Camp Obama thinks of the Internet as an incredibly successful public research project that was thrown open to the American public and entrepreneurs to dramatic effect. The open design of the network, in this view, is like a magic crystal placed at the center of the network by government scientists. As such, it is a resource that warrants special protection. The Internet has succeeded, says the Obama Web site, "because it is the most open network in history. It needs to stay that way."
Translated into the lingo of our day, this means Obama's camp is "pro-net neutrality." In the interests of disclosure, so am I—and in 2007, when the Obama campaign ran its proposed net-neutrality language by me, I approved of it. Being pro-net neutrality means that Obama and his advisers believe basic anti-discrimination rules (a modern version of the "common carriage" rules that make phone companies and innkeepers serve all comers) will preserve the open nature of the Internet—and keep it safe for unapproved speech and surprising innovations like Wikipedia and YouTube.
Camp McCain starts from a different ideological place: one that takes the Internet as, essentially, a very cool "product." As a product, the Net is less a public resource, and more something provided by the private sector in whatever form it considers best. In this sense, Camp McCain sees the Internet as more like cable television on steroids than some imaginary commons of the ether. What channels should be on cable is mostly a question for Time-Warner and Comcast—so why shouldn't Internet providers make the same kinds of decisions?
That's the view McCain pushed in 2005, when he co-sponsored a bill that allowed Internet blocking "on notice." If McCain's bill had become law, a cable or phone company could in theory block, say, the video site Hulu.com by providing notice in the "service plan." Interestingly, in that bill at least, McCain put himself at odds with more moderate Republicans, like Kevin Martin, present chairman of the FCC, who recently punished Comcast for just such consumer blocking. McCain (though he wavers in interviews) has put himself firmly in the anti-net-neutrality camp. According to his Web site, McCain might forbid some blocking, but in general, "John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like 'net-neutrality.' "
So, which candidate is on the side of the market? Both McCain and Obama would claim that their views on the Internet and net neutrality are "pro-market." McCain calls it "prescriptive regulation" to dictate to cable or phone companies in what form they must provide the Internet. Conversely, Obama's camp says that a neutral Internet, like other public utilities, is the base line over which the free market operates.
That latter approach is better known as the "infrastructure" view of the Internet—the idea that the Internet is itself a necessity upon which the economy is built. More generally, it is the view that communications, along with energy, money, and transportation, are industries inevitability affected with a public interest, because the whole economy depends on them. Obama would probably hope to leave as a legacy, if not a chicken in every pot, a fiber-optic cable in every home.
Camp McCain is far more suspicious of such thinking and fundamentally does not see the Internet as essential infrastructure in the same way. Instead, Camp McCain dreams of a competitive market in Internet services, and so if Obama sees the Internet as a road, McCain takes it as a car: something that consumers will buy if they want it. In fact, in 2001, Michael Powell compared the Internet to a luxury car: "I think there is a Mercedes divide. I would like to have one, but I can't afford one." Any too-ambitious government project to put a fiber cable in people's homes, thinks Camp McCain, is likely doomed to failure.
Ultimately, most of the difference in Obama's and McCain's media policies boils down to questions about whether the media is special and a dispute over how much to trust the private sector. Camp McCain would tend to leave the private sector alone, with faith that it will deliver to most Americans what they want and deserve. The Obama camp would probably administer a more frequent kick in the pants, in the belief that good behavior just isn't always natural.
Tim Wu is a supporter of Barack Obama, but the views expressed here at not necessarily those of the Obama campaign.