The chances that government policy about the internet is going to decide who will win the U.S. presidential election are pretty slim. (I'll leave it to others to consider the possible effect of recent videos posted on the internet.) But one of the clearest differences between Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama on the 14 top science questions facing the US has to do with the Internet, which is the subject of this week's closer look.

Romney thinks the FCC's rules promoting "net neutrality" are the fulfillment of a campaign promise that was made to "special interests." Obama reiterates his support for an open internet, while listing all the issues that compete for regulatory attention--from protection of intellectual property to cybersecurity to privacy.

Scientific American has repeatedly taken editorial positions in favor of net neutrality (see here and here for the latest). The most important thing to realize in this debate is that the internet is currently open and the net is already fairly neutral in the U.S. (You cannot say the same thing for China, which blocks the free flow of information using what Netizens call The Great Firewall of China.)

That open style has mostly been a result of historical accident, however. Back in the days when most people accessed the internet over telephone dial-up connections, most people assumed the "common carrier" standard--which applied to telephones and the telegraph before it--applied to the new technology. In other words, a telephone company (or telegram company before it) is not allowed to route messages more quickly or more slowly on the basis of whether or not it agreed with the messages. For example, it could not charge Fox News a different rate for basic telephone service than CNN.

Once more and more people started accessing the internet over cable modems, however, the assumption that a common carrier standard applied to the Internet started to be questioned because cable companies, heretofore, were treated as private carriers and thus have not been subject to the common carrier standard. Then in 2002, the FCC redefined broadband access to the Internet as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service" and there were multiple attempts to push aside the internet's de facto common carrier nature (now being called net neutrality.)

By the way, the technology for affecting the flow of information based on its content is already in place--it's in the routers that keep packets zipping around the planet--and keep pro-democracy information out of China or could keep anti-Muslim videos out of the Middle East.

Of course, now that more and more people are accessing the Internet over cell phone networks, we have a whole other level of technology to consider.

But at heart, the issue is how to keep the internet free and open, which could well be another of the many substantive issues that are flying udner the radar that could get decided in this year's elections.

Here's the question and Romney's response:

9. The Internet. The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society. What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?

Governor Romney's response: It is not the role of any government to “manage” the Internet. The Internet has flourished precisely because government has so far refrained from regulating this dynamic and essential cornerstone of our economy. I would rely primarily on innovation and market forces, not bureaucrats, to shape the Internet and maximize its economic, social and scientific value.

Thanks to the non-governmental multi-stakeholder model, the Internet is — and always has been — open to all ideas and lawful commerce as well as bountiful private investment. Unfortunately, President Obama has chosen to impose government as a central gatekeeper in the broadband economy. His policies interfere with the basic operation of the Internet, create uncertainty, and undermine investors and job creators.

Specifically, the FCC’s "Net Neutrality" regulation represents an Obama campaign promise fulfilled on behalf of certain special interests, but ultimately a “solution” in search of a problem. The government has now interjected itself in how networks will be constructed and managed, picked winners and losers in the marketplace, and determined how consumers will receive access to tomorrow’s new applications and services. The Obama Administration’s overreaching has replaced innovators and investors with Washington bureaucrats.

In addition to these domestic intrusions, there are also calls for increased international regulation of the Internet through the United Nations. I will oppose any effort to subject the Internet to an unaccountable, innovation-stifling international regulatory regime. Instead, I will clear away barriers to private investment and innovation and curtail needless regulation of the digital economy.

President Obama's response:

A free and open Internet is essential component of American society and of the modern economy. I support legislation to protect intellectual property online, but any effort to combat online piracy must not reduce freedom of expression, increase cybersecurity risk, or undermine the dynamic, innovative global Internet. I also believe it is essential that we take steps to strengthen our cybersecurity and ensure that we are guarding against threats to our vital information systems and critical infrastructure, all while preserving Americans' privacy, data confidentiality, and civil liberties and recognizing the civilian nature of cyberspace.



Read the candidates' answers to all 14 questions in full at either or

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