TIME Newsmaker Interview

Former Obama Tech Czar: “Fast Lanes” Consistent with Net Neutrality

Barack Obama's former top technology advisor at the White House backs a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to allow online "fast lanes," saying that they can be managed in a way that protects the open Internet for everyone else.

Aneesh Chopra, President Barack Obama’s former chief technology officer, says the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed rules on net neutrality are in line with what the White House supported in 2010.

The proposed rules, released last Thursday, have been highly controversial because they allow large, rich companies to pay Internet service providers to deliver their content more quickly and at a higher quality.

Open Internet advocates who support “net neutrality,” the idea that all content on the Internet should be treated equally, argue that such provisions, known as “managed services,” are akin to creating “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” on the Internet. They argue that if incumbent companies are allowed to pay for better delivery of their content, then small, shoestring start-ups that can’t afford to pay-up will be disadvantaged, when their content is delivered more slowly, at a lower quality, or made to buffer endlessly.

Chopra says that critique misunderstands the problem. The point of the net neutrality rules is not to ban companies from purchasing access to faster, better service, he said; the point of the rules is to ensure that managed service agreements happen above board.

“In my personal opinion, the provision of managed services is not inconsistent with the principles of an open Internet, provided there is a robust level of oversight ensuring that we are not degrading the Internet service offerings for the rest of us,” he said. “You can’t just say, ‘Go forth and build managed services, good luck.’ You’ve got to have a robust review cycle to make sure that they are living up to standards.”

Chopra, who served at the White House from 2009 to 2012, had a front row seat when the FCC passed net neutrality rules in 2010. The D.C. Circuit Court overturned those rules in January of this year.

In an interview with TIME last week, Chopra weighed in on the FCC’s most recent proposed rules on net neutrality, what sort of role the White House played in 2010, and what should happen next. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

TIME: From your perspective, how has the president approached net neutrality and how has the process has evolved since 2009?

ANEESH CHOPRA: I’ll start with the basic principle, which is that the president cares deeply about an open Internet and has stated so repeatedly… I’d then say that…it’s important to remember that the 2010 rules had some of the same features that seem to have caused some of the controversy [today]. The idea of managed services…is present in those rules, provided that they were not unduly harming the viability of a more robust Internet for everyone else. …[The idea of managed services] is not inconsistent with the idea of an open Internet.

How is allowing for managed services not the same as creating a fast lane? Or does it create a fast lane and that’s ok?

No, no. Let me be specific about a use case. Let’s take the work of telemedicine [where a patient can video chat their doctor]… There are higher order requirements for a telemedicine visit involving a patient and a doctor – quality of service, making sure there aren’t as many obstructions – because people’s lives and medical judgments are on the line. …Today there’s sort of an expensive, complicated private network approach to getting doctors and hospitals to communicate back with patients…and the question is, why not use the Internet? But if you want to built it on top of the Internet you want to have a slightly higher order service. And that should be accommodated provided you’re not cutting the capacity of the core Internet backbone in order to do that…

But how can you allow certain industries—whether it’s medicine, education, entertainment—to access better, faster Internet on a higher order tier, when it’s all the same tube? How does that not reduce the capacity for the rest of us?

I think the challenge here is really the idea that this is not a fixed pie. If I said to you, “There are four lanes and now I’m going to introduce these services I’m describing into one lane, and leave you only three lanes for everything else,” then that may not meet the open Internet standard because you’re degrading service for the rest of us in order to accommodate these other services… But if the healthcare industry understands and has the ability to deliver the services it needs to over the Internet versus the truly private network, that introduces hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue a year into the system….

And that’s going to demand more investment—

Yeah… The core of the business model for these providers is they estimate the demand for their service. If the market grows, if there’s more revenue coming into the network, companies can reinvest more capital to expand and improve and invest… I just mentioned health care as one example…[but] how many industries in the U.S. economy have fully explored the Internet as a vehicle for a communication and engagement and development? There’s a heck of a lot more to do and it might be the case that the introduction of services of this sort might create a lot more capital to expand the Internet capacity and even build even more…

But since most ISPs enjoy regional monopolies, we have to take whatever speed they give us. What motivation do they have to invest in increasing the capacity of the Internet for the rest of us?

You’re preaching to the choir. That’s why we need to have these rules in place to protect the consumer. You’re making the case for me. That is why we need an open Internet rule…

But if your open Internet rule allows companies to pay ISPs to prioritize their service, then what interest do the ISP themselves have to expand the whole pie—to make sure those “other three lanes” don’t get more clogged?

Well, because FCC chairman [Tom Wheeler] has said that he will not allow the degradation of a robust Internet for all of us in order to accommodate that new service. Unless I misread his comments, I think Chairman Wheeler spoke almost exactly to that issue by suggesting that he will review on a case-by-case basis whether these managed services are achieving the principles of an open Internet for all of us. I think [we need] a robust rule that the chairman writes that allows for him to essentially govern or monitor or regulate these capabilities…

You’re raising a great question. And believe me, I’m a huge—the president was deep on this and i was doing my job to help advise him on these issues where we were allowed to advise. The FCC’s independent, so obviously they are a separate matter. But my personal outside of the government opinion is that…the provision of managed services is not inconsistent with the principles of an open internet provided there is a robust level of oversight on ensuring that we are not degrading the internet service offerings for the rest of us. So you can’t have one without the other. You can’t just sort of say, ‘Go forth and build managed services, good luck.’ You’ve got to have a robust review cycle to make sure that they are living up to the standards. Now, if my memory is right… I believe in the 2010 order it was a reasonableness standard.

“Commercially reasonable.”

Right. So the question is, “What’s the phrase that triggers the kind of review and oversight?” I don’t know the lawyerly answer to that, but I am confident they’ll have something that will give the chairman a role in ensuring that any of these services that I am describing are not at the detriment, are not at the expense of a robust Internet… I am extraordinarily bullish on the need for new open Internet rules. And I think what we’re talking about here are really mechanisms that preserve an open Internet while acknowledging that there are yet unknowns about the birth of new products and services that could leverage the Internet backbone to improve our lives.

Let’s rewind a couple of years to when you were at the White House. There are so many stakeholders in an issue like this, how does the White House institutionally hear them all out and try to develop its own recommendations? Who was meeting with whom? What was the process inside the White House in order to keep the president informed?

So first and foremost, there are very strict rules to follow with regards to how the White House and the executive branch can involve themselves in the FCC’s activities. We file ex parte filings, for example, if the administration has comments it would like to file. Typically we’d do so through the head of the [National Telecommunications and Information Administration]. So official comments on behalf of the executive branch to the FCC we publish through that mechanism.

Every visitor to the White House is publicly available on the visitor logs, so you can search who visited the president and who visits Aneesh Chopra and who visits others in the executive branch. My role was to provide as much advice and counsel to the president and to the ultimate process, which is NTIA and Larry Strickland, who would communicate our administration’s position to the FCC. So we were very careful not to directly engage the FCC on matters on which they have an active proceeding. That stuff is all done formally through channels that were communicated clearly to us by the general counsel.

How involved was the president just in terms of getting briefed on this—how big of an interest did he take in this subject?

I would say that it’s safe to characterize the president’s interest and passion on this issue as genuine and personal. He knows it. He’s talked about it. He talked about it not just domestically but internationally. He made a comment about it when he was in China. He knows the issue well. He is a firm believer in it. And my hope is that the policy that the FCC will carry forth will live up to the president’s vision of an open Internet. And I’m confident from what I’ve seen that the FCC is moving down a productive path.

Did you and the president disagree on these issues?

Generally speaking, we don’t comment on specific conversations with the president so I honor that.

Not specific conversations, but do you and the president see eye to eye on net neutrality?

I fully supported the president’s position wherever I could and did everything in my power to ensure that the policy activities that I worked on reflected the president’s commitments to these issues and to the best of my ability worked to see his vision come to life on a whole range of topics, including net neutrality.

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