No Joke: Sen. Al Franken Doesn't Understand Internet

| by Reason Foundation

By Peter Suderman


The Senate’s loudest legislative funnyman is very, very worried about the future of the Internet! In an email sent out last week, the senator warned that the Internet policy proposal released by Google and Verizon last week would leave your wi-fi in danger from...well, he never specifies, exactly. But it would be bad! As Franken’s email warns:

The Google-Verizon "framework" was written so as not to apply to wireless Internet services. If you use wi-fi or access the Internet on your phone, this is a serious problem.

Forget for a moment that Franken's email doesn’t actually present any legitimate worry about what might happen under a non-neutral Net. As Cato's Jim Harper explains, he’s flat wrong here in his explanation of how the proposal would work. The wireless services that would be allowed to operate outside the bounds of Net neutrality do not include wi-fi, which is used to broadcast wireline data over short distances. Instead, the proposal would cover large-scale wireless data networks like those used by AT&T and Verizon to send and receive data to and from smartphones and similar devices.

This is pretty basic stuff—the kind of thing your average first-day-on-the-job stock boy at Best Buy ought to be able to explain with ease. And normally, an obvious technical mistake like this wouldn’t matter. The problem is that, as a senator, Franken could get a significant say about what policies are put in place if the issue ever comes before Congress.

It’s not the first time Franken has spouted nonsense on the issue either. Earlier this month, the senator warned that without Net neutrality, "We don't just have a competition problem. We have a First Amendment problem." Even under the most extreme non-neutral scenario, which imagines a world in which ISPs choose to block individuals and organizations from posting their thoughts on the web because of the specific political content of those thoughts—in other words, a scenario that's completely implausible—this represents a fundamental misunderstanding about First Amendment rights.

Basically, it’s the same mistake that radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger made when she huffed, "I want my First Amendment rights back, which I can't have on radio without the threat of attack on my advertisers and stations." Just as the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee anyone a nationally broadcast radio show with paying advertisers, it also doesn’t guarantee anyone the right to use data networks owned and operated by another company for their own purposes. The First Amendment is not a license to say anything you want, any way you want, while standing on or using someone else’s property. By Franken’s logic, you’d also have the First Amendment right to walk into Target and start screaming profanity about your least favorite legislators through a bullhorn without a store employee escorting you out.

Lately, Franken has been pitching Net neutrality as a key to protecting political speech. “If we don't protect net neutrality now,” he wondered in front of liberal activists at Netroots nation last month, “how long do you think it will take before the Fox News website loads five times faster than Daily Kos?” Worrisome, right? Well, not really. I could explain why he’s wrong, but somebody beat me to it. And when I say “somebody”, I mean none other than a Daily Kos diarist who starts his post with the sorrowful admission that “in his speech before the Netroots convention [Franken] showed that he really didn't understand network neutrality.” As the kids say, it’s funny...because it’s true.