TIME technology

FCC Chair Signals He Won’t Follow Obama’s Lead on Internet Rules

Barack Obama, Tom Wheeler
In this May 1, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama shakes hands with then nominee for Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin—AP

"What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

A top federal regulator is considering a split with President Barack Obama over a controversial Internet policy, according to a new report, in what could set up a big fight between the White House and the Federal Communications Commission.

The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources who were present, sounded a different note than Obama when addressing a room full of tech executives after the President made his statement Monday. “What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told executives from several major tech companies, including Google and Yahoo. “What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby.”

Obama on Monday made his strongest statement yet in support of Net Neutrality, the principle that all content should be treated equally online. However, the FCC is an independent agency that’s not required to follow the President’s lead on policy matters.

Read more at the Washington Post

TIME legal

Comcast Just Trolled Us All on Net Neutrality

National Cable and Telecommunications Association Cable Show
The Comcast Corp. logo is seen as Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., right, speaks during a news conference at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Cable Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Comcast says it agrees with President Obama on net neutrality. It doesn't.

Oh, Comcast.

The country’s largest Internet provider wants you to know that it “agrees with the President’s principles on net neutrality,” as a headline on a Tuesday afternoon blog post from EVP David Cohen reads. Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet content should be treated equally in terms of speed, a concept that’s in jeopardy because of a Supreme Court decision at the beginning of this year that struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 Open Internet rules enforcing it.

It’s an attention-grabbing headline from Comcast, a company that net neutrality advocates are making out to be among the most nefarious of the bad guys in the ongoing open Internet debate. Right off the bat, it looks like Comcast is agreeing with President Obama, who on Monday unexpectedly came out in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet as a utility. That’s a move big telecoms like Comcast should hate, because it would give the Federal government more authority to regulate their business. So what’s the deal?

It turns out Comcast’s post is just clickbait.

Cohen’s post claims Comcast agrees with Obama’s goals for an open Internet — no blocking content, no slowing down content, more transparency about network practices and no paid fast lanes. Cohen goes on to say that Comcast disagrees with the President on how those rules should be enforced. There’s a wide gulf here: Obama only made news Monday because he called for the Internet to be reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act, a bold move that would categorize Internet providers as “common carriers” and trigger an all-out legislative and judicial war between telecoms, the FCC and advocacy groups.

Comcast, meanwhile, says the Internet should fall under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which gives the government far less authority to regulate Comcast’s business. So there’s no real agreement here at all.

That aside, the problem with Comcast’s Title II/Section 706 logic is that the FCC tried to use non-Title II authority to enforce its Open Internet rules starting back in 2010. But the courts ruled that wasn’t a valid approach, because the agency had previously and explicitly decided not to classify broadband under Title II — meaning the agency starved itself of the regulatory power it would need to legally enforce those rules. Since that ruling, the FCC under Chairman Tom Wheeler has been scrambling to find a way to enforce the Open Internet rules without running afoul of the courts.

Comcast, in its blog post, maintains that the courts left the FCC a way of doing that without triggering the Title II nuclear option — but the reality is that scenario is looking increasingly unlikely. Instead, many observers, including the President, see the FCC’s best path forward as reclassifying broadband providers as common carriers under Title II, but practice what’s called “forbearance,” or use only the regulatory power afforded under Title II the agency deems necessary to enforce its Open Internet rules. How comfortable you feel with that idea, of course, entirely depends on how much you trust a government agency to practice regulatory restraint.

It’s also worth pointing out that Comcast’s blog post makes it a point to advertise that it already practices the Open Internet rules for which Obama’s arguing — but it’s also legally obligated to do so through 2018 as a condition of its merger with NBCUniversal, a fact that’s missing from the post. Comcast also makes a dubious-at-best claim that it doesn’t “prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes,” even though Netflix is paying Comcast (and, since, other Internet Service Providers) to more quickly deliver Netflix’s content to Comcast subscribers. Whether or not the Comcast/Netflix deal violates “net neutrality” per se is a subject of debate, but that’s splitting hairs: It’s hard to see the arrangement as anything other than a “paid fast lane.”

TIME technology

Conservatives Overwhelmingly Back Net Neutrality, Poll Finds

A poll released today by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance (IFBA), found that conservatives voters like the idea of net neutrality.

Within a few hours of President Barack Obama’s call on Monday for regulators to ensure strict “net neutrality“—rules requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all Internet content equally—the Republican establishment’s hair caught on fire.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called net neutrality the “Obamacare for the Internet“; House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it was “a textbook example of the kind of Washington regulations that destroy innovation and entrepreneurship”; and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Lousiana) said Obama’s attempt to “impose net neutrality regulations on the Internet” was a “radical effort” with “no justification.” To list just a few of the howling reactions.

But according to a poll released today by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance (IFBA), a pro-net neutrality association of businesses, Republicans and conservatives outside of Washington D.C., seem to think that the idea of net neutrality is actually a pretty good one.

Some 83% of voters who self-identified as “very conservative” were concerned about the possibility of ISPs having the power to “influence content” online. Only 17% reported being unconcerned. Similarly, 83% of self-identified conservatives thought that Congress should take action to ensure that cable companies do not “monopolize the Internet” or “reduce the inherent equality of the Internet” by charging some content companies for speedier access.

The poll did not ask participants about specific methods of regulation, like whether the Federal Communications Commission ought to reclassify consumer broadband Internet as a utility under “Title II”—as Obama has called for—or whether it should use “Section 706″ of the Telecommunications Act, another statute relating to broadband infrastructure.

The poll, explained Andrew Shore, the executive director of IFBA, was designed to “get to the heart” of net neutrality by asking voters whether they believed that the government should prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from charging Internet content companies for special access to Internet customers.

The poll also asked whether voters were concerned that big ISPs—like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T—could influence the government and elected officials in their favor; 72% of self-identified conservatives said yes.

Last year, Comcast—the nation’s biggest ISP by a long shot—spent more on lobbying than any other company in the U.S. except Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor that makes the B-2 bomber. Of the $16.4 million it has spent on lobbying and campaign contributions this year, large chunks have gone to the National Republican Congressional Committee ($104,000); the National Republican Senatorial Committee ($87,975); and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ($85,750), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Boehner, who was among the first to slam Obama’s call for net neutrality regulations yesterday, has received $107,775 from Comcast—nearly twice as much as any other other member of Congress. Boehner also holds stock in Comcast, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But big Internet content companies which are in favor of net neutrality regulations, like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Ebay, are hardly wallflowers in this debate. So far this year, Google spent $3.9 million in campaign donations and $13.7 million on lobbying.

(The Vox Populi poll surveyed 1,270 active voters on Oct. 26/27, with a margin of error of +/-2.8%.)

Read next: Inside Obama’s Net Neutrality Power Play

TIME The Brief

#TheBrief: The Battle for Control of the Internet

Explaining what 'net neutrality' really means to you — and the future of the Internet

President Obama took to the White House YouTube channel Monday to call for broadband internet providers to be regulated as a utility — a move that signals his support for the concept of “net neutrality“.

What’s net neutrality? It’s the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast or Verizon should treat all content equally. It might not sound like an inspirational cause, but the question of who has rights to control the Internet affects almost everyone.

Cable companies are clamoring for the right to give faster speeds to certain clients, while many content providers are in favor of keeping all data on the Internet on equal footing.

Watch #TheBrief to find out what’s at stake.

TIME technology

How To Neuter the Net Revolution

Computer Hacker Spy
Getty Images

Thomas W. Hazlett is H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University.

The Internet can't innovate living under the rules of a 1970s telephone company.

“The Internet revolution has ended just as surprisingly as it began,” writes Professor Lawrence Lessig. “None expected the explosion of creativity that the network produced; few expected that explosion to collapse as quickly and profoundly as it has.” This dirge captures the fears of those who today march for “Network Neutrality” regulation, which would require that all broadband Internet Service Providers (ISPs) treat all data traffic equally.

Of course, Lessig wrote these words in 2001.

Lessig’s policy pleading then was for “open access,” a precursor of net neutrality. The rules, alas, were not imposed. And yet the Internet did not die in 2001. Indeed, it went into overdrive. Whatever discriminatory power the ISPs possessed, Google arose, with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and the Apple App Store right behind. The unregulated Net rocketed into mobile markets, enveloped smartphones, e-readers and tablets, and grew into what the 2010 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) described, in glowing terms, as “the Open Internet.”

But the pro-regulation offensive gives no quarter: The Open Internet, developed under laissez-faire, is superb. And it now needs regulatory protection.

In a statement issued by the White House, President Obama strongly endorses, in unequivocal language, not the girly man measures previously considered, but a muscle play: Title II. The bureaucratic reference, which dates to the Communications Act of 1934, would affix your great grandfather’s public utility rules — the ones crafted when households had “party lines” and David Sarnoff was the best known “tech innovator” — on the 21st Century Network of Networks.

But we’ve seen this movie — streamed before our very eyes — already. Old-fashioned public utility rules were in place back in the 1960s and 1970s when computer networks began to emerge — and Title II blocked them. The telephone carrier regulations, with monopoly franchises and rate regulation, controlled most everything. Rules were written and enforced to exclude new rivals and the promising networks they envisioned.

The Title II mandates were gradually peeled away, allowing for new “enhanced services” that escaped Title II. The result was spectacular. Looking back in 1999, the Federal Communications Commission regaled its handiwork. An insightful paper by agency expert Jason Oxman, The FCC and the Unregulation of the Internet,” explained that the government’s key contribution was to clear out legacy mandates. “Market forces have driven the Internet’s growth, and the FCC has had an important role to play in creating a deregulatory environment in which the Internet could flourish.”

Oxman explains, for example, that the dial-up operators that kicked off public computer networks initially faced Title II regulations that required the ISPs to pay per-minute tolls to local phone companies, which threatened to stymie the entrants. A forward-looking 1983 reform eliminated this requirement by moving the ISPs from Title II carriers to deregulated enhanced service providers. The “absence of per-minute measured usage charges assessed on ESPs had enormous implications for the Internet,” all of them positive.

More recently, Voice-over-Internet services confronted the prospect of being Title II road kill. The reflex, at both the state and federal level, was to regulate VoIP like POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). The licenses, fees, taxes and other Title II requirements would have crushed the upstart. That is why noted VoIP pioneer, Jeff Pulver, co-founder of Free World Dialup, Vonage, and Zula, waged a war against phone regulation, culminating in victory: the FCC’s 2004 “Pulver Order.” The entrepreneur now rails against Network Neutrality due to “the madness of applying 70-year-old Title II telecom regulations to IP communications.” With such rules, neither dial-up nor VoIP might have happened. “Title II makes innovation illegal,” he wrote recently.

At bottom, the idea that the Internet is everywhere neutral, that all bits are treated equally, is false. Take the polar extreme: AOL’s “walled garden” of the mid-1990s. It restricted users to just the content that the ISP offered. It soon gave way to less restrictive models offered by competitors, but, as Ken Auletta has written, it “helped popularize the web — and…. attracted 34 million paid subscribers in 2002.”

Today, the Internet thrives, but all networks manage traffic. Customers benefit when malware is blocked or sensitive interactive communications (say, VoIP) take precedence. I’m typing this article at a hotspot in a supermarket (no need to pity me), and the User Agreement I just clicked “I Agree” to forbids many legal activities. I may not, for instance, “Transmit any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, ‘junk mail,’ ‘Spam,’ ‘chain letters,’ ‘pyramid schemes’ or any other form of solicitation… [or] Use the Service for excessively high volume data transfers.”

These “non-neutral” restrictions, imposed by my current ISP, do not threaten me — nor economic innovation, consumer welfare, or the life of the Internet. Title II would.

Thomas W. Hazlett is H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University, where he also heads the Information Economy Project. He formerly served as Chief Economist of the Federal Communications Commission.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME technology

Inside Obama’s Net Neutrality Power Play

President Barack Obama’s decision to call for the strictest regulation of consumer broadband Internet is the result of months of internal White House debate over how to push the Federal Communications Commission to propose stronger Open Internet rules, government and industry insiders familiar with the process tell TIME. The Monday announcement comes days before an FCC deadline on the issue.

Obama’s surprise statement reverberated across the worlds of policy, business and technology, and appeared to shift the momentum in the long-running war over the future of the Internet. It drew a defensive response from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, drove down cable stocks, and juiced the debate between Open Internet advocates and the nation’s biggest cable and phone companies, like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T.

The question now is whether it will be enough to shift Wheeler and the FCC off their current, more cable-friendly path ahead of a deadline next week for the commission to publish revised rules for consumer broadband Internet. The revised rules would need to be published by Nov. 19 in order for the FCC to vote on them at an upcoming December meeting.

Obama’s statement is a shot across the bow for Wheeler, a former telecom lobbyist and one of the president’s top fundraisers in 2008 and 2012. For the last year, Wheeler has resisted proposing Open Internet rules that would prevent broadband service providers from collecting fees from content companies in exchange for special access to Internet users—an arrangement formally known as “paid prioritization,” but often dismissed pejoratively as “Internet fast lanes.”

The FCC’s latest rules, proposed in April, were widely panned by Open Internet advocates, including powerful Internet companies, like Google, Amazon, and eBay, for allowing for such paid prioritization agreements.

Over the last six months, Obama has increasingly distanced himself from Wheeler and the FCC’s proposed rules. In May, the White House said only that it would “carefully review [the FCC's] proposal…in hopes that the final rule stays true to the spirit of net neutrality.” But by October, Obama’s rhetoric was almost impatient.

“My appointee, Tom Wheeler, knows my position,” he said during a speech in California on Oct. 10. “I can’t—now that he’s there, I can’t just call him up and tell him exactly what to do. But what I’ve been clear about, what the White House has been clear about is, is that we expect whatever final rules to emerge to make sure that we’re not creating two or three or four tiers of Internet. That ends up being a big priority of mine.”

Two weeks after Obama’s October speech, Wheeler floated another idea for regulating consumer broadband: a “hybrid approach” that would be slightly stricter on broadband service providers but still allow for paid prioritization agreements. The proposal was again panned by Open Internet advocates for allowing Internet fast lanes while calling them something else.

Frustration with Wheeler’s apparent unwillingness to ban paid prioritization altogether spurred some White House aides to encourage the president to take a more active role in the debate, sources who have been involved with the process tell TIME. For the last several months, Obama and his staff have been studying all of the options available to the FCC to protect an open Internet, according to a White House official.

Tim Karr, who works with Free Press, an Open Internet advocacy organization, said that Obama’s choice to make such a bold proclamation now—just a week after the mid-term elections put Democrats on the defensive—is a powerful signal that his administration will be “willing to take bold executive actions even in a lame duck role.”

It’s also an indication of the influence of the so-called Internet community, which gained political prominence after successfully overturning the SOPA/PIPA legislation in 2011 and, this year, flooding the FCC with four million comments on its proposed rule. “[P]hones have been ringing off the hook at the White House for weeks,” wrote Craig Aaron, the president and CEO of Free Press in a statement.

The White House’s announcement Monday, which took the form of both an open letter and a video, calls on the FCC to reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—a move that would give the FCC explicit legal authority over Internet service providers and that most Open Internet advocates say is necessary in protecting future Open Internet rules from inevitable court challenges from the telecom industry. In January, a federal appeals court threw out the FCC’s previous net neutrality rule on the grounds that the agency did not have the legal authority to regulate broadband Internet.

On Monday, Wheeler responded to the White House’s call with a rather defensive note, pointing out that the FCC is an independent agency, before launching into a long explanation of the legal complexity posed by reclassifying consumer broadband services under Title II.

The sentiment was echoed by big Internet service providers, Republican lawmakers, and anti-regulatory advocates, all of whom argued that classifying broadband Internet under Title II is a “nuclear option” that will destroy innovation and undercut private sector investment in Internet infrastructure.

“Reclassification under Title II, which for the first time would apply 1930s-era utility regulation to the Internet, would be a radical reversal of course that would in and of itself threaten great harm to an open Internet, competition and innovation,” a Verizon spokesperson said in a statement.

Comcast vice president David Cohen was similarly alarmed. “To attempt to impose a full-blown Title II regime now, when the classification of cable broadband has always been as an information service, would reverse nearly a decade of precedent, including findings by the Supreme Court that this classification was proper,” he said in a statement.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who is expected to become the Senate Majority Leader next year, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) all published statements warning that Title II was a mistake. “The Commission would be wise to reject it,” McConnell said.

“Today’s proposal is a step backward and would slow innovation if implemented,” said Mike Montgomery, the executive director CALinnovates, a San Francisco-based coalition that works on public policy in technology. He added that while “protecting consumers and innovation is a noble cause… we should be creating new laws to deal with new technologies.”

Meanwhile, Open Internet advocates pooh-poohed such concerns. “We are looking for rules that are not burdensome to the Internet’s users,” said Michael Beckerman president and CEO of the Internet Association, an advocacy group that represents Amazon, Facebook, AOL, Netflix, and dozens of other large Silicon Valley firms. “We want to ensure that you don’t need to hire a lawyer or pay a fee” to ensure that your content is reaches all Internet users equally.

Beckerman also warned that while a bit of celebration is in order, the biggest battles—getting the FCC to actually write strong rules—have yet to be fought. “Even if the FCC reclassifies consumer broadband service under Title II, the resulting rules could still allow for paid prioritization agreements,” he said. “We’ll be watching the details closely.”

Read next: All Your Questions About Obama’s Internet Plan Answered

TIME Net neutrality

All Your Questions About Obama’s Internet Plan Answered

President Obama wants a say in the future of the Internet

President Barack Obama on Monday leapt from the sidelines to the scrum of a fierce ongoing battle over the future of the Internet. Here’s what you should know about the President’s plans:

1. Before you start, why should I even care about this wonky “net neutrality” debate?
Because you’re using the Internet right now. It’s hard to overstate how big an impact whatever comes of this debate will have on the future of how we connect with one another, do business and so on.

2. What is net neutrality, anyway?
At its simplest, it’s the idea that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) should treat all Internet content as equal in terms of speed. It’s become a major issue because some of our biggest ISPs are also media companies, like Comcast, which now owns NBCUniversal. Advocates warn that opens up a scenario where an ISP like Comcast could slow down, say, Netflix, in an attempt to get users to view Comcast’s own video offerings instead, or the ISPs could ask Netflix for money to get its content to users faster than that of upstart rivals that have less cash on hand, stifling competition.

Others, however, say enforcing net neutrality puts an undue burden on businesses, arguing that the free market will keep things fair without the government getting involved — though broadband competition in the U.S. is severely lacking.

3. Why would Obama get involved now?
On the surface, it looks like the man who Obama appointed to run the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Tom Wheeler, isn’t as dedicated to net neutrality as Obama might like.

A little history: the FCC enacted net-neutrality rules for broadband Internet back in 2010, leading Verizon to quickly sue the agency. An appeals court struck down those rules in January, essentially saying that the FCC couldn’t enforce them without reclassifying broadband Internet as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, a move that would open those services to increased federal regulation. The FCC had the chance to get broadband under Title II’s umbrella back in 2002, but decided instead to call it an “information service,” a decision that made it much harder for the agency to regulate it.

All that history leaves Wheeler, a former telecoms lobbyist, with few options. He’s tried to craft a middle-of-the-road approach, but advocates say his idea would still let ISPs create so-called “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for Internet content, thereby violating net neutrality. Another recently leaked proposal had the FCC planning a sort of hybrid approach, but pretty much everybody on both sides of the debate hated the idea.

Obama is getting closely involved as the FCC has struggled to come up with a solution and, notably, after Democrats lost control of the Senate in this year’s midterm elections. Net neutrality was a major Obama campaign promise, and he’s likely thinking about what his legacy will be when his time as President is up about two years from now.

4. What’s Obama’s plan exactly?
Obama’s plan is fourfold: stop ISPs from blocking access to legal content; prevent them from “throttling” some types of Internet traffic; apply net-neutrality rules between ISPs and the rest of the Internet; and ban paid prioritization of content, which involves a content provider paying an ISP to get its offerings to your home faster than other content is delivered.

However, the courts have made it pretty clear the FCC can’t do any of this without first triggering the so-called “nuclear option” of reclassifying broadband as a common carrier utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. That’s why Obama is also calling for the agency to make that move.

4. Why is Title II the “nuclear option?”
It would set off a legal and legislative fight on a scale that hasn’t been seen in the tech policy world in decades. It’s pretty much a law of nature that big businesses will fight tooth and nail against any increased government regulation, and Title II is exactly that: a move that would allow the FCC more control over corporate behemoths like Comcast and Verizon. The lobbyist and advocate group emails were flying just as Obama’s statement went live, foreshadowing a major fight in Congress and probably the courts as well.

Notably, however, Obama is also calling on the FCC to practice “forbearance,” or the idea that the government shouldn’t enact regulations beyond what it sees necessary to enforce his four-point plan. Title II, however, would allow the FCC to enact regulations beyond Obama’s plans. Expect that point to be a major talking point as the debate develops — opponents of Title II reclassification will argue the federal government will, by its nature, enact as many regulations as it possibly can, adding undue burden to businesses. They’ll also say that federal regulation can’t possibly move fast enough to adequately govern something as ever changing as the Internet.

5. Does the President have any real power here?
The FCC is an independent agency, and although Wheeler was appointed by the President, what the FCC does is up to Wheeler and the agency’s four bipartisan commissioners. It’s hard to say how much of an impact the Oval Office will have on the decisionmaking process.

6. Where do we go from here?
Even though Obama can’t force the FCC to do anything, his getting involved in such a major way brings a wonky tech-policy debate right to the fore. Some 4 million Americans have already contacted the FCC to offer their opinions about net neutrality, setting an agency record. It’s easy to see more Americans will take the time to learn about — and form an opinion on — the debate now that the President’s made headlines about it.

One possible scenario is that Wheeler and Obama have this whole time been playing a little good cop/bad cop. Wheeler could’ve made his proposals knowing full well they would drum up serious public opposition, leaving Obama free to swoop in and ride that public sentiment to come out in favor of Title II. Wheeler, then, could follow the President’s lead knowing he has the Oval Office’s support in triggering the nuclear option — a move he might’ve wanted to make all along.

Wheeler, meanwhile, responded to Obama’s statement Monday with one of his own that essentially boils down to this: the FCC needs more time.

“I am grateful for the input of the President and look forward to continuing to receive input from all stakeholders, including the public, members of Congress of both parties, including the leadership of the Senate and House committees, and my fellow commissioners,” Wheeler said. “Ten years have passed since the commission started down the road towards enforceable Open Internet rules. We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online.”


Obama Signals Opposition to ‘Fast Lanes’ in Support of Net Neutrality

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks during an event at Cross Campus, on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, in Santa Monica, Calif. Evan Vucci—AP

"I think it is what has unleashed the power of the Internet and we don't want to lose that or clog up the pipes"

President Barack Obama reiterated his support for the principle known as net neutrality Thursday, signaling he would be opposed to the proposed Federal Communications plan to create a so-called Internet “fast-lanes.”

Speaking at a town hall at a technology co-working space in Santa Monica, Calif., Obama said a level playing field on the Internet was one of his earliest campaign promises. “On net neutrality, I made a commitment very early on that I am unequivocally committed to net neutrality,” Obama said, earning a round of applause from the tech-minded crowd. “I think it is what has unleashed the power of the Internet and we don’t want to lose that or clog up the pipes.”

“I know that one of the things people are most concerned about is paid prioritization, the notion that somehow some folks can pay a little more money and get better service, more exclusive access to customers through the Internet: that is something I’m opposed to,” Obama said. “I was opposed to it when I ran and I continue to be opposed to it now.”

The FCC proposal would require Internet service providers to maintain a baseline of service, but would allow some companies to pay for preferential service, creating a two-tiered Internet that essentially undermines the premise of net neutrality. The issue has stretched thin a 2008 campaign promise Obama made when he said, “I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality.”

Though Obama pledged that the issue would be front-and-center on his mind when nominating commissioners to the regulating agency, the current controversial proposal had the backing of three commissioners he appointed, including chairman Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the telecom industry.

Thursday’s remarks were the President’s most detailed comment on the issue of net neutrality since the FCC proposal was announced earlier this year. Obama did not specifically weigh in on the proposal, but said he expected the final rule to be consistent with his campaign promise.

“Now the FCC is an independent agency,” Obama said. “They came out with some preliminary rules that I think the netroots and a lot of folks in favor of net neutrality were concerned with. My appointee, Tom Wheeler, knows my position. I can’t—now that he’s there, I can’t just call him up and tell him exactly what to do. But what I’ve been clear about, what the White House has been clear about, is that we expect that whatever final rules to emerge, to make sure that we’re not creating two or three or four tiers of Internet. That ends up being a big priority of mine.”

TIME technology

Most Americans Don’t Want Internet ‘Fast Lanes,’ Poll Finds

Spike Mafford—Getty Images

A particularly timely finding, as the public comment period for Federal Communications Commission's proposed rule on net neutrality draws to a close

Two-thirds of Americans don’t like the idea of big web companies paying Internet service providers (ISPs) to deliver their content more quickly via so-called “fast lanes” on the Internet, according to a recent poll.

CALinnovates, a San Francisco-based coalition that works on public policy in technology, asked people earlier this month about whether they thought rules should be in place “prioritizing Internet traffic – such as one company willing to pay over another.” Well over half of the respondents–63%–replied either that all traffic should be treated equally or, if priority gets placed, the reason behind the prioritization shouldn’t be because one company pays for it.

The results of the poll, released Thursday, arrive just as the end of the public comment period draws near for the Federal Communications Commission’s sharply criticized proposed rule on net neutrality, the idea that ISPs cannot discriminate against certain web content. The deadline is Sept. 15.

The FCC’s proposed rule on net neutrality has come under fire in recent months, resulting in the Commission’s receipt of a record-breaking 1.4 million public comments.

On Sept. 10, a coalition of tech companies, consumer advocates and public policy groups organized a “day of action” called Battle for the Net, in protest of the FCC’s proposed rule, which generated nearly 2.5 million calls and emails to members of Congress and more than 700,000 comments to the FCC. That coalition advocates for the FCC to categorize ISPs under “Title II” of their statute, which would give the agency the legal jurisdiction to strictly regulate the broadband industry.

When it came to the concept of “net neutrality” within CALinnovate’s poll, however, Americans responded more ambivalently, CALInnovates Executive Director Mike Montgomery told TIME in a conference call. Two-thirds of those polled would like “new laws to deal with fast-paced changes that occur in technology,” but three-fourths weren’t sure the Federal government is capable of keeping up with the pace of technological innovation.

The Internet Association, an umbrella group that includes Google, Amazon, Ebay, Facebook and other web giants, also opposes the FCC’s proposed rule, but like many of those polled by CALinnovates, stops short of advocating for a specific solution.

“Protecting an open Internet, free from discriminatory or anticompetitive actions by broadband gatekeepers should be the cornerstone of net neutrality policy,” said Michael Beckerman, the President and CEO of the Internet Association. “The FCC should leave all of its legal authorities on the table to accomplish this goal.”

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