When you hear the term “net neutrality,” do your eyes glaze over?
It may sound techie, but it is about the major issue of the day: the roles of government and private enterprise.
The Internet was a creation of the U.S. Defense Department, allowing almost instant communication between computers. It was soon made available for commercial use so that all computer users could access the Internet. To do so, they must normally use an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Sharply different views have appeared over what kind of access people should get when they use the Internet. One view – net neutrality – is that the Internet is like a highway and should be open to all to reach any content on an equal basis. The alternative view is that ISPs can manage user access for their own profit.
Under President Obama, the U.S. adopted net neutrality. Now, under President Trump, federal regulators have decided to allow competitive use so that ISPs can control access.
The competitive approach means, for example, that ISPs provide service at differing speeds, direct searches to certain sites and products and away from others, and make it difficult to reach their competitors. The fastest service will cost more. If you don’t pay premium rates, your access will be slower.
By managing access, ISPs should be able to boost their profits. And they will create classes of users based on how much they pay.
Net neutrality is based on non-discriminatory access regulated by the government. The new system eliminates much of a government role and leaves the Internet to the private sector.
This is a classic case of the two competing economic views. Should the government regulate to ensure equality and wide public access or should the system be left to the private sector, protecting what are seen as the liberties of people and enterprises?
In short, however technical it may seem, the issue of net neutrality is new round in the fight between government and the private sector.
Much the same difference in views is the focus of the battle about the Affordable Care Act. The traditional system has been to leave health insurance coverage to competing private companies. That system produced coverage for many, but left millions of others without insurance, limiting their ability to get good care.
Because many people were uninsured under the competitive system, the federal government introduced Medicare for seniors, Medicaid for low-income people and, finally, the ACA, which is meant to subsidize coverage for most other people who had been left uninsured.
This year, the Republican Congress has tried to reduce or eliminate the ACA and cut back on Medicaid, permitting a return to the old, competitive model. They focused on private sector action over government programs and their cost. The model is more important, in this view, than covering the uninsured.
The current tax cut legislation reflects the same divergence of views. The GOP proposals would cut taxes more for the wealthy than for the middle-class and poor. The Republicans maintain that more money in the hands of the wealthy and corporations will lead to more investment in job-creating enterprises.
The Democrats would give biggest cuts to middle-income people who would spend more of their income. While the GOP approach relies on the private sector to promote personal income and growth, the Democrats favor more direct boosts to individual purchasing power.
These divergent views are repeated throughout the national political debate. Will the environment be protected through a competitive market or thanks to government regulation? If competition yields more jobs and profits in preference to better air quality, is that a fair trade-off?
What is the extent of government responsibility for assisting the poor? Should there be government income support programs or should the country rely on charitable aid, possibly encouraged by tax deductions?
As you have read this column, you may have answered these questions in the national debate. These issues are worth consideration. This debate is worth having.
But the main issues are often obscured by partisanship. It is more important for some that their party wins on an issue than the substance of the issue itself. Members of Congress line up on some bills even before they know their content.
Some political leaders try to obscure these basic issues by promoting “wedge” issues like abortion and guns. They expect voters to give them a blank check in return for their position on a single sensitive issue.
The American political system depends on compromise. But getting agreement on basic issues is impossible when partisanship and wedge issues dominate the debate.