President calls for tough net neutrality rules as FCC considers delaying recommendations

Obama's plan would treat the Internet as a utility

WashINGTON, D.C. - President Barack Obama has a very clear message when it comes to net neutrality: Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

The president Monday called for the “strongest possible” net neutrality rules after reports leaked that FCC commissioner Tom Wheeler was considering delaying Internet regulation guidelines until 2015.

Earlier this year, the FCC began the process of drafting new Internet guidelines, with advocates pushing the chairman to protect net neutrality, the practice of treating all Internet traffic equally.

After an initial plan leaked which would have allowed paid prioritization of Internet content, the commission released a set of guidelines and asked for public feedback. It received close to 4 millions responses during the summer. Wheeler had stated he planned to release a final proposal by Nov. 20 to allow for a vote by the commission at the end of year.

But the Wall St Journal reported late Sunday that the FCC was considering delaying its guidelines until next year. Wheeler and the commission have been trying to walk a tightrope between ensuring all Internet traffic continues to be treated the same while also crafting a set of rules that appease Internet service providers’ (ISPs’) desire for a light regulatory touch.

According to the WSJ report, the latest plan the commission is considering would still allow for so-called Internet fast lanes while also expanding the FCC’s regulatory authority over Internet providers. Staff lawyers are concerned such a complicated plan would be unlikely to stand up to legal challenges and say they need more time to ensure it is defensible in court.

So what’s the president’s plan? In his statement, Obama outlines four “bright-line” rules that would ensure that cable and phone companies would not have the ability to act as gatekeepers or restrict what someone can do or see online. They are:

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 only 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, the president is urging the FCC to use Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would give the commission the authority to regulate Internet service providers as a utility and allow for stricter government oversight. Not surprisingly, the president already is getting blowback for that approach.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, released a statement on Twitter calling net neutrality the Obamacare of the Internet. (If you’re confused about what that means, you’re not the only one). 

CTIA, a telecom industry trade group, also released a statement calling Title II an "antiquated common carrier regulation” and said its implementation “would impose inappropriate regulation” and “threaten mobile providers’ ability to invest and innovate.”

As an independent regulatory agency, the FCC has the final say on what any proposed Internet regulations might look like. Chairman Wheeler responded to the president’s plan in a statement, saying in part “we will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding. We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act."

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