Bold Obama Stand Shakes Up Net Neutrality Debate

Obama Hits FCC's Net Neutrality Proposal

President Barack Obama edged up to questioning the Federal Communications Commission's newly proposed net neutrality rules, a heavily criticized plan that would favor Internet content providers that can afford to pay more for faster delivery of their services.

Obama campaigned heavily on net neutrality during his 2008 election, but has been largely silent on the issue since the FCC voted to kill it with new Internet service rules that would create "fast lanes" for content providers that can afford to pay for them; those that can't will be hit with slower traffic.

Obama echoed one of progressives' major criticisms of the new rules at the U.S. Africa Business Forum in Washington on Wednesday, saying he is in favor of "an open and fair Internet."

"One of the issues around net neutrality is whether you are creating different rates or charges for different content providers. That’s the big controversy here," he said. "You have big, wealthy media companies who might be willing to pay more but then also charge more for more spectrum, more bandwidth on the Internet so they can stream movies faster or what have you. And I personally -- the position of my administration, as well as I think a lot of companies here is you don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to various users."

The president said an open Internet will allow for "the next Google or the next Facebook" to enter the arena, and succeed.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that he, too, opposes paid prioritization -- but critics argue that his proposal will create just that. The FCC is an independent entity within the executive branch and is free to ignore the weight of the president's opinion. Google and Facebook have both come out against allowing providers to charge for priority services, a policy that would cut deeply into their margins.

"There’s another problem, though — there are other countries — and I think this is what you were alluding to — that feel comfortable with the idea of controlling and censoring Internet content in their home countries, and setting up rules and laws about what can or cannot be on the Internet. And I think that that not only is going to inhibit entrepreneurs who are creating value on the Internet; I think it’s also going to inhibit the growth of the country generally, because closed societies that are not open to new ideas, eventually they fall behind," said Obama.

HuffPost previously compiled a primer on the brief history of the net neutrality debate:

In 1996, the Telecommunications Act updated the original 1934 Communications Act, New Deal legislation that prevented monopolies from dominating the means of communication. In 2002, under pressure from the cable and phone industry, the Bush administration's FCC classified broadband as an "information service" rather than as a "telecommunications service." It is, quite plainly, a telecommunications service, but the FCC deemed it otherwise for the sole purpose of avoiding the legislative requirement that neutrality rules be written to protect the Internet from control by major corporations.

By 2005, the phone and cable companies had begun publicly discussing their plans to subvert net neutrality. "Why should [companies] be allowed to use my pipes?" Southwestern Bell CEO Ed Whitacre told BusinessWeek. "The Internet can't be free in that sense ... for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!"

Earlier [in 2011], the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC could not regulate broadband as an "information service." It had already ruled in 2005 that the FCC could classify broadband as a "telecommunications service." So, following the 2010 court ruling, the FCC announced plans to reclassify broadband as what it actually is.

Telecom lobbying went into high gear. The GOP launched an attack arguing that Obama was attempting to take state control of the Internet, as if regulating broadband the way that phone lines are regulated amounted to nationalization.

The telecom lobbying effort soon came to focus around an effort to pressure FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski not to reclassify broadband, but to leave it unregulated until Congress acts. The telecom position has the virtue of making perfect sense on the surface: Congressional action is of course superior to regulatory action, all things being equal. But all things are very far from equal.

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