POLITICS
11/14/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Americans Kind Of Support Net Neutrality, But How You Ask The Question Matters

Americans across the political spectrum agree on some of the basic concepts of net neutrality, but their ideas about government regulation to enforce it are considerably more mixed -- perhaps understandably, since most still haven't even heard of it.

President Barack Obama advocated for net neutrality on Monday, calling on the Federal Communications Commission to institute new rules barring Internet service providers from giving some content priority.

"We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas," he said in a statement.

While the fight over net neutrality has sparked a political battle, most of the public hasn't been paying close attention, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll. Back in May, 63 percent of Americans said they'd never even heard the term "net neutrality." The term has become more familiar since then, but the most recent poll -- taken after the president's speech -- finds that a 54 percent majority, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, still say they haven't heard of it.

Obama's statement drew immediate opposition from some conservatives, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) labeling net neutrality as "Obamacare for the Internet."

The goals of net neutrality, however, are broadly popular with the public. Fifty-five percent of Americans, including two-thirds of those who'd heard about net neutrality, said they'd oppose allowing Internet service providers to strike deals in which some companies pay to have their online content load faster than other content.

In a rare showing for American politics, there wasn't much of a divide along partisan lines: 57 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of independents and 59 percent of Republicans were opposed.

More broadly, 77 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans, agreed that all data on the Internet should be treated equally, and that broadband Internet service providers should not be allowed to restrict the speed of certain types of content -- results that are basically unchanged since a poll this spring.

The findings line up with another recent poll, sponsored by the pro-net-neutrality Internet Freedom Business Alliance, which found that 83 percent of people who said they were very conservative were concerned about service providers' ability to "influence content" online, and that the same number supported action by Congress to ensure cable companies don't "monopolize the Internet." A third poll, from the University of Delaware, found 81 percent of Americans oppose allowing Internet providers to charge websites or streaming video services extra for faster speeds.

Telecom companies, however, deny that they're talking about providing faster service to some parties, saying the debate is really about the FCC's standing to regulate Internet service providers.

And because net neutrality remains a relatively arcane topic, the framing polls use when asking about the concept can have a major effect on how people respond.

In the HuffPost/YouGov poll, the spirit of bipartisanship largely vanishes as soon as the focus moves from Internet service providers' power to the actual government regulation that could curtail it.

Just 34 percent of Americans support government regulations to achieve net neutrality, with 28 percent opposed and 38 percent unsure. Democrats were more than twice as likely to support regulation as to oppose it, while Republicans were twice as likely to oppose it as to support it.

(Among those in all parties who have heard of net neutrality, 48 percent support government regulations to achieve it, 38 percent don't, and the remainder are unsure.)

Just 19 percent of Americans said more regulation of Internet service providers is needed, with 33 percent saying the current level is about right, 27 percent that less regulation is needed, and 21 percent unsure.

Thirty-one percent of Democrats, compared with just 6 percent of Republicans, would like to see more regulation.

Some wonder if Obama's public embrace of the issue could actually backfire, polarizing a relatively nonpartisan issue.

"Many Americans don’t know what net neutrality is or understand the debate over the issue. That’s why polling shows variable support depending on how the questions are framed," political scientist Brendan Nyhan wrote in The New York Times. "As people get increasingly partisan cues -- Mr. Obama is for it, Republicans are against it -- they are likely to follow their preferred party, which will further strengthen the partisan divide on the issue."

The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Nov. 10-12 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here.

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