Obama backs tough net neutrality rules, says 'no' to Internet slow lanes

Credit: flickr/Steve Jurvetson

The Internet shouldn’t be split into “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” according to President Barack Obama, who's come out in favor of reclassifying broadband as a phone-like utility.

In a statement, Obama said that Internet services—including both wired and wireless Internet—should fall under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Reclassifying broadband this way would prevent providers such as Comcast from charging fees to companies like Netflix in exchange for faster delivery speeds.

“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,” Obama said.

Why this matters: The Federal Communications Commission has been considering how to enforce net neutrality without Title II reclassification and the legal backlash from ISPs that would surely follow. But so far, consumer advocates have slammed the FCC’s cautious approach for being too weak on paid prioritization. More recently, the FCC has considered a “hybrid” approach that would reclassify some aspects of broadband, but not others—though this was panned by advocates and service providers alike. While Obama doesn’t have any actual power here, coming out strongly in favor of tough rules on fast and slow lanes could embolden the FCC to do the same.

No “light regulatory touch” for you

Obama’s proposal is essentially a tougher version of the net neutrality rules that the FCC tried to put in place without Title II classification a few years ago. Those rules prohibited wired Internet providers from blocking certain Websites and discriminating against any lawful content. They also required both wired and wireless networks to be transparent about how they managed their networks.

In January, an appeals court struck down those rules, effectively saying that the FCC couldn’t enforce them without reclassifying broadband. In his statement, Obama subtly acknowledges that the FCC tried to go the light regulation route, but was defeated in court by ISPs, thus necessitating the reclassification approach.

His new proposal extends the anti-blocking rules to wireless networks. It also makes clear that ISPs can’t divide the Internet into fast lanes and slow lanes, or set up paid prioritization schemes for services like YouTube or Amazon. Consumer advocates have feared that prioritization would discourage innovative new services, as they wouldn’t be able to compete with deep-pocketed incumbents unless they paid a toll for faster delivery speeds.

Notably, Obama suggests forbearing from rate regulation, so that providers would still be able to charge whatever they feel they can for Internet service. The proposal also allows for reasonable network management and prioritization of certain critical services, such as hospitals.

Still, those provisions seem unlikely to pacify ISPs. While the FCC hasn't even commented yet on Obama’s statement, Verizon is already threatening to sue.

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