothing preventing Republicans from achieving online. Now that we are in the minority in Congress and, if Obama wins, may be completely out of power, Republicans will look to rebuild using the tools that offer the most capability to interact and spread a message. They will eventually catch up to and surpass what the Democrats are doing. That’s the cyclical nature of politics.

But What Does Net Neutrality Have to Do With This?

The short answer is absolutely nothing. But David is part of a group called Internet For Everyone whose founders have suggested nationalization of the Internet. The list of his coalition partners reads like a who’s who of the left. ACLU, ACORN, Care2, NOW and SEIU are just a few of the far left groups signed on to the project. David and his two web properties – SlateCard and Techrepublican – appear to be the only GOP organizations onboard with the project.

To his specific claim, it is simply absurd to make the suggestion that Republicans are behind because there is no national broadband solution. David might as well argue that the GOP is behind because the government hasn’t bought everyone a car. The two are just as closely related.

David, like most people arguing for Net Neutrality likes to throw out numbers that seem to support his point.

America’s rural voters are largely Republican. Yet they face major challenges in gaining access to a broadband Internet connection. The latest U.S. Census data show that only 39 percent of rural households subscribe to broadband — and nearly 10 million rural households are in areas not served by any broadband provider.

These figures come from an Internet for Everyone document, which cites a 2007 Current Population Survey (CPS) of the U.S. Census Bureau. There is a document available on the NTIA website that provides statistics from the CPS. According to the CPS, 39% of rural households did respond that they have broadband service, but 19% also said they have dial-up, and another 10% responded that they access the Internet outside of their home. Thus 68% of rural households access the Internet according to the CPS survey. The figures for urban households, the only other category, were 54% broadband, 9% dial-up, and 9% outside of the home, for a total of 72%. The spread between rural and urban households is only 4%, hardly qualifying as a great divide, or leaving the poor rural folks behind.

Neither the NTIA site nor the CPS study address the 10 million households claim. The 10 million figure may be arrived at by referring to the number of housing units not passed by cable broadband service, according to estimates provided by SNL Kagan – a media research firm. Kagan found that 10 million households, not rural households, don’t have access to cable broadband – not broadband at all, which is what David claims . Simply put, not all of these people live in rural areas. For instance, some areas in Montgomery County, Maryland – a suburb of Washington DC, are unserved by cable, but that is hardly a “rural” area. Moreover, some of those are served by telephone company broadband service – as in Montgomery County. There are suburban or exurban communities that cable doesn’t serve, for one reason or another.

David also fails to note that the cable broadband he denigrates was a) built with $130 billion in private capital, not government subsidies, and b) was built without the burden of government regulation that hampered development of DSL. It was the lack of regulation and the investment of private funds that created the platform we rely on for high bandwidth applications. The cable system that serves 92% of Americans with broadband was built under a system identical to the current regulatory regime, not under the ‘good old days’ of common carrier and forced access.

It’s worth noting, by comparison, that the telephone companies sat on DSL technology for more than a decade while under the exact regulatory regime the IFE folks are now promoting. There was simply no incentive to invest in a network technology they could not monetize and see returns on the initial outlay. Now that they have been freed of such regulations, the telephone companies are aggressively building a $100+ billion Fiber to the Home networkto compete with cable.

Since David’s whole argument hinges on getting rural, Republican voters connected, it’s important to note that he got his central supporting facts wrong with regard to the current status of rural broadband. David made the same arguments in a Washington Times video interview posted yesterday (in which he conveniently rounds the number of Americans without a broadband connection down to 50%, despite many current estimates which place the figure at between 42% and 45% and likely to drop to 40% when numbers are compiled for the second quarter of 2008).

Since he has a habit of misstating facts and figures, one must ask if he is uninformed or intentionally misquoting numbers to justify his thesis. My belief is the former, but I still have some suspicion it may be the latter.

Further Pandering

Part of the reason I believe David may simply be desperate to make his case and willing to clutch at straws is the way he characterized the AP “research” into the Comcast/BitTorrent issue.

For example, Comcast was caught red-handed by The Associated Press blocking the distribution of the King James Bible. Martin launched an investigation and convened public hearings that put Comcast in the hot seat.

That is an absolutely false characterization of what happened. The Comcast/BitTorrent flap was a matter of Comcast trying to guarantee the best possible experience for the vast majority of its users, and trying to restrict the impact that heavy users of P2P applications have on broadband networks.

David implies that a) Comcast was aware the content the AP used in its test was the King James Bible and b) specifically targeted that traffic. Why would he make such outrageous claims to make his case? Because David is trying to convince Republicans to support his cause, and Republicans identify strongly with issues of faith. By claiming “the big bad cable company tried to stop you from seeing the bible” he’s pandering in the worst possible way.

As a Republican

As a Republican, I would be skeptical of Internet regulation on the best day, and downright hostile on any other. I do not believe the imposition of a new regulatroy regime is the cure to the perceived ills of either the state of broadband or the state of my party. As someone who has been thinking of ways for Republicans to use the Internet for almost fifteen years, I disagree completely with David’s ridiculous claim that the only way to save the party is to create a new bureaucracy to regulate the Internet.

While I respect David’s opinion and right to speak out on whatever topic he chooses, I firmly believe he could not be further off track on this issue. I also hope he will take the time to address my deconstruction of his argument and answer my challenge to the factual basis of his column. He may perhaps become informed about the subject matter rather than irresponsibly disseminating mistruths.

Written by Michael Turk