Obama Comes Out in Favor of Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality
Michael Howell, 11, attends a pro-Net neutrality Internet activist rally in the neighborhood where President Obama attended a fund-raiser in Los Angeles, California July 23, 2014. Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

This morning, President Barack Obama took a hard stance on the issue of Net neutrality, suggesting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "implement the strongest possible rules to protect Net neutrality."

The strongest possible rule would be a reclassification of the Internet as a public utility under the Communications Act of 1934.

A statement from Obama puts it like this: "The time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone—not just one or two companies."

The battle over Net neutrality is essentially a question of whether or not Internet service providers have the right to create superhighways for certain websites, those who can afford to pay a premium known as "paid prioritization," which would in turn create a "slow" and "fast" Internet. ISPs would also be allowed to block certain websites based on commercial affiliations: for example, if you use Comcast and it signs a deal with Walmart, you might find Kmart's online shopping website moves incredibly slowly, or is blocked altogether, on your Internet connection. By making Net neutrality a public utility, ISPs would be subject to more developed regulation, similar to that of gas, water, sewage treatment and electric companies. That would prevent ISPs from creating two speeds of Internet connectivity or blocking any sites.

Net neutrality activists have long been pushing for this reclassification, which FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler brought up while issuing revisions on Net neutrality regulations this past May. Wheeler invited public comment on the matter, leading to a number of protests outside the FCC building in Washington, D.C.

The move to public utility is not easy and not without objections. Some have criticized making broadband Internet a public utility on the grounds that it would create a monopoly, as has happened with other public utilities (National Grid, Standard Oil). Others, including Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who created the phrase Net neutrality, have argued broadband companies have already created a monopoly and now deserve to be regulated as such. "We need to stop pretending the U.S. broadband industry forms some kind of magical exception to this rule. For 15 years, consumers have been waiting for serious competition to arrive, yet there is now less competition than ever. It's time to face facts: Broadband is a utility and ought to be treated as such by the Federal Communications Commission," Wu argued in The Wall Street Journal.

In the event broadband is reclassified as a public utility, the ISPs will have their day in court, however, the case will likely take years to resolve, during which the providers will have to adhere to utility regulations. When Wheeler opened comment on the idea of reclassification, The Wall Street Journal's Gautham Nagesh noted that some industry experts believe the chairman "is using the threat of reclassification to discourage broadband providers from attempting arrangements that would run afoul of his rules." However, now that Obama has made his view abundantly clear on the matter of reclassification, Wheeler's threat may not be so empty.

Obama's involvement has already garnered one harsh but familiar critic, Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who tweeted, "'Net Neutrality' is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government." Regardless of criticism, the FCC will take the president's comments to heart when reviewing the issue. In response to Obama's statement, Wheeler said, "As an independent regulatory agency we will incorporate the president's submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding. We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act."