Barack Obama has long been identified as an informed and often ardent supporter of net neutrality, so it is no surprise that his first major initiative after the 2014 elections was to mount a strong defense of a free and open Internet. Unfortunately, his appointees to chair the Federal Communications Commission have failed to deliver on the president’s promise. The current chairman has been busy peddling proposals that could lead to a two-tier Internet, where content from corporate and political elites moves in the fast lane while noncommercial and grassroots communications—and citizens—get stranded in the slow lane.
Obama explicitly rejected compromises that might undermine the free flow of information with his November 10 call for the FCC to “implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.” That’s a vital first step, but he cannot stop there. Obama must make the fight for net neutrality central to the final two years of his presidency. He cannot force the FCC, an independent agency, to do the right thing, but he can surely influence the debate, rallying Americans to pressure FCC chair Tom Wheeler to abandon what the media-reform network Free Press decries as “a convoluted, half-baked plan that extends protections to big companies—but not to ordinary Internet users.”
Obama’s November 10 statement got to the heart of the matter by declaring that “Internet providers have a legal obligation not to block or limit your access to a website. Cable companies can’t decide which online stores you can shop at or which streaming services you can use. And they can’t let any company pay for priority over its competitors.” His statement also embraced the right fix: the FCC should reclassify Internet services under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would treat broadband providers the same way as other telecommunications companies—allowing for tech-savvy regulation in the public interest.
“I am a strong supporter of net neutrality,” declared candidate Obama in 2007. His position then marked him as a candidate who was on the right side of history and a rapidly evolving technological revolution. It excited not just young voters but everyone who has come to understand that our democracy is at stake in the debate about whether the Internet will serve the public or the profiteers. The people who saw Obama as their champion in 2008 and 2012 are still active and engaged: several million have already contacted the FCC directly to express their opposition to “slow lanes” and Internet-provider censorship.
The danger of monopoly manipulation of our digital destiny was heightened by Wheeler’s wrongheaded approach—and it has not yet been averted. But the president has begun to tip the balance by explicitly aligning himself with those who are defending what the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls “our most basic freedoms to communicate and create.”
With a Republican Congress bent on advancing the agenda of many would-be monopolists, there will be nothing easy about this struggle. But if Obama uses his bully pulpit to reframe the debate as one about that freedom to communicate and create, he will expose the absurdity and corruption of the arguments against net neutrality. That will make it simpler to preserve an open and democratic Internet. It will also signal, on this issue and perhaps others, that the president does not just “get” what’s at stake, but is prepared to rally Americans to fight for the future.