President Obama has come out in support of reclassifying internet service as a utility, a move that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to enforce more robust regulations and protect net neutrality. "To put these protections in place, I'm asking the FCC to reclassifying internet service under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunications Act," Obama says in a statement this morning. "In plain English, I'm asking [the FCC] to recognize that for most Americans, the internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life."
THE DECISION IS STILL UP TO THE FCC
There's been a growing battle around protecting net neutrality — the principle that all internet traffic, no matter what it is or where it comes from, should be treated equally — ever since the FCC's original protections were struck down in court earlier this year. Those protections were able to be struck down because the commission didn't make the rules in a way that it actually had authority over, so it's been trying to create new rules that it will definitely be able to enforce. It hasn't chosen to use Title II so far, but net neutrality advocates, now including President Obama, have been pushing for its use.
Regulating internet service under Title II would mean reclassifying it as a utility, like water. This means that internet providers would just be pumping internet back and forth through pipes and not actually making any decisions about where the internet goes. For the most part, that's a controversial idea in the eyes of service providers alone. It means that they're losing some control over what they sell, and that they can't favor certain services to benefit their own business. Instead, providers would be stuck allowing consumers to use the internet as they want to, using whatever services they like without any penalty. If that sounds pretty great, it's because that's basically how the internet has worked up until now.
Obama's support of Title II reclassification comes at a critical time for net neutrality. While the FCC is in the process of making new rules to protect net neutrality, those rules would actually allow internet providers to offer so-called "fast lanes," effectively defeating the purpose of net neutrality in the first place. During a public comment period over the summer, Americans spoke out loudly against the proposal, but it's not yet clear what the commission plans to do in response. FCC chair Tom Wheeler has said that he isn't entirely opposed to Title II, but that's appeared to be only if other methods won't work first.
NETFLIX MIGHT GET WHAT IT WANTS UNDER OBAMA'S PLAN
In a statement outlining what he'd like internet service to look like, Obama highlights four major points: internet providers wouldn't be allowed to block websites offering legal content, they wouldn't be allowed to intentionally slow down or speed up certain websites or services based on their own preferences, and they wouldn't be able to offer paid fast lanes. Obama also asks that the FCC investigate and potentially apply net neutrality rules to the interconnect points that sit between service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, and content providers, like Netflix. That's potentially huge news for Netflix, which has been arguing that this area of the internet should be covered by net neutrality all year.
Obama also asks that the commission apply these rules to mobile internet service. That would be a significant change as well, as mobile service hasn't previously been subject to the same net neutrality rules that wired connections have been. That said, Obama does leave a significant amount of room for exceptions in the wireless space, potentially allowing some amount of throttling so that providers can manage their networks when under heavy use. Notably, his proposal also asks the FCC not to enforce rate regulations on internet service.
There's still the big question of whether the FCC will listen to Obama's recommendation and whether Congress will actually allow it. Obama's support of Title II reclassification may provide the political support that the commission needs to justify such a rule change, but with Republicans wary of regulation taking over the Senate, it's an increasingly risky proposition. The FCC may set the rules, but there's plenty that Congress can do to sway its decisions. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has already tweeted out, "'Net Neutrality' is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government."
Following Obama's announcement, the FCC responded with a statement that doesn't really move the needle — and, in fact, basically says that it'll lump Obama's opinion in with everyone else's. "As an independent regulatory agency we will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding," chairman Wheeler says. "We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act."
Obama is well aware that he doesn't set the policy here, but his statement points out to the commission that this policy change is well supported by the public. "The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately the decision is their's alone," Obama says. "But the public has already commented nearly 4 million times asking that consumers — not the cable company — gets to decide which sites they use."
The Hill reports that Republicans are already moving toward an overhaul of the Communications Act after last week's election, potentially streamlining the rules used to regulate different types of services, like phone, TV, and internet. Exactly what those changes will mean are unclear, but net neutrality advocates are reportedly concerned that it could move toward a deregulation of the communications industry.
In its statement, the FCC also confirms reports that it's been examining taking a "hybrid" approach to net neutrality. It's believed that the commission's hybrid plan would place heavy regulations on interconnect points — making content providers like Netflix happy — while still allowing some degree of fast lanes for consumers.
Ultimately, the FCC just says that it needs more time. While it had hoped to have net neutrality rules in place by the end of the year, it's clearly found that its current plans aren't what people want. It now says that it needs time to determine what legal obstacles would come up should it use a hybrid approach or full Title II reclassification. "The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options," Wheeler writes, "the more it has become plain that there is more work to do."
You can read Obama's full statement below:
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.
When I was a candidate for this office, I made clear my commitment to a free and open Internet, and my commitment remains as strong as ever. Four years ago, the FCC tried to implement rules that would protect net neutrality with little to no impact on the telecommunications companies that make important investments in our economy. After the rules were challenged, the court reviewing the rules agreed with the FCC that net neutrality was essential for preserving an environment that encourages new investment in the network, new online services and content, and everything else that makes up the Internet as we now know it. Unfortunately, the court ultimately struck down the rules — not because it disagreed with the need to protect net neutrality, but because it believed the FCC had taken the wrong legal approach.
The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone. I believe the FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online. The rules I am asking for are simple, common-sense steps that reflect the Internet you and I use every day, and that some ISPs already observe. These bright-line rules include:
- 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.
If carefully designed, these rules should not create any undue burden for ISPs, and can have clear, monitored exceptions for reasonable network management and for specialized services such as dedicated, mission-critical networks serving a hospital. But combined, these rules mean everything for preserving the Internet’s openness.
The rules also have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device. I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.
To be current, these rules must also build on the lessons of the past. 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. 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.
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. 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.
Investment in wired and wireless networks has supported jobs and made America the center of a vibrant ecosystem of digital devices, apps, and platforms that fuel growth and expand opportunity. Importantly, network investment remained strong under the previous net neutrality regime, before it was struck down by the court; in fact, the court agreed that protecting net neutrality helps foster more investment and innovation. If the FCC appropriately forbears from the Title II regulations that are not needed to implement the principles above — principles that most ISPs have followed for years — it will help ensure new rules are consistent with incentives for further investment in the infrastructure of the Internet.
The Internet has been one of the greatest gifts our economy — and our society — has ever known. The FCC was chartered to promote competition, innovation, and investment in our networks. In service of that mission, there is no higher calling than protecting an open, accessible, and free Internet. I thank the Commissioners for having served this cause with distinction and integrity, and I respectfully ask them to adopt the policies I have outlined here, to preserve this technology’s promise for today, and future generations to come.