President Barack Obama called Monday for the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband Internet service as a utility, a move that would spark a major legislative and legal battle between lawmakers, advocates and the telecommunications industry and sets up a showdown with one of the President's own appointees.
"I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act," Obama wrote, a move that would be necessary for the federal government to enforce Obama's proposed Internet content rule fulfilling four principles: preventing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking access to legal content, keeping them from "throttling" some types of Internet traffic, apply net neutrality rules between ISPs and the rest of the Internet, and banning paid-prioritization, the practice by which some content would be stuck in a "slow lane" unless a higher fee is paid. Those rules, Obama said, should also be applied to mobile broadband networks.
Obama's call for broadband reclassification came in a video and open letter posted on the White House website further reaffirming the President's support of net neutrality, the idea that Internet providers should treat all content as equal in terms of speed. Obama first stated his support for the principle since when he was a presidential candidate in 2007.
Obama's comments Monday follow public outcry over FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's most recent net neutrality proposal, which many say could allow ISPs to create “fast lanes" and "slow lanes" for some Internet content. Wheeler, an Obama nominee and former telecom lobbyist, offered that proposal after an appeals court in January struck down his agency's prior net neutrality rules. The FCC is also reportedly considering a hybrid approach that would apply strict regulation on Internet traffic between providers, while putting a lighter touch on "last-mile" traffic between consumers' providers and their homes.
"Today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality," Obama said. "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."
Still, Obama admitted his power to steer the FCC's decision-making process is limited.
"The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone," Obama added. "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."
"As an independent regulatory agency we will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding," Wheeler said in a Monday statement. "We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act."
"The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do," he added.
As a candidate, Obama pledged that his nominees to the FCC would be of similar mind when it comes to net neutrality, a pledge that has gone soft as all three Obama-appointees to the commission backed the "fast lanes" proposal. Obama's statement follows intense public pressure on the White House to speak up in favor of net neutrality, and raises the stakes for Wheeler and other FCC commissioners as they seek to finalize a new rule on the matter.