There were a number of surprising attendees at the high-tech geek fest that is SXSW Interactive: Grumpy Cat, the U.S. Postal Service, and Rand Paul, to name just a few.
Paul, the junior U.S. senator from Kentucky and a presumptive presidential candidate, came to SXSW to sell himself to tech libertarian types. In an on-stage discussion with a Texas journalist, Paul pitched himself as the only (presumptive!) presidential candidate who would fight for civil liberties online.
But his opposition to government meddling also makes him an opponent of government regulations on net neutrality, he said. Paul has been making a big play for support from the tech community with trips to Silicon Valley and field offices coming to Austin and the Bay Area, but his net neutrality stance may limit his geek appeal.
Paul said he would end the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden, and protect online privacy in general.
“I’m the only candidate who thinks that the NSA bulk collection of phone records should be shut down,” Paul said. “I’m not against the NSA, I just think they need to obey the bill of rights.” The government’s wholesale collection of phone and email records, Paul said, violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “generalized warrants.”
But Paul also said that his anti-government vision requires him to oppose the FCC’s plans to ensure net neutrality by regulating Internet service providers as utilities, akin to the way it regulates phone companies. “The people in this room who have made money on the Internet, it’s because it is unregulated,” Paul said. “I don’t want the government to screw up one of the greatest marketplaces we’ve ever had.” (Need a briefing on net neutrality? Check out Jeff Hecht’s article Net Neutrality’s Technical Troubles.)
Paul argued that a free-market approach to Internet access could provide the same benefits as net neutrality regulations. He suggested taking measures to break up the regional monopolies that ISPs often enjoy, saying that increased competition would lead to an abundance of options for Internet users. In Paul’s vision, if a mega-corporation like Comcast asked content providers to pay more for faster transmission speeds, that content provider could just take its business elsewhere.
“It’s true that many of the worst effects of a non-neutral net are really symptoms of ISP monopolies,” Parker Higgins, who works on net neutrality for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told IEEE Spectrum. But his group came to support the proposed FCC regulations, he said, “because we thought it was necessary to preserve the free and open Internet at this moment in time.”
While the EFF and others initially worried that rules developed for phone companies could by stifling when applied to the Internet, Higgins said, the FCC has largely addressed those concerns by adopting a provision known as “forbearance.” Essentially, this states that the FCC will not apply certain rules that aren’t relevant to Internet service providers.
That the proposed FCC regulations are necessary and beneficial is “a pretty common point of view in the tech world,” Higgins said. “I imagine Rand Paul will have a hard time convincing people otherwise.”
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.