With Thumbs-Up From Obama, Net Neutrality Advocates See Victory in Sight

(Photo: Free Press)(Photo: Free Press)

After staying mum on specific policies for months, President Obama waded into the debate over net neutrality on Monday and announced that he supports regulating the internet as a public utility that is as essential to the public as phone service and electricity.

Obama released the statement and a detailed video explaining his position one month before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to vote on a new set of rules for enforcing net neutrality, the concept that internet service providers should treat all legal web traffic equally.

Just hours before Obama made his announcement, Popular Resistance activists blockaded FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s driveway to demand that the agency issue tough regulations to protect the internet from profit-hungry telecom companies. Activists held pro-net neutrality demonstrations across the country in the past week, including one right in front of the White House.

Obama’s statement brought cheers from progressives and internet freedom advocates, who have organized a massive movement, both online and off, to pressure the FCC to reclassify the internet as a Title II “common carrier” service, which they say is the only way to establish net neutrality rules with teeth.

Obama made it clear that he agrees.

“So 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,” the president said in a statement. “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.”

Obama is a longstanding supporter of net neutrality, but has refrained from directing the FCC toward specific policies until now.

Since a federal court struck down the FCC’s latest batch of net neutrality rules in January, the agency has considered several proposals for reestablishing regulations to keep broadband companies from blocking or slowing some websites and services while giving preferential treatment to others. FCC Chairmen Tom Wheeler, who was appointed by Obama last year, originally proposed classifying the internet under a different federal statute instead of Title II.

Wheeler also proposed allowing so-called paid prioritization, or “fast lane” deals, that would allow broadband companies to charge companies like Netflix fees for faster speeds to reach consumers, as long as the FCC deemed the deals commercially reasonable.

Protests against Wheeler’s original proposal erupted outside and even inside FCC meetings while online organizers gathered thousands of signatures and millions of public comments. Under mounting public pressure, Wheeler later revised the proposal and made it clear that he would consider full Title II reclassification if necessary.

“The president’s statement of support for Title II is the result of an unprecedented public outcry,” said Craig Aaron, CEO of the pro-net neutrality group Free Press. “More than 4 million Americans have contacted the FCC on the issue, with the overwhelming majority of comments urging the agency to create real net neutrality protections. And the phones have been ringing off the hook at the White House for weeks.”

The broadband industry is rigidly opposed to Title II reclassification and has threatened to take the FCC back to court if it approves tough regulations.

“Reclassification under Title II, which for the first time would apply 1930s-era utility regulation to the Internet, would be a radical reversal of course that would in and of itself threaten great harm to an open Internet, competition and innovation,” Verizon said in a statement. “That course will likely also face strong legal challenges and would likely not stand up in court.”

A legal challenge from Verizon doomed the FCC’s last batch of net neutrality rules, which were thrown out by a federal court last year.

Recent media reports based on leaked information indicated that Wheeler is now considering a hybrid proposal that would classify only part of the internet under Title II so the FCC would have the power to block “fast lane” deals that the agency deems anticompetitive while preserving the internet as a retail information service, not a public utility, for everyday customers.

The proposal was generally seen as a compromise to appease both sides of the net neutrality debate, but Obama has refused to throw his support behind the proposal, saying instead that the entire internet should be placed under Title II and paid prioritization should be banned outright.

“FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and the other commissioners now must abandon convoluted proposals and make clear rules that will protect internet users and stand up in court,” Aaron said. “As the president made very clear, the only sure way to do that is under Title II.”

Obama also called on the FCC to extend net neutrality protections to mobile devices like smartphones.

In a statement, Wheeler said he welcomed the president’s input and would add it to the public record.

“We both oppose internet fast lanes,” Wheeler said.

He also confirmed that the FCC had been exploring hybrid proposals that would involve only partial Title II reclassification, a move that critics argue would not put the FCC on the kind of firm legal footing needed to stand up to legal challenges from the industry.

Wheeler stated that the FCC “would need more time” to examine how different approaches to regulating the internet would hold up in court, which suggests the FCC may delay its vote until after a scheduled meeting on December 11.

“Those are stalling tactics,” said the internet freedom group Fight for the Future in an email to supporters. “The FCC has had plenty of time to discuss the various options available to them. We need to refocus our campaign on the FCC to make sure that Wheeler – a former cable lobbyist – doesn’t delay the vote in a last ditch attempt to sneak through rules that his buddies at Comcast and Verizon can live with. Time is of the essence.”

While Obama has taken a strong stance on Title II reclassification, he made it clear in his statement that the FCC is an independent agency and the final decision will be left up to Wheeler and his fellow commissioners.