Net Neutrality, SOPA... It's All “Internet,” Right?

Writing for The Atlantic yesterday, Fred Campbell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute made perhaps the most nonsensical anti-net neutrality argument I've ever seen: that the passage of the FCC's Open Internet Rule set us down a slippery regulatory slope that led to the wildly unpopular Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA:

The unintended consequences of the FCC's new regulatory approach appeared swiftly. By signaling the end of the bipartisan agreement against Internet regulation, the FCC's order opened the floodgates for additional government interference. New legislative and regulatory initiatives to reign in the free market for Internet services began popping up everywhere.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced in late 2011, is one of these new initiatives and the reason Issa became so engaged in Internet policy. Ironically, the same progressives that advocated for net neutrality rules were among the most vociferous opponents of SOPA, but this time, they weren't alone. Conservatives and centrists joined hands with progressives to oppose SOPA in a redux of the earlier bipartisan agreement opposing Internet regulation. This bipartisan opposition gave the anti-SOPA movement the kind of mainstream momentum that net neutrality always lacked, which made it appear that, once again, we could unite in our opposition to government interference in the Internet.

Let's pick this apart piece-by-piece, shall we?

1. SOPA had really nothing to do with ideology. It was the end product of years and years of increasingly stringent anti-digital piracy legislation championed by the powerful entertainment industry lobby. It's chief sponsor was Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), no one's idea of a regulation-happy progressive.

2. Comparing net neutrality and SOPA makes sense only if you adhere to childishly simplistic ideas of regulatory policies and the internet. Yes, they're both “regulations,” but with completely different purposes. Campbell argued that they both dealt with “the free market for Internet services,” which is a slippery bit of language that obfuscates the two policies' divergent aims.

The Open Internet Order is intended to prevent broadband providers from abusing their unique roles as gatekeepers to the internet. SOPA had absolutely nothing to do with the provision of broadband internet service. It was aimed squarely at online entities and would have (critics argued) forced companies like Google and Facebook to spend untenable amounts of time and money zealously policing the content posted on their websites to ensure they didn't run afoul of the entertainment industry.

The best illustration of the differences between the two regulations is the fact that the internet service providers who opposed the Open Internet Order (Comcast, Time Warner) were aggressive champions of SOPA. NBC/Comcast alone hired 19 separate lobbying firms to push for SOPA's passage.

3. Once one understands that SOPA and the Open Internet Order are very different things and not just “Internet regulation,” the “irony” of progressive opposition to one and support for the other disappears. That's probably why Campbell quite noticeably avoided any discussion of what SOPA actually was. Although I suppose if you subscribe to the equally lazy idea that progressives support all flavors of regulation, then perhaps some consistency can be salvaged.