The Internet must remain open and accessible to all so that the "next Google and the next Facebook" have the opportunity to succeed, President Barack Obama declared on Tuesday, in his strongest comments on net neutrality since the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to craft new Open Internet rules.
"One of the issues around Net Neutrality is whether you are creating different rates or charges for different content providers," Obama said in response to a reporter's question at the US Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. "That's the big controversy here. You have big, wealthy media companies who might be willing to pay more and also charge more for spectrum, more bandwidth on the Internet so they can stream movies faster."
"I personally, the position of my administration, as well as a lot of the companies here, is that you don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to different users," Obama added. "You want to leave it open so the next Google and the next Facebook can succeed."
Net neutrality supporters say that Obama's comments appear to contradict a proposal put forward by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler that opens the door to so-called “paid prioritization," in which broadband providers could strike special deals with deep-pocketed Internet companies for preferential treatment, as long as such arrangements aren't "commercially unreasonable."
Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet should be an open platform, and broadband companies shouldn’t be able to interfere with your right to access content and services online. Without net neutrality, advocates argue, disruptive startups like Skype, YouTube, and Netflix might have been snuffed out by broadband providers.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama declared that he would "take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality, because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out, and we all lose. The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way."
Free Press and Demand Progress, two advocacy groups that support net neutrality, seized on Obama's latest comments, which were first reported by Bloomberg BNA, as evidence of a gap between the president's position and Wheeler's position.
These groups and their allies are trying to convince the FCC to reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, a move that would give the agency greater authority to ensure that broadband providers don't block or discriminate against online services—two principles that are at the heart of net neutrality.
"The president gets why real Net Neutrality matters, but unfortunately his FCC chairman still doesn't," Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said in an emailed statement. "The only way to prevent the sort of differentiation and discrimination the president spoke out against is to reclassify broadband access providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act."
Thirteen US Senators, 37 members of the House of Representatives, and dozens of companies, trade associations, investment firms, and public interest groups support Title II reclassification, according to a list compiled by Marvin Ammori, a prominent tech policy lawyer and net neutrality advocate. The nation's largest broadband companies vehemently oppose reclassification, arguing that it would stifle investment.
Wheeler has repeatedly declared that he is "a strong believer in the importance of an Open Internet," and has even gone so far as to suggest that his views on net neutrality have been mischaracterized. "If someone acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have-nots,' we will use every power at our disposal to stop it," Wheeler said at an industry trade show earlier this year.
Although Wheeler has asserted that he won't "hesitate to use Title II," many observers believe that he wants to avoid the inevitable political firestorm that would result from reclassification.
A FCC spokesperson declined to comment on Obama's remarks.
Wheeler’s current approach would do "the opposite of what the president says he wants," according to Aaron. "It would encourage individualized negotiations and allow new kinds of discrimination. It would strand the next Google or Facebook in the slow lane."
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave Title II supporters a political boost when he wrote in a letter to public interest groups that he will "lead the fight to protect any Open Internet rules promulgated by the FCC against the inevitable Republican attack against such rules."
“Chairman Wheeler has the support of the people and his own party's leaders in Washington have created the political space necessary," said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, an advocacy group that supports Title II reclassification. "The only thing standing in the way of a truly free and Open Internet is sycophancy to big corporations who want to squeeze Americans for more profit. It's time for Chairman Wheeler to decide who the FCC works for – the people or the corporations."