joe biden net neutrality

Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC-BY-SA) Remix by Jason Reed

Why is Joe Biden silent on one of Obama’s most important policies?

Joe Biden lagged behind his former 2020 Democrats in publicly supporting net neutrality. His campaign now says he supports it—but why did it take so long?

Mar 31, 2020, 10:07 am*

Tech

Andrew Wyrich 

Andrew Wyrich

As he’s made his pitch to voters that he should be the next president of the United States, former Vice President Joe Biden has frequently brought up numerous accomplishments made by the Obama administration.

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The former vice president has said he would protect and build upon the Affordable Care Act, has touted the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and enthusiastically called himself “an Obama-Biden Democrat,” tying his campaign to the legacy of the administration he served in.

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But so far on the campaign trail, he’s remained silent on one signature move made during his time in the White House, one which is easily one of the former administration’s most popular: net neutrality.

Biden’s stance on net neutrality has remained somewhat of an open question for more than a year as he’s become the front runner to take on President Donald Trump later this year. Questions about why the former vice president did not bring up the issue have been raised as other candidates have forcefully pushed their views during the Democratic primary. Many have even detailed exactly how they would restore a policy achievement made by a White House Biden was a part of.

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The former vice president’s campaign only broke its silence when asked about his stance by the Daily Dot for this article.

A Biden campaign spokesperson told the Daily Dot that the former vice president “supports net neutrality” and that he was “outraged” when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the rules in 2017.

“Joe Biden supports net neutrality. He was proud to see the FCC take direct action to protect consumers and innovators by preserving the open internet during the Obama-Biden Administration. Like most Americans, Joe Biden was outraged that the Trump administration reversed the Open Internet Rule and inflated this nation’s digital divide,” the campaign spokesperson said.

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The campaign declined a request to comment on more specific views of Biden’s, including whether he supported classifying broadband providers under Title II of the Communications Act and whether if elected he would appoint FCC commissioners who supported Title II classification.

But the question remains: why did Biden not take any kind of stance on the issue months ago while nearly every other former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate made their views clear?

Net neutrality was popular among 2020 Dems—but where was Biden?

While Biden just now commented on net neutrality, almost every other 2020 rival had spoken about their support during the Democratic primary.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the only Democratic presidential hopeful still in the race, told the Daily Dot last year he believed net neutrality was “fundamental to communication, commerce, and competition” and that he would appoint Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioners who would reinstate the rules. He later said specifically that ISPs should be classified as common carriers under Title II.

But it isn’t just Sanders.

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On the campaign trail, former candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Andrew Yang, and others all supported some avenue toward reinstating the rules. Their plans ranged from calling for legislation to be passed, to using executive orders, to appointing members of the FCC that supported reversing its repeal.

Some, like Warren and Yang, specifically cited Title II in their proposals.

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Even Marianne Williamson, the spiritual guru, had a positive stance.

Of the 28 people who announced their candidacy president for the Democratic party, 22 of them have been vocal—in statements, votes, tweets, campaign plans, or other ways—about their support of net neutrality.

Nearly every member of the vast 2020 Democratic field had at one point in their political careers been vocal in their support for the issue. Some of their net neutrality views were tucked in larger broadband proposals. While Biden also has a rural broadband plan, net neutrality was not included.

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The widespread support among most 2020 Democrats is warranted. Digital rights group Demand Progress and others set up a petition last year asking for candidates to pledge to restore net neutrality—specifically reverting back to Title II rules—that has garnered more than 230,000 signatures, according to organizers. Polls have shown net neutrality to have widespread, and bipartisan, support among the public.

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While his campaign told the Daily Dot the former vice president was “outraged” about the repeal in 2017, unlike other former 2020 candidates he didn’t tweet about his opposition to it.

Biden’s silence on the campaign trail doesn’t mean that he is not supportive of the issue. As his former 2020 rivals specific plan’s show, re-instituting the rules is a popular position among Democrats and not following along would likely have political consequences. Keeping net neutrality was also part of the Democratic Party’s official position in the 2016 election, and the 2015 Open Internet Order was passed by the FCC while he was part of the Obama White House.

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However, as some advocates and experts point out, the lack of any substantive comments about the issue until now raises questions. The organizations that spoke with the Daily Dot stressed that they are non-partisan and did not endorse any candidate.

“I think for us, as we spent time going through all of the positions of the candidates—digging into both papers and things they put out, and searching for statements and other things—Joe Biden saying so little about net neutrality really does stand out because basically every other candidate … took a clear stance on net neutrality,” Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press Action told the Daily Dot.

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Chris Lewis, the president and CEO at Public Knowledge, a non-profit internet rights organization, said he hoped that a potential Biden administration would follow the lead of the Obama administration and reinstate strong net neutrality rules under Title II.

“Vice President Biden was a part of the administration where we got the strong 2015 net neutrality rules, and he’s been running on a position of continuing the legacy of President Obama. I believe that strong net neutrality rules are one of the legacies of President Obama,” Lewis said. “Since his position is not stated publicly on his website, which is what I have to go on, one would hope—and I hope—that a Biden administration would continue the legacy of the Obama administration. But it would be great to see the campaign take a clear position on net neutrality given the state of play right now.”

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On Biden’s campaign website he lists 26 different plans as part of his “vision” if elected president. Net neutrality is not listed in any of those plans.

Other experts were confident Biden, if elected, would eventually support net neutrality.

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Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and former FCC counselor, said she expects Biden to “come out on the right place on this” if elected president.

“I don’t really have any doubt that Joe Biden and whoever Joe Biden’s FCC chair is going to be is going to be supportive of reinstating the 2015 Open Internet rules,” Sohn said, adding: “It’s become such a partisan issue—I think unfortunately—that I can’t see any Democratic nominee diverging from it.”

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), who championed the House version of the Save the Internet Act—a bill that would reverse the FCC’s net neutrality repeal and restore the 2015 Open Internet Order—told C-SPAN late last year that he was not concerned “at all” that Biden would support net neutrality if elected.

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“I feel confident that if Joe Biden were to be president—and he’d be a good one by the way—that he would work with us on that,” he said.

Joe Biden Net Neutrality 2020 Title II
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But, several advocates noted that it’s not just a contrast between candidates. Biden’s past statements on issues surrounding net neutrality and some of his campaign’s donations also raised questions.

David Elliot Berman, the co-author of After Net Neutrality: A New Deal For The Digital Age, said there were a number of ways to look at why Biden has been silent on net neutrality, but he kept coming back to fundraising and past decisions.

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“In terms of interpreting his silence on the issue, one way to interpret that is it’s just not a big priority. Another option is that as president he would end up supporting net neutrality because it is so popular both in public opinion and enjoys strong bipartisan support among the public,” Berman said, adding: “He does have a unique history on the issue which does give me pause on whether he actually is neutral on the issue or whether he might actually pass something that resembles a strong net neutrality protection under his administration.”

Biden kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign by attending a fundraiser hosted by David Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president. Biden has received $89,052 in donations from individuals from Comcast, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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“What we know is that among his biggest fundraisers is David Cohen, the longtime senior leader and political leader at Comcast. It’s a fact—it was his first fundraiser,” Aaron said. “You put those together and you can’t help but ask questions about where is he on this issue that has become, for the party, an issue they know is really popular.”

Berman put it more simply:

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“That kind of thing gives me a lot of pause about how far he would push for net neutrality as president,” he said.

While money influencing politics has long been criticized, it is worth noting that Obama also held fundraisers with Comcast before eventually calling for Title II regulations in a YouTube video.

Biden’s past on net neutrality

The former vice president’s campaign says he supports net neutrality, but his past views on the issue—aside from being part of the Obama White House—are murkier.

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In June 2006, as the Senate Judiciary Committee discussed potential net neutrality rules—with Cohen, of Comcast, joining Google and other experts on a panel before the committee—Biden appeared to be against preemptively acting on the issue.

Biden asked a pro-net neutrality panelist whether the fears raised by net neutrality advocates—fast lanes and blocking for example—had already occurred, adding later “it would seem to me if the fears you have are real and they occur, there will be a virtual explosion in this country. You will not have the audience we have here. The chairman will be required to hold this hearing in the largest room in the Capitol, and there will be lines wandering all the way down to the White House if that occurs.”

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The now-former vice president seemed to be arguing that public opinion would keep broadband providers in check. Given the state of net neutrality today, that’s a stance that hasn’t aged well at all.

Biden continued to say he believed the fears of net neutrality advocates were a “legitimate concern,” but seemed to think any legislation would have been “preemptive” and not necessary.

“I just wonder whether or not this need for preemptive action is as urgent as is being argued,” Biden said according to a transcript, later adding: “So I just wonder. I guess my concern is whether or not this is premature … usually, when we get into those kinds of legislative initiatives, they end up looking at the end of the day not very attractive.”

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Biden also was not a co-sponsor on the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, a 2007 bill introduced in the Senate that was co-sponsored by several people he would eventually run against during the 2008 Democratic primary (Obama and Hillary Clinton), and someone he’d run against in 2020: Sanders.

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That bill would have made sure ISPs did not discriminate against certain internet content by having preferential pricing tiers. The bill never made it out of committee.

In 2008, Wired described Biden as a “hesitant supporter” of net neutrality legislation at the time.

But after all of his past statements, he was part of a White House that helped usher in net neutrality. However, it’s unclear how much Biden was involved in discussions leading up to that. In November 2014—the same day Obama released his video calling for Title II regulation—Biden tweeted out a link to the White House’s plan, adding that the administration stood “for keeping the internet open & free.”

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It was his only tweet on the matter in eight years.

What exactly is ‘supporting’ net neutrality?

Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight for the Future, said all of the 2020 Democrats missed an opportunity by not making net neutrality more of an issue during the primary, but Biden in particular had a chance to capitalize on the fact he was part of the Obama administration that passed the rules in 2015.

“From a strategic perspective, I think the Democrats totally dropped the ball on this issue by not talking about it at all—especially now, we are in this moment where people are just remembering how unbelievably crucial the internet is and having a free and open internet is,” Greer said. “I think it’s absurd that any candidate who wants to be the Democratic nominee wouldn’t explicitly and clearly say that they support the strong net neutrality protections that were enacted under the Obama administration. Especially for Joe Biden, whose whole thing is ‘my record is Obama’s record.'”

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While Biden’s campaign has now gone on record and said he supports net neutrality—for other advocates and experts, the devil is in the details.

“It is now late March, and he declared his candidacy over a year ago, and on a basic fundamental issue like net neutrality it should not have taken him over a year to publicly state that he supports it,” Berman said. “This is not a politically fraught issue for the most part, in the abstract. It’s not a contentious issue that divides the Democratic party like Medicare for All where there is a real split between moderates and progressives.”

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But support can be empty, Berman notes.

“Comcast says they support net neutrality, Charter says they support net neutrality, everybody says they support net neutrality … it can be used [as] kind of an empty vessel unless we ground it and say what we actually mean by net neutrality. So if he’s not saying Title II or exactly what he means when he says net neutrality, it is kind of [an] empty, vacuous commitment.”

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Aaron, of Free Press Action, felt similarly, and said Biden needed to make it clear that he supports the same kind of net neutrality rules that were passed while he was part of the Obama administration.

“We need to know what Joe Biden means when he says he’s for net neutrality because there’s the Comcast version of net neutrality and there’s real net neutrality. Real net neutrality—which is the Obama administration’s net neutrality—means clear authority for the FCC under Title II and supporting legislation like the Save the Internet Act … I think its important for the front-runner in the race to be very clear to the public that if and when he gets into office he’s going to make net neutrality a priority. So far, Joe Biden hasn’t done that.”

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*First Published: Mar 30, 2020, 6:30 am