Photo/Dennis Myers Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada is pushing hard for separate speed lanes on the internet.

When President Obama spoke out on Nov. 10 to put new life in the fight for net neutrality and get the Federal Communications Commission to back off on undercutting neutrality, there was little reaction from Nevada. In a state with organizations dealing with everything from teacher pay to nuclear waste, the issue of the cost of the internet falls flat.

The most outspoken figure is U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who supports ending net neutrality, which would allow internet service providers (ISPs) to start charging more for speed on the web. After Obama’s speech, Heller said in a prepared statement, “The President’s approach takes dynamic technology and turns it into another utility like electricity and water. And just like power and water, today’s internet would become stagnant instead of remaining vibrant.”

Actually, Obama was not calling for change. He was calling for keeping in place the net neutrality under which the internet has always operated. That may be regulation, but there is little evidence that the internet has ever stagnated under its requirements.

Heller wants to allow ISPs to create fast lanes and charge more for them, which might well limit innovation since the fastest service would be most available to those able to pay—large corporations—and smaller and local companies and individuals could be left with the slow lanes.

One way of demonstrating what would happen if net neutrality was ended can be seen by examining what a corporation did when it stopped abiding by it. In 2008, mammoth cable corporation Comcast, facing a threat from a video technology offered by BitTorrent, blocked its customers from using the upstart company. Without net neutrality, that kind of online behavior would be allowed.

“Net neutrality has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation—but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted,” Obama said in his statement. “We cannot allow internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”

The difficulty many people have grasping what net neutrality means meant they depended on popular media on and off line. And that often was shaped by who was telling it:

New York Times: “Obama Calls for Strict Net Neutrality Policy.”

Fox News: “Obama calls for more regulation of Internet providers, industry fires back.”

Wired: “Great News for the Web: Obama Urges FCC to Uphold Net Neutrality.”

Popsugar (a celebrity news site): “Net Neutrality Called Obamacare For the Internet.”

That celebrity site drew its headline from a Twitter comment posted by Texas Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who wrote, “’Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.”

Since ending net neutrality would likely result in slower service for most people, that prompted a site called The Oatmeal to post a “Dear Senator Ted Cruz” letter that illustrated in lively prose and cartoons how the internet works. It went viral.

Role of campaign money

The drive for separate speed lanes, supported by Sen. Heller, has drawn comment in Nevada, if not organized activism.

Anexeon, a Las Vegas information technology corporation, has issued a statement that takes issue with ending neutrality: “The proposed plan will allow users to pay ISPs a premium for delivering their content to audiences more quickly. In the race to find an audience, it’s like a company can bribe the ISP to get a head start. … Essentially, this will turn the Internet into a ’pay to play’ situation. Corporations with deep pockets will easily be able to pay the premium to get their content released first, giving them a hugely unfair advantage over the little guys trying to be heard. In fact, if a major corporation happens to deem an independent startup to be a threat, they can potentially pay extra to have their competitor’s message squashed. This new idea totally flies in the face of the entrepreneurial spirit which has allowed so many small startup companies to fairly find success in highly competitive markets.”

Longtime activist Mylan Hawkins, founder of the Nevada Diabetes Association, once posted a comment on a Los Angeles Times story about Heller’s support for ending neutrality: “Another one of those issues where the senator would like to convince you that ending net neutrality is in your best interest. … This is not about jobs. This is about allowing a few companies to control access, programming, speed etc. Fact: the more open the net the more innovation and the more jobs. Put it in the hands of a few. Watch your fees go up and your service go down.”

Why Heller has taken such an aggressive posture in favor of fast lanes, since lanes would likely inconvenience most of his constituents, has been a subject of speculation. On a Heller Facebook page where the senator wrote, “The net neutrality rule will cost Nevada and the nation good paying jobs and should be overturned,” a reader calling himself Chukk T Ron then replied, “Your numbers are BS at best. Dean, you stand on the wrong side of this issue. How much have telecoms paid into your campaigns?”

In fact, Heller has received contributions from Clear Channel, Comcast, Cox Enterprises, the National Association of Broadcasters, News America (Fox), and Viacom. The telecommunications industry was not listed among his five top money sources, but number two on that list is leadership political action committees, so more telecom money could have reached him indirectly that way.

Heller’s outspokenness on net neutrality has been matched by relative silence from his colleague, Senate Democratic floor leader Harry Reid, who has kept his head down on this issue. In May, Matt Sledge at Huffington Post suggested Reid’s tongue is tied by the same grease that loosened Heller’s: “Like Boehner, Reid has received far more in donations from net neutrality foe Comcast than supporter Google in recent years. Comcast is the No. 2 donor to Reid’s campaign committee and leadership political action committee, to the tune of $116,800 since 2009. Google is way back at No. 63, with $39,100. Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, is also a former Comcast executive.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...