Republicans embrace Internet freedom, but what does that mean?

The Daily Caller, a right-of-center news outlet, offered this scoop Friday: The proposed Republican Party platform includes a call for “Internet freedom.”

That may seem like endorsing motherhood and apple pie, but the meaning is much more elusive. That’s because the definition of “Internet freedom” depends on whose freedom you’re trying to preserve.

The provision in the proposed Republican platform suggests the main threats to freedom come from government regulators and outdated rules that stop innovative telecommunications companies from rolling out new services and extending broadband to more parts of the country. According to the Caller, the proposal declares, “We will remove regulatory barriers that protect outdated technologies and business plans from innovation and competition, while preventing legacy regulation from interfering with new technologies such as mobile delivery of voice and video data as they become crucial components of the Internet ecosystem.”

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Coming from any other source, I might be tempted to think this provision was advocating weaker copyright and trademark protections. After all, those are the sorts of regulations that felled Napster, arguably the most innovative online music service ever. (N.B.: “Innovative” doesn’t necessarily mean “productive” or “beneficial to society.”)


But given that it’s the GOP’s work -- and that the inspiration appears to have come from a libertarian coalition’s “Declaration of Internet Freedom” -- it’s safer to assume that the barriers in question are the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which was actually co-authored by Republicans), the current administration’s approach to antitrust enforcement (e.g., blocking AT&T;'s purchase of T-Mobile) and the Net neutrality rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Of course, one person’s “regulatory barrier” is another’s door opener, playing-field leveler or status-quo preserver. The Internet has been a remarkably free and open place, at least for users in this country. The proliferation of always-on, high-speed connections, high-definition content and video-intensive applications threaten to make the Net less open, as Internet service providers struggle to fulfill the demand for bandwidth.

Wireless broadband is a good example of that threat. With much less capacity than wired networks, wireless carriers have flatly blocked applications (such as Sling’s app for remote TV viewing), or charged more for the right to use them (such as Apple’s FaceTime video calling app).

That’s why an alternative “Declaration of Internet Freedom,” which has attracted the support of left-leaning groups around the globe, implicitly backs regulations like the FCC’s Net neutrality rules. From this faction’s perspective, it’s crucial to “keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.”

In sum, we all seem to agree that the freedom to innovate online is a really good thing. But there’s a sharp divergence in opinion over how to preserve that liberty.

It’s worth noting that the proposed GOP platform expresses the same desire to let users control their personal data and to keep the United Nations out of Internet governance as do advocates on the other side of the partisan divide. Both sides also agree on the need to extend broadband to more of rural America and to make more spectrum available to the public.

Again, the differences over privacy, broadband access and spectrum auctions are in the details. There aren’t many in the GOP platform, judging by the excerpts in the Caller. It’s safe to say, though, that the Republican approach counts on competition, market forces and existing business-practice laws to protect consumers and would-be innovators, while Democrats see the need for new rules along the lines of the Federal Trade Commission’s “Do Not Track” guidelines.


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