18 August 2019
A sign supporting net neutrality stands outside the Federal Communications Commission headquarters in Washington, DC, in May. Photo: Bloomberg
A sign supporting net neutrality stands outside the Federal Communications Commission headquarters in Washington, DC, in May. Photo: Bloomberg

Obama pressures FCC to tighten rules on net neutrality

United States President Barack Obama said internet service providers should be regulated more like public utilities to make sure they grant equal access to all content providers, Reuters reported.

“Simply put: No service should be stuck in a ‘slow lane’ because it does not pay a fee,” Obama, currently in Asia, said in a statement released by the White House on Monday. “That kind of gate keeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the internet’s growth.”

In backing “net neutrality”, a platform in his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama touched off intense protests from cable and telecoms companies and Republican lawmakers.

Shares of major internet service providers Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc. fell sharply after Obama said ISPs should be reclassified to face stricter regulations and banned from striking paid “fast lane” deals with content companies, the report said.

The president also said the Federal Communications Commission’s new rules should be applied equally to mobile and wired ISPs.

Nearly four million comments flooded the FCC this year after chairman Tom Wheeler proposed new internet traffic rules in May that would prohibit the ISPs from blocking any content but allowed content companies to strike “commercially reasonable” deals to ensure their websites and applications load smoothly and swiftly.

Although Wheeler had pledged to police any such paid-prioritization deals that would harm consumers, public interest groups worried that his proposed rules would create “fast lanes” for the companies that pay up and relegate others to “slow lanes”.

ISPs say they have not and will not strike paid prioritization deals but have balked at the prospect of being regulated more like public utilities.

“Reclassification, which for the first time would apply 1930s-era utility regulation to the internet, would be a radical reversal of course,” Verizon Communications Inc. said in a statement.

Verizon in January won a federal court case challenging the FCC’s previous set of net neutrality rules, which allowed “commercially reasonable” discrimination of traffic but indicated the FCC would disapprove of pay-for-priority deals.

The court supported the commission’s authority to regulate broadband access but said the agency was applying stricter rules to ISPs that did not jibe with the way the FCC classified them, which is as an information service.

Consumer advocates have for years pressed the FCC to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service as a way to have more oversight authority, but ISPs have pledged they would fight the matter in court.

Verizon on Monday said a “gratuitous” move to reclassify would probably not stand up in court, while AT&T said it would expect to participate in a legal challenge.

Wheeler, Obama’s friend and former major fundraiser, on Monday reiterated that he, too, opposed internet fast lanes or harmful prioritization deals but said that approaches including reclassification of ISPs to regulate them more strictly raised substantive legal questions.

“We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online,” Wheeler said.

Obama and other White House officials acknowledged that the FCC, as an independent agency, would ultimately shape the regulations. But Republicans lawmakers quickly seized on Obama’s encroachment, days after their party won control of both houses of Congress in a midterm election largely viewed as a repudiation of the president’s policies.

“Net neutrality is Obamacare for the internet,” said Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. “It puts the government in charge of determining internet pricing, terms of service, and what types of products and services can be delivered.”

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