Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ted Cruz the disingenuous twit

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) called out Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for an inaccurate — some would say, flat-out wrong — characterization of the Obama administration's support for net neutrality as "Obamacare for the Internet". In my old job, we'd call that phrase "content-free", meaning that it carries no useful information — like much else Cruz says.

Franken, showing far greater respect for Cruz than I can muster, corrected his colleague by saying (correctly) that favoring net neutrality simply means favoring the status quo. Franken, however, used the phrase "keep things exactly the same".

Out of context, "keep things exactly the same" can be good or bad; that's why context is so important. In this case, the context was that Franken was talking about how Internet traffic is handled today: nobody's data is given preferential treatment. Opponents of net neutrality want to provide data pipelines that would provide better service (for some definition of "better") for a fee. Supporters of net neutrality, including Franken, think that creating tiers of service, differentiated by quality (and price), would not benefit the majority of Internet users.

Cruz, using the classic rhetorical trick of seizing his opponent's words rather than his meaning, made "keep things exactly the same" sound like a defense of ossification and a desire to stymie progress. Cruz made Franken seem as if he were defending the long hegemony of the old rotary phone.

In fact, what Franken was defending was the open Internet that has fostered innovation, enabling new businesses and business models that have had an incredibly disruptive effect on our world. (Remember, Republicans and free-marketeers in general hail "disruption" as vital to keeping the market honest: gotta keep those fat-cat established businesses on their toes!) On the other hand, the kind of tiered Internet Cruz favors would preserve the current hegemony of some of the biggest players in the market — notably, the major Internet service providers who also own content providers. Comcast, for instance, owns NBCUniversal. Guess whose on-demand programming could be counted on to stream more reliably than Netflix's (over Comcast's network) if net neutrality is abolished? How much would Netflix have to pay Comcast in fees to be delivered at the same quality as Comcast's own content? How much more would that end up costing consumers?

Did Cruz address any of this? Of course not. Opponents of net neutrality make noises about "new products and services" that tiered service would stimulate, but they've been stingy with details. Even so, Cruz could have advanced some such argument, if he were truly interested in arguing the merits with Franken.

However, Cruz isn't interested in a debate. He's only interested in catering to his low-information base, the ones who will smile at the seemingly clever wordplay that paints Franken as a stodgy, big-government apparatchik standing in the way of progress. Never mind that Cruz is simply wrong on that score; what's worse is, Cruz's audience is blissfully unaware that he's nudging them toward a costlier world in which big ISPs can extend their current marketplace advantage into the indefinite future by erecting prohibitively costly barriers to entry into the marketplace. An outfit like Facebook would never have gotten off the ground in such a world. The next Facebook won't, if Cruz has his way.

Cruz could be a moron, I suppose. My bet, though, is that he knows his rejoinder to Franken willfully missed the point. He's simply bereft of shame.

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