Obama: Throttling, Fast Lanes, and Website Blocking Should Be Illegal

Obama's 'strongest possible rules' on net neutrality have one big compromise for big telecom.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

Screengrab: White House

Reaffirming his support for net neutrality,  President Obama today urged the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband services as a Title II service, and called for "bright-line rules" against throttling, paid prioritization, and website blocking.

Last month, Obama said that he "unequivocally" supported net neutrality, but critics of the president said he had never strongly called on the FCC to preserve rules that would prevent "internet fast lanes" from being created. That changed today as he put in no uncertain terms that he favors the "strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality."

In a statement and accompanying video, Obama said he wants these rules to focus on four specific things: 

  • "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."

To do this, Obama said the FCC should reclassify internet services as a utility, but should do it in a way that has slightly different rules than say, an electric company. Obama's suggested rules focus specifically on net neutrality and service interruption, not prices, a concession to big telecom companies.

"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," he said.

The intro to Obama's video had this nod to what a world without net neutrality would look like. Screengrab: White House

Forbearance is the legal mechanism by which the FCC restrain itself from enforcing regulations on the books—and with rate controls a particularly onerous part of Title II regulations, forbearing that portion may be the only way for Title II regulation to gain support from ISPs.

In other words, it looks like Obama believes that, at the moment, there's no reason to artificially control the prices of broadband services—something that probably was never realistically on the table, anyway. Many have made the argument that broadband services in this country are monopolistic, but actually going out and declaring that—which a call for rate regulation would essentially be—was probably always a bridge too far.

Also huge: Obama said that the "FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well."

At first blush, it looks like  many of the most net neutrality supporters are happy with Obama's announcement. Tim Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, who has organized many of the net neutrality protests called it "huge." Tim Wu, who invented the idea of net neutrality, called it "100 percent on target." The Electronic Frontier Foundation also backed Obama's statement.

Of course, in the end, this is the FCC's decision, and chairman Tom Wheeler has already proposed a  mostly maligned "hybrid" proposal that is apparently already being thrown out because of the backlash it received when its existence leaked more than a week ago. In that proposal, paid prioritization could occur between content providers and ISPs: Netflix, for instance, could pay to have its content delivered faster to consumers. In his statement, Obama said that's no good.

While Obama's proposal is also a hybrid of sorts, he specifically noted that the FCC should have the power to "apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the internet." 

Given the results of last week's elections, Obama is a lame duck president at this point and so can make statements like this without really worrying about getting attacked from the right.  Some of his opponents there have said that a Title II classification would result in a "government takeover" of the internet. (Forbearing price regulation would seem to be a concession to this camp.) So now, while Obama can say whatever he wants, whether anyone listens to him is another question altogether.