Obama Steps In For Net Neutrality

by Chris Tognotti

How exactly do you think of the internet? It might seem like a silly question — like the life-changing worldwide information network that it is, you might be thinking! But in truth, the way the government classifies the internet is of the utmost importance, and President Obama is urging the Federal Communications Commission to mull it over. Basically, Obama thinks the FCC should classify the internet as a utility, a change that would allow for easier protection of net neutrality. The ongoing health of net neutrality took a series hit earlier this year, when the FCC under chairman Tom Wheeler announced they'd approve the creation of so-called internet "fast lanes," allowing service providers to open up or cinch off connectivity speeds on a case by case basis.

Basically, allowing some companies to buy into the "fast lanes" means that other are going to fall victim to the relative "slow lanes" — Netflix looking a little choppy, perhaps? The upshot is that a company like Netflix would have to pay extra the ensure quick streaming speeds for its customers, and as you've probably gleaned, those costs could easily trickle down to you as the consumer. Back in early October, Obama expressed his opposition to such a system at a town hall meeting in Santa Monica, California.

My appointee, Tom Wheeler, knows my position. 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 whatever 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.
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As detailed by Vox, the origin of this distinction was set forth in the mid '90s, when the U.S. Congress altered communications law to create two distinct categories, telecommunications services and information services.

Basically, despite the fact that early internet ran more or less exclusively through phone lines, and despite companies providing paid internet services like they do any other form of telecommunication, the internet is classified as "information services," which functionally exempts it from most of the FCC's regulatory oversight. This is a status that internet service providers love, but Obama is arguing that the internet should be reclassified as a regulated "telecommunications services" utility, under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, passed and signed by President Clinton administration back in 1996.

If this were to actually happen, it could go far in reversing the withering trajectory that net neutrality is currently on, and that could be a huge boon not just to consumers, but to people invested in the idea of the internet as a shared public space, and ultimately, a human right. If that sounds strange, well, it's really not — the United Nations called for the internet to be considered a human right over three years ago.

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Of course, there's no telling whether the FCC would ever consider making a move like this. On its face, it seems improbable — Wheeler has been slowly moving towards a tiered internet speed system since taking over the chairmanship last year, leading many to allege he's too cozy with cable and wireless interests. He was, after all, a top lobbyist for the industry before taking the job, which sounds suspiciously like the sort of thing Obama campaigned against in 2008.

Wheeler's proximity to the industry he's meant to regulate led to a hilarious dustup between himself and HBO host John Oliver months ago, culminating in Wheeler exasperatedly insisting "I'm not a dingo" to a questioning reporter. Admittedly, this makes more sense if you've seen the segment from Last Week Tonight.

This is something to definitely keep your eye on — it would be a major victory for advocates of net neutrality were Obama's calls to be heeded, though as he emphasized in October, he can't very well order Wheeler around now that he's FCC chairman. It is true, however, that there's more time than anticipated for Obama and the public to make its case to the FCC, as its planned raft of new internet regulations have been pushed back to 2015.

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