What Obama’s big push for ‘net neutrality’ means

President Obama urged the FCC Monday to adopt strict rules favoring 'net neutrality,' or equal treatment of Internet traffic. The goal is to prevent big players like Netflix and Google from squeezing out smaller companies. 

President Obama took a strong stand for “net neutrality” Monday, calling on the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband Internet as a public utility.

Earlier this year, the FCC had proposed rules that would bar Internet service providers from blocking or slowing down content, but would allow content providers to pay a “toll” to service providers to speed up delivery of content. That would allow big companies, such as Netflix and Google, to pay for faster service and squeeze out smaller companies.  

Mr. Obama has long supported rules that would require treating all Internet traffic equally – a principle known as “net neutrality.” On Monday, he made his most forceful assertion on the issue to date.

“Internet providers have a legal obligation not to block or limit your access to a website," Obama said in a statement and video message posted on the White House web site, while he traveled in Asia. "Cable companies can't decide which online stores you should shop at or which streaming services you can use. And they can't let any company pay for priority over its competitors.”

Obama asked the FCC to classify Internet services as a public utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. The FCC is an independent agency, and thus is not beholden to presidential requests.

He also urged the FCC to apply the rules to mobile devices, increasingly the vehicle of choice for Internet-users.

“I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks,” the president said.

Supporters of net neutrality applauded the president’s move.  

“The president wasn’t kidding when he said he’d take a back seat to no one on net neutrality,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner now advising the liberal group Common Cause. “Thanks to the millions of Americans who helped make this happen.”

The FCC has received nearly 4 million comments since its chairman, Tom Wheeler, proposed  new rules earlier this year. Mr. Wheeler is an Obama appointee, confirmed by the Senate a year ago. 

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California called on the FCC to “act swiftly to create clear and enforceable net neutrality standards so the Internet can continue to foster freedom and prosperity here in the United States and around the world.”

The wireless industry, speaking via its trade association, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), objected to Obama’s statement, calling it an effort to apply the regulatory regime of old technology to modern-day telecommunications.

"CTIA and its members are committed to delivering an open mobile Internet, but applying last century's public utility regulation to the dynamic mobile broadband ecosystem puts at risk the investment and innovation which characterizes America's world-leading $196 billion wireless industry," said the group's president and CEO, Meredith Attwell Baker, in a statement.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas also weighed in. "'Net Neutrality' is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government,” Senator Cruz tweeted.

The issue of net neutrality has long been a subject of intense debate.

“Regardless of what the FCC does, one thing you can be certain of is it goes to court,” says Andrew Schwartzman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and longtime public-interest advocate on telecommunications. “Everyone on all sides will sue.”

Internet rulemaking is expected to be considered at the FCC’s meeting in mid-December or possibly January. 

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