On the same morning net neutrality demonstrators showed up at FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s house to protest a plan that could let broadband providers charge for “fast lanes” to the Internet, the demonstrators found unexpected support from the White House.
President Obama released a statement and video Monday in which he makes the same demand as the demonstrators: Reclassify the Internet — and mobile broadband — as a public utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.
“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,” Obama said in the statement.
He goes on to make the case that reclassification is the best way to achieve the objectives of an open Internet: No throttling of some content and speeding up others, no paid prioritization — customers getting stuck in a “slow lane” because the sites they are visiting didn’t pay a fee — and no blocking content.
It gets pretty thorny, but here’s what you need to know: Categorizing the Internet as a utility would allow the FCC to pass a simple, blanket, easy-to-enforce rule on net neutrality for all ISPs rather than going at it piecemeal.
Big ISPs — Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner — and their trade associations and lobbyists argue that the Title II option is going to lead to suffocating regulation that would give them no incentive to invest millions in developing new technologies and maintaining or improving the current network connecting Americans to the Internet.
Proponents of net neutrality say the ISPs haven’t invested as much as they could have all along. The U.S. lags behind dozens of other countries in Internet speed, ranking 42nd.
Bottom line, this is a pretty big deal. The president has long supported the principle of net neutrality, but has never before come this far in backing a specific approach to protect it. The FCC just two weeks ago floated a more “hybrid” plan, reported by The Wall Street Journal. Backers of net neutrality didn’t like the reported approach because it would still allow Internet service providers to make deals with content providers for special access.
The question is, of course, whether the president’s stand will make any difference to rule-makers, who act independently of the White House.