Obama Pushes FCC to Adopt Strong Net Neutrality Rules

President Obama Live ISIL Speech - H 2014
Courtesy of whitehouse.gov

President Obama Live ISIL Speech - H 2014

Although the FCC gets the final say, the President urges the regulatory agency to treat internet service as a utility. Comcast blasts the letter as a "radical reversal"

Barack Obama wants the Federal Communications Commission to adopt the "strongest possible rules" to treat internet traffic equally.

In a statement from the White House on Monday, the president is asking the FCC to reclassify internet service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which means it would be treated as a utility, something that net neutrality advocates had been urging.

"I believe the FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online," President Obama wrote.

The debate over whether ISPs can make paid prioritization deals with digital services erupted in January when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided the FCC had exceeded its authority in its anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules adopted in 2010. The ruling found that the agency had impermissibly treated broadband providers as common carriers

The development caused FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to consider whether the FCC should choose reclassification as a course of action or allow broadband providers to sell special access under certain scenarios. To the surprise of many observers, the FCC began heading towards that latter route, but allowed public comment before adopting any firm rules. The media agency was then swamped with about four million comments, mostly in support of strong net neutrality rules.

Nevertheless, earlier this month, Wheeler sent out signals that he'd be headed towards endorsing a "hybrid approach," distinguishing between “wholesale” and “retail” transactions. The proposal was knocked by critics who urged the FCC to go further and use Title II, something that was seemingly available from the appellate court's opinion, though a route that would likely spark legal challenges from broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast, Charter and Verizon.

On the other side are companies like Netflix wishing to ensure there's no interruption to their massive data flow. The idea of fast and slow lanes has been a big target for politicians too. "Pay-to-play deals are an affront to net neutrality and have no place in an online marketplace that values competition and openness," wrote Senator Al Franken in an earlier letter to the FCC. On the other hand, in a tweet after Obama's announcement, Senator Ted Cruz wrote that "net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet."

Many creative types in Hollywood have supported strong net neutrality rules.

For example, in its own public comment, the Writers Guild of America West wrote that "the rise of Internet video distribution has created the opportunity for a more diverse, competitive and independent market for content," but warned that paid prioritization could allow ISPs to demand payments from content providers for faster delivery of shows, reduce access for smaller creators and hand control of the Internet into a few vertically-integrated conglomerates. "The promise of vibrant video competition is threatened by incumbent control of distribution," said the WGA.

President Obama has now thrown his full weight behind urging the FCC to go the distance. In his open letter, he spells out four "bright-line rules," including ISPs not being allowed to block websites, ISPs being forbidden from throttling content (something the FTC recently filed a lawsuit against AT&T for doing), making full use of transparency and no paid prioritization.

"The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately the decision is their's alone," Obama acknowledges in his letter.

Chairman Wheeler hasn't exactly assented yet to Obama's call.

In a statement, Wheeler said he was grateful for the president's input, while adding, "The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do. The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. We found we would need more time to examine these to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face. For instance whether in the context of a hybrid or reclassification approach Title II brings with it policy issues that run the gamut from privacy to universal service to the ability of federal agencies to protect consumers, as well as legal issues ranging from the ability of Title II to cover mobile services to the concept of applying forbearance on services under Title II."

Comcast reacts by saying that President Obama's proposal for reclassification would reverse a decade of precedent.

"This would be a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation, as today's immediate stock market reaction demonstrates," says David Cohen, executive vp at Comcast. "And such a radical reversal of consistent contrary precedent should be taken up by the Congress. "The internet has not just appeared by accident or gift -- it has been built by companies like ours investing and building networks and infrastructure.  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.”

Twitter: @eriqgardner