Voters agree: A free and open Internet is crucial to our economic future

San Jose Mercury News – December 29, 2014
By Tom Freedman, Alan Davidson, and Alexander C. Hart

As we look to the New Year, we should recognize that there is a new trend in politics. The digital world isn’t just changing the way election campaigns are run; it is also changing the way voters think. From specific issues like net neutrality to a general willingness to support building our national communications infrastructure, this trend will change American politics.

Immediately after the 2014 elections, we conducted a national poll of midterm voters. Digital voters, those who spend more than three hours a day on the Internet and are often highly educated, place a stronger emphasis on the Internet and are aware of what is needed to make a digital economy thrive. As this part of the electorate grows, its influence will as well.

Five beliefs among these voters are particularly worth noting:

First, on the most high-profile issue of the day, net neutrality, the new proposed executive branch actions have strong support across the ideological spectrum.

The concept that Internet service providers (ISPs) should be prevented from blocking or slowing down access to Internet services or from treating them differently is hotly disputed. But even strong language like that used by President Obama — treating Internet service providers like public utilities — saw support that crossed the partisan divide. More than half of voters agreed with treating providers like utilities, including two-thirds of Democrats, nearly the same percentage of Independents and a plurality of Republicans.

There is real doubt about allowing ISPs to create Internet fast lanes and collect tolls. Midterm voters think it’s important to ensure that small businesses have access to the same quality of Internet service as big corporations. A majority also say it is very important to prevent ISPs from slowing down access to websites that don’t pay them a fee.

Second, voters were concerned about maintaining their privacy online, with four out of five saying strengthening privacy protections is “very important,” outranking every other concern tested. An astonishing 94 percent rank privacy on the Internet as very or somewhat important.

Third, there is an emerging popular technology agenda for a new Congress. Investments in job training and education programs that equip Americans with the technical skills Internet businesses need have hugely strong support. Working to expand high-speed Internet access by eliminating barriers to municipal utilities providing Internet service was also popular.

Fourth, there is a consensus that the Internet is a critical tool. Strong majorities now conclude that Internet access is essential and “everyone” needs it. Barely 20 percent of voters who use the Internet say it is not essential.

Finally, there is a consensus to support political leaders who will stand up for a free and open Internet. Overall, 60 percent of voters said they are more likely to support a government official “committed to protecting a free and open Internet.” This cuts across party lines, including 67 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of Independents, and 56 percent of Republicans.

Something profound is going on. Just as the transformation of the nation from an agricultural to industrial society changed the concerns of voters, so the new transformations of our Information Age are changing our modern political landscape. The open Web matters, and it should be protected and supported

Tom Freedman is President of Freedman Consulting, LLC, and former Senior Advisor to President Clinton. Alan Davidson is Vice President for Technology, Policy and Strategy at the New America Foundation and former Public Policy Director at Google. Alexander C. Hart is a Project Manager with Freedman Consulting, LLC. They wrote this for this newspaper.

Click here to read more of this article.