Obama urges FCC to reclassify internet amid net neutrality protests
The president’s remarks, posted to the White House website early Monday by way of both a video message and a written statement are among the most straightforward yet spoken by Obama after long advocating for net neutrality but publically doing little in the face of the FCC’s looming decision on the matter.
In the coming months, the FCC is expected to finally announce its determination on what rules will be put in place pertaining to how Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, deliver content to customers across the US. Following months of discussions, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to back a “hybrid” proposal that would “separate broadband into two distinct services: a retail one, in which consumers would pay broadband providers for Internet access; and a back-end one, in which broadband providers serve as the conduit for websites to distribute content,” according to a Wall Street Journal exclusive published recently. Much to the chagrin of open internet advocates, however, such a purported plan would not outright eliminate the ability for ISPs to create a multi-tier system in which the speed of that distribution differs depending on price.
"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," Obama said Monday.
The campaign to reclassify ISPs as common carriers, like utility companies, has intensified in recent weeks on the eve of Wheeler’s impending unveiling of the new proposal, evidenced on Friday by coordinated demonstrations at a dozen cities across the US waged by activists equipped with signs inscribed with slogans such as “Save the Internet.” Outside the White House last Friday, protesters gathered to ask the president to take action before the FCC, and two days earlier an international day of action dubbed the “Million Mask March” saw activists take to the streets in cities around the world to ask for, among other things, a free and open internet.
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Obama has previously advocated for maintaining an open internet while on the campaign trail and in office, but the reality of achieving as much has waned in recent months following a landmark decision last January in which the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC found the FCC had erred by insisting ISPs must give customers equal access to all lawful content on the web. Activists responded to the ruling at the time by petitioning the president to “direct the FCC to reclassify Internet service providers as ‘common carriers’ which, if upheld, would give the FCC a distinct set of regulatory tools to promote net neutrality.” After garnering more than 105,000 signatures, however, the White House said in a statement last February that the final decision on the fate of net neutrality lies in the hands of the FCC, a an independent agency albeit one with an Obama appointee, Wheeler, at its helm.
On Monday, the president again acknowledged “The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone.” Nevertheless, Obama said he wants Wheeler and company to adopt “simple, common-sense steps that reflect the Internet” as it exists already, and described last January’s appeals ruling as “Unfortunate.”
"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.
“So the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, 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. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone — not just one or two companies."
Moments before the president’s statement was published to the White House early Monday, protests were still occurring, at least in Washington, DC. There outside of Wheeler’s house, a group of net neutrality activists showed up shortly before 7 a.m. and blockaded his driveway with a sit-in demonstration that at one point led to a five-minute long conversation with the chairman before he ultimately retired realizing he would be unable to leave in his car.
“We’re blockading Tom Wheeler’s driveway because he’s made it clear that when he goes to work, he’s not working for the public, he’s working for Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, the companies that used to pay his salary when he was a lobbyist for the cable industry,” Kevin Zeese, co-director of the group Popular Resistance, said outside the Georgetown resident early Monday. “The future of the internet is a life or death matter for marginalized people all over the world. We cannot in good conscience allow this corrupt official to carry on with business as usual.”
Yet as word circulated soon after concerning the president’s plea to the FCC, activists fell short of expressing outright optimism and asked Obama to see to it that Wheeler acts on the voice of not just the commander-in-chief, but the millions of Americans passionate about protecting net neutrality.
"At this point it should be unthinkable that Tom Wheeler would defy both the American public *and* the President, but we hope President Obama is prepared to demote him if he doesn’t move forward in good faith with Title II reclassification,”Fight for the Future co-director Holmes Wilson said early Monday.