Politics

Your Internet Experience May Change In Light of the Election

What about privacy, Net Neutrality, patent reform or fiber? 

No, we did not hear about these issues during the campaign. Why? Because a whopping 37% of Tuesday's voters were over 60 whereas young people made up just 12% of voters. 

Candidates cater to people who actually vote, and few of those over-60 voters worry about lag during League of Legends or the quality of their Netflix stream. They also likely don’t think much of Edward Snowden. If voters are not paying attention to certain issues, politicians are not going to pay attention to them either. That does not mean, however, that last night’s results won’t affect internet and tech policy.

Privacy and the NSA

Privacy advocates lost a major ally last night. Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has been one of Congress’ most outspoken critics of the NSA.  “It is time to end the dragnet — and to affirm that we can keep our nation secure without trampling on and abandoning Americans' constitutional rights,” wrote Udall -- along with Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ron Wyden -- in the New York Times earlier this year.

His replacement, Republican Senator-elect Cory Gardner, who defeated Udall last night, is open to surveillance reform. But he will need to be more than merely amenable to fill Udall’s shoes. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Udall’s had a big megaphone for his effort to limit the government’s bulk data collection.

Net Neutrality

Net neutrality took a hit, too. With Republicans taking the Senate, it’s likely that the body becomes much more skeptical of efforts to regulate internet service providers. It looks like Republican John Thune will taking over as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. He’s on the record as lukewarm toward the FCC’s efforts to preserve Net Neutrality.

No, this does not mean the Obama administration and the FCC will abandon Net Neutrality. But it does mean they face a Congress hostile to their efforts. Congress could pass a law -- and some Republicans want this law -- reforming the Communications Act to prevent the FCC from regulating the internet and enforcing Net Neutrality.

Will Obama go to the mat for Net Neutrality? I doubt it. The Obama administration is only going to have so much political capital to veto laws passed by the Republican Congress. Same goes for Democrats in the Senate and their filibuster power. Are Democrats really going to die on the hill of Net Neutrality when massive fights are coming over immigration, health care, or possibly a Supreme Court nominee? I doubt it.

Fiber

It was probably not a good night for fiber. If you like the idea of the government laying fiber cables and hooking you up with super fast internet -- the same way it does with electricity -- last night was a bad night. If you think the government should stay out of it, it was a good night. 

Republicans across the states have been passing laws banning municipalities from laying their own internet cable. There’s even a law in Texas that prevents citizens from accessing already-existing, government-owned fiber, such as the network that currently exists in San Antonio. The new U.S. Senator from North Carolina -- Thom Tillis -- led efforts as Speaker of the House in that state to ban municipal broadband. Why do they pass these laws? The argument made by Republicans -- and internet service providers -- is that it’s unfair to force a for-profit business to compete with a non-profit government entity because the government does not have to turn a profit. They argue that municipal internet service will kill off private sector internet and thus also kill off potential innovation.

It’s a fair argument. The problem, though, is that we’re not seeing the ISPs investing in fiber under the status quo. And, as a result, the United States is way behind Europe and Asia in internet speed.

The FCC is against these type of municipal bans and plans to use its authority to to preempt them. A Republican Congress, however, might amend the Communications Act to prevent the FCC from taking this action.

Patent Reform

Things are looking up for patent reform. Both parties say they want patent reform. The president also wants it. Senate Democrats, though, failed to pass the bill earlier this year. I would bet that the new Republican-controlled Senate will aggressively pursue this one, and it will pass.

This sounds really boring. What is it again? Advocates of reform argue that “patent trolls” are a drag on the American entrepreneur. Here’s their argument in 30 seconds: Patents are too often awarded for very vague business activities. So vague that one patent can ensnare hundreds of businesses. Further, too many of these vague patents are not owned by actual businesses, but instead owned by entities whose sole purpose is to own patents and sue alleged infringers. It’s not that a patent troll necessarily wants to sue a company to prevent theft of an idea. Trolls really just want companies to pay a licensing fee to use the idea --- sort of like a troll requesting a toll to cross bridge. Metaphors FTW. The problem, of course, is that a new start-up may not have the deep pockets to pay licensing fees or even defend itself in court.

Of course, this is not always the situation. There are perfectly legitimate claims for patent infringement. The prevalence of this type of situation, however, is enough to alarm tech evangelists like Chris Sacca who argues that, under the current system, these lawsuits amount to mafia-style shakedowns that can break young companies.