Obama Revives The Net Neutrality Fight

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 11 2014 @ 12:49pm

Yesterday, the president threw his full support behind the principle of net neutrality, urging the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet services as a public utility:

Obama’s argument explicitly rejects proposed rules that FCC considered earlier this year to allow paid prioritization, a plan by which content providers can make deals with ISPs to get faster service to their websites. (Those rules are still under consideration and have not been finalized.) The White House proposal calls for no paid prioritization, no blocking of any content that is not illegal, and no throttling of Internet services, where some customers have their Internet speeds artificially slowed down. The proposal also asks that any new rules include mobile broadband, which is already the primary access point for many users.

As the president himself reminds us, the FCC does not answer to him, and does not have to listen to (or even consider) his suggestions. So there are no guarantees that any of these rules will even come to pass. However, an endorsement by the White House would be the strongest push yet toward an FCC that treats all Internet traffic as equal.

Phillip Bump calls this politically smart:

[S]iding with people against Comcast (which actually is subject to a higher standard on neutrality than other companies for now) and other cable providers is hardly a political misstep. (Do you love your cable company? Right. Thought so.)

It also helps repair relationships with the tech community that were splintered in the wake of the National Security Agency’s spying revelations.

When leaks from Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the agency was infiltrating social networks, it put firms like Facebook and Google in an awkward commercial position. The administration reached out to the companies as it planned revisions. But an embrace of net neutrality —backed by big companies that don’t want to have to pay more to push out their content — is a big win for for tech. It could use one; its marquee midterm race went poorly.

Jason Koebler weighs the reaction from net neutrality proponents:

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.

David Dayen detects a message here about what kind of lame-duck president Obama plans to be:

As for the president, this maneuver signals that he’s not looking to be a caretaker in his final two years, at least on discrete issues. Net neutrality activists correctly reasoned that getting Obama involved would provide the surge of support they needed for reclassification, and they targeted him as much as the FCC over the past several months. Obama showed that he listened, and it should give some solace to other groups wanting him to use his executive authority. In other words, Obama’s action on net neutrality is very good news for those who want him to move on immigration.

Nick Gillespie remains staunchly opposed to what he calls a dumb policy:

The most likely outcome is that regulators will freeze in place today’s business models, thereby slowing innovation and change. That’s never a good idea, especially in an area where new ways of bundling and delivering content are constantly being tried. It’s a historical accident that cable companies, who back in the day benefited from monopoly contracts with local governments, have morphed into ISPs. That will not always be the case, as the rise of Verizon (originally a phone company) and Google’s rollout of its own fiber system, attest. Just a few years ago, the FCC frowned on the cell-phone company MetroPCS’s discount plan that allowed access to the World Wide Web but denied users multimedia streaming. The FCC and Net Neutrality proponents thought that was a bad thing. Customers on a budget had a different opinion.

James Pethokoukis also opposes Obama’s proposal:

Keep in mind that the Obama plan would give the FCC, according to R Street’s Steven Titich, “the widest range of alternatives for economic and technological regulation of broadband.” And, of course, make the agency an even more attractive target for the lobbying class. …

All this, then, just to lock in “net neutrality” – a situation that does not exist and never existed — despite the risk of limiting new investment and innovation, Obama wants the FCC to treat the internet like a public utility. But the Obama proposal is based on flawed model of how the internet operates. Half of the internet’s traffic comes from just 30 content providers such as Google and Facebook.  And they’ve already made special arrangements by plugging directly into the ISPs. “Fast lanes” already exist. Again, R Street’s Titch: “There’s nothing about network neutrality to “preserve.” A regulation that pretends there is would serve to remove an economic incentive needed to ensure that broadband infrastructure is sufficiently robust to support the demands contemporary applications have placed on it.”

But Adam Clark Estes argues that opponents are overstating the level and nature of regulation Obama is proposing here:

If the idea of using an 80-year-old law to regulate a super futuristic communications technology worries you, you’ll be very glad to know that the president’s got your back. In his statement, there is this brief but very important line: “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.” (Emphasis mine.)

So the first part of it is the big reveal. Obama wants the FCC to treat broadband companies as common carriers. Telephone companies are also a common carriers regulated under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. However, this does not mean that Obama wants the FCC to apply all of the same regulations for telephones to broadband internet.

Meanwhile, here’s Ted Cruz’s response:

Yglesias tries to translate:

What, if anything, that phrase means is difficult to say. But its political significance is easy to grasp. All true conservatives hate Obamacare, so if net neutrality is Obamacare for the internet, all true conservatives should rally against it.

The asinine analogy prompted Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman to create this explainer cartoon.