TRENDING NEWS: Monday Nov 10th, 2014
Obama says FCC Should Reclassify Internet as a Utility
By Jacob Kastrenakes [The Verge]
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."
There's been a growing battle around protecting net neutrality — the principle that all internet traffic, no matter what it is or where it came 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 those rules in a way that it actually had authority over, so it's been trying to create new rules that it can actually 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 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.
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. 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.
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.
You can read President Obama's full statement here: