Barack Obama ran for the presidency in 2008 as an outspoken supporter of a free and open Internet. “I am a strong supporter of net neutrality,” announced candidate Obama, who showed that he knew what he was talking about by adding that any move that “gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different websites…destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there.”
Unfortunately, Obama’s appointees to chair the Federal Communications Commission have bumbled the job. Miserably. The current chair has for the better part of the past year been peddling various proposals public-interest groups warn could lead to the development of a two-tier Internet with “fast lanes” for paying content from corporate and political elites while stranding non-commercial and grassroots communications—and citizens—in the slow lane.
That is the opposite of what the president has said he wants since he began addressing the issue in 2007. And on Monday he made his sentiments crystal clear, declaring that:
An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.
Net neutrality has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation—but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.
That’s not what FCC chair Tom Wheeler has been proposing over the past several months. In recent weeks, it has been reported that Wheeler is interested in developing an exceptionally complex “hybrid” plan that public-interest groups explain “would split the Internet in two, creating divisions in Internet access and enshrining the notion that people or companies sending information have protections against discrimination, while users have none against their own ISP (Internet service provider).” Such a move would, a proposal that would, according to the Electronic Freedom Foundation, “leave the door open for all kinds of discriminatory practices.”
Obama is recommending that the FCC avert that danger by reclassifying Internet services under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, a move that would treating broadband providers the same way as other telecommunication companies and allow for regulation in the public interest. This won’t be popular with the telecommunications conglomerates that would like to be monopolies. And it will be attacked by Republicans (and perhaps even some Democrats) in Congress who do the bidding of some of the country’s most powerful corporations.
But as the president notes, the point of regulation should be to protect the public interest in free and open communications, as opposed to the monopolist interest in profiteering.
“For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business,” the president’s statement argues. “That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information—whether a phone call, or a packet of data.”
Public-interest groups hailed the president’s intervention, recognizing it as an critical development—though not the final one—in the long struggle to preserve a free and open Internet. “This is an important moment in the fight for the open Internet. President Obama has chosen to stand with the us: the users, the innovators, the creators who depend on an open internet,” explained the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Corynne McSherry.
But Craig Aaron, the president of the media reform network Free Press, warned, “The struggle for real Net Neutrality isn’t over.” While the president’s action is “a major step in the right direction,” citizens must recognize that “to protect the open Internet that Americans demand, the FCC now must act and reclassify ISPs under Title II.”
To that end, the president has made a specific argument to the FCC and to the American people—using his bully pulpit to advocate for a tech-savvy approach that uses reclassification is smart, effective way. His proposal recognizes that rules established by the commission “have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device” and argues that “the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.”
With this in mind, the president outlines absolute standards—what he calls “bright-line rules”—that can and should be upheld:
No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player—not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP—gets a fair shot at your business.
No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others—through a process often called “throttling”—based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs—the so-called “last mile”—is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
This is the approach that has been championed by civil rights, open society and media reform groups for years, an approach that more than 4 million Americans have told the FCC to embrace. They have gotten pushback from telecommunications giants and from the defenders of special interests in Congress. And that pushback will continue.
But the president is right to say that “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. 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. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone—not just one or two companies.”