Obama Urges FCC to Seize Sweeping New Internet Powers to Save Net Neutrality

The president’s statement is a massive blow to Comcast and other Internet providers who fear they will be regulated like utilities.

President Obama speaks as he is joined by representatives and community members from San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma during an East Room event January 9, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC. President Obama announced the five areas as his administration's first five 'Promise Zones' to help the local communities to combat poverty.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Nov. 10, 2014, 4:57 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama leapt dir­ectly in­to the net neut­ral­ity fight Monday, ur­ging the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion to claim ex­pans­ive new powers over the In­ter­net to en­act the “strongest pos­sible” reg­u­la­tions.

“‘Net neut­ral­ity’ has been built in­to the fab­ric of the In­ter­net since its cre­ation — but it is also a prin­ciple that we can­not take for gran­ted,” Obama said in a video pos­ted on the White House web­site. “We can­not al­low In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders (ISPs) to re­strict the best ac­cess or to pick win­ners and losers in the on­line mar­ket­place for ser­vices and ideas.”

Un­der his plan, the FCC would clas­si­fy broad­band In­ter­net as a “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice” un­der Title II of the Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Act, a pro­vi­sion the agency already uses to reg­u­late tele­phone com­pan­ies. His state­ment is a huge win for In­ter­net act­iv­ists, who have been warn­ing the fu­ture of the In­ter­net could be at stake un­less the FCC in­vokes stronger au­thor­ity to pre­vent ab­uses by In­ter­net pro­viders.

But broad­band pro­viders like Com­cast and Ve­r­i­zon have been lob­by­ing fiercely against ap­ply­ing the pro­vi­sion to the In­ter­net, warn­ing it would strangle their in­dustry with util­ity-style reg­u­la­tions. Shares of ma­jor broad­band pro­viders sank early Monday fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment. Ve­r­i­zon is­sued a state­ment say­ing it sup­ports an “open In­ter­net,” but warned that Obama’s plan would face “strong leg­al chal­lenges.”

“The In­ter­net has not just ap­peared by ac­ci­dent or gift — it has been built by com­pan­ies like ours in­vest­ing and build­ing net­works and in­fra­struc­ture,” Com­cast ex­ec­ut­ive Dav­id Co­hen said in a state­ment. “The policy the White House is en­cour­aging would jeop­ard­ize this en­gine for job cre­ation and in­vest­ment as well as the in­nov­a­tion cycle that the In­ter­net has gen­er­ated.”

It’s also a con­front­a­tion­al move against con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, who just won con­trol of the Sen­ate last week. They con­sider Title II an ar­cha­ic pro­vi­sion de­signed for a time when a single mono­poly con­trolled all tele­phone ser­vice. They warn that us­ing the pro­vi­sion on the In­ter­net would destory jobs and mean slower In­ter­net for every­one. The new GOP Con­gress will be sure to try to re­peal any net neut­ral­ity rules the FCC en­acts.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Re­pub­lic­an, tweeted Monday that net neut­ral­ity is the the “Obama­care of the In­ter­net” and that the “In­ter­net should not op­er­ate at the speed of gov­ern­ment.” But Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Sen. Ed Mar­key and Rep. Anna Eshoo, praised Obama’s state­ment and urged the FCC to en­act the stronger rules. 

In his state­ment, Obama noted that the FCC is an in­de­pend­ent agency and that the ul­ti­mate de­cision will be up to Chair­man Tom Wheel­er and the four oth­er com­mis­sion­ers. But his state­ment puts tre­mend­ous pres­sure on the Demo­crat­ic ap­pointees to seize the con­tro­ver­sial new powers.

Wheel­er thanked Obama for his in­put Monday, but didn’t ex­pli­citly say he would fol­low the pres­id­ent’s dir­ec­tions. The vari­ous net neut­ral­ity pro­pos­als raise “sub­stant­ive leg­al ques­tions,” Wheel­er said, and he’ll need more time to de­vel­op rules that can hold up in court. The FCC chief had pre­vi­ously said he wanted new rules on the books by the end of the year.

Un­der Obama’s plan, the FCC would ban In­ter­net pro­viders from block­ing web­sites, throt­tling In­ter­net ser­vice, or cre­at­ing any spe­cial In­ter­net “fast lanes” for web­sites that pay more. The rules would ap­ply equally to a home In­ter­net con­nec­tion and mo­bile devices.

He also said the FCC should con­sider ap­ply­ing reg­u­la­tions to the in­ter­con­nec­tion points on the backend of the In­ter­net, which would help Net­flix and oth­er com­pan­ies de­liv­er large video files without hav­ing to pay In­ter­net pro­viders for bet­ter con­nec­tions. Tra­di­tion­ally, net neut­ral­ity has only covered how In­ter­net pro­viders must handle traffic once its on their net­works. 

Title II would give the FCC a slew of new powers over the In­ter­net, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to con­trol prices and de­term­ine which cus­tom­ers a com­pany has to serve. Obama said the FCC should waive the rate reg­u­la­tion re­quire­ments and “oth­er pro­vi­sions less rel­ev­ant to broad­band ser­vices.”

Net neut­ral­ity ad­voc­ates ar­gue that Title II is the only way to en­act rules that can sur­vive in court. The FCC first en­acted net neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions in 2010, but a fed­er­al court struck them down earli­er this year.

Wheel­er pro­posed new rules in May that wouldn’t in­voke Title II and would al­low for In­ter­net “fast lanes” in some cases, but his pro­pos­al promp­ted a massive back­lash and more than 3.7 mil­lion people filed com­ments with the FCC.

Al­though Obama has long sup­por­ted the concept of net neut­ral­ity, Monday is the first time he out­lined which spe­cif­ic leg­al au­thor­ity the FCC should use.

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