Despite President Obama’s promise to defend a free and open Internet from corporate control, his appointees to the Federal Communications Commission ended the year by embracing a version of Net Neutrality that advocates accurately refer to as “toothless” and “bitterly disappointing.”
Obama disappointed his base again and again in 2010, with compromises, some would say "betrayals," on issues ranging from health-care reform to banking regulation to tax policy to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the abandonment of a fight to maintain a free and open Internet—as opposed to one that is defined by the profiteering of telecommunications conglomerates—may well be the most disappointing betrayal, as candidate Obama had been so very clear and uncompromising on the issue.
As a contender for the presidency in 2007 and 2008, Obama identified himself as an ardent supporter of Net Neutrality, declaring that he would he would "take a backseat to no one in my commitment to net neutrality."
Obama really did seem to get it.
"I am a strong supporter of net neutrality," he said during the campaign. "What you’ve been seeing is some lobbying that says [Internet providers] should be able to be gatekeepers and able to charge different rates to different websites…. so you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you’d be getting rotten service from the mom-and-pop sites. And that I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there…. as president I’m going to make sure that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward."
But Obama’s appointee to chair the FCC, Julius Genachowski, worked with telecommunications-industry lobbyists to develop a “Net neutrality" rule that bears scant resemblance to what candidate Obama promised. And in late December it was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Genachowski and two Democratic appointees (who wanted stronger protections but could not move the chairman) voting for the proposal. Two Republican appointees voted against it, arguing that even this plan goes too far.
The problem with Genachowski’s “fix” is that, while it goes by the name “Net Neutrality,” it is at best “Net Neutrality-lite.” What that means is that, while there will be some FCC regulation, there will not be enough to prevent telecommunications corporations from offering differing qualities of access to websites and applications—an “information superhighway” for those who can pay, a “digital dirt road” for those who cannot.
The rule is so riddled with loopholes that it’s become clear that this FCC chairman crafted it with the sole purpose of winning the endorsement of AT&T and cable lobbyists, and not defending the interests of the tens of millions of Internet users.
“For the first time in history of telecommunications law the FCC has given its stamp of approval to online discrimination,” complains Tim Karr, who analyzed the deal for the Save the Internet Coalition, and who warns that the FCC’s move threatens to usher in the era of "AT&T’s Internet."