WASHINGTON — The first battle line drawn between President Obama and a resurgent Republican party is not, it turns out, over immigration.
Instead, the two sides started out fighting over the future of the Internet.
Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to create "the strongest possible rules" to force broadband providers to treat all Internet data the same, whether from giant media corporations, tiny start-ups or consumers.
He moved the once-esoteric issue of network neutrality front and center as a crucial policy issue that demands national attention.
"An open Internet is essential to the American economy and, increasingly, to our very way of life," Obama said Monday in a two-page statement.
"By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known," he said.
Without new regulations, supporters said, a broadband provider such as Verizon Communications Inc. or Time Warner Cable Inc. could alter the quality of Internet delivery, favoring content that it owns and degrading content from competitors or those that lack negotiating clout.
Obama went into extensive detail about what he wanted the FCC to do to keep online content flowing without interference from the broadband companies that deliver it. He called for "bright lines" to keep networks neutral: no blocking of legal services, no slowing of data speeds for certain users, no paid priority treatment and increased transparency.
"Ever since the Internet was created, it's been organized around basic principles of openness, fairness and freedom," Obama said in a video on the White House website.
"There are no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get to access. There are no toll roads on the information superhighway," he said. "Abandoning these principles would threaten to end the Internet as we know it."
Obama's call for tough regulations on both land-line and wireless networks is opposed by one of Washington's most powerful and effective lobbies — the telecommunications industry — and its Republican allies. It also comes barely a week after his fellow Democrats suffered major midterm election losses.
Still, Obama seized on an issue that helped energize his 2008 presidential campaign and resonates with demoralized liberals. Consumer advocates, digital rights activists and the Internet Assn., which represents Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Netflix Inc., cheered his move.
"We agree with President Barack Obama: Consumers should pick winners and losers on the Internet, not broadband gatekeepers," Netflix said on its Facebook page.
In declaring his support for the most polarizing proposal in the debate — changing the way the law treats broadband providers so they would face stricter utility-like regulation — Obama thumbed his nose at the fortified Republican majorities in Congress.
Republicans accused Obama of unduly trying to influence the independent FCC and proposing a heavy-handed regulatory approach that would stifle innovation and the growth of the Internet. And they signaled that they would fight by linking it to some recent examples of Washington's bureaucratic problems.
" 'Net Neutrality' is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) both criticized Obama's move.
Major cable companies also warned the FCC not to heed Obama's call by taking steps that would harm the Internet ecosystem and lead to legal challenges.
"The Internet has not just appeared by accident or gift. It has been built by companies like ours investing and building networks and infrastructure," said David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp. "The policy the White House is encouraging would jeopardize this engine for job creation and investment...."
Verizon called Obama's proposal "a radical reversal of course that would in and of itself threaten great harm to an open Internet, competition and innovation."
Obama's embrace of tough Internet rules is expected to fire up the Democratic base on an issue that polls have shown is popular.
"If there's one segment of America less popular than Congress, it's the cable companies," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a longtime public interest advocate at Georgetown University's Institute for Public Representation.
Net neutrality arose in the early 2000s as the Internet was playing a greater role in American lives and the ability to get online was becoming concentrated in a handful of large telecom companies. At its heart is the concept that all legal content should be treated equally.
In 2002, the FCC designated broadband Internet as an information service, subject to lighter regulation under the law than it would have been as a telecom service. The decision was made, in part, to avoid stifling the young technology's growth.
Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, was the only dissenting vote at the time and said Monday that he was pleased Obama is now pushing the agency to change its view.
"Certainly it's no longer a nascent industry," said Copps, now a special advisor to government watchdog Common Cause. "Every time I write my monthly check for them, I realize it's a mature industry."
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries who was nominated by Obama last year, said he was "grateful" for the president's input. But he said that the legal issues are complex and that the FCC had "more work to do."
The move now puts intense pressure on Wheeler to adopt Obama's tougher approach, with the support of the two other Democrats on the five-member agency.
In May, the FCC voted to begin a formal rule-making process to consider regulations on Internet traffic after previous net neutrality rules were largely struck down by a federal court in January. It was the second time since 2010 that courts had stymied the FCC's attempts.
The rules proposed by Wheeler, so far, could allow preferential treatment for some companies willing to pay broadband providers for faster content delivery.
Public response to the proposal swamped FCC computers with an unexpected torrent of 4 million comments.
Consumer groups and net neutrality advocates have pushed the FCC not to allow preferential treatment, which they have likened to Internet toll roads.
Supporters of tough net neutrality rules also want broadband providers subject to regulation similar to that of telephone companies. Wheeler has said he's open to such a move, which is strongly opposed by Internet service providers and most Republicans.
"Like the president, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform for free expression, innovation and economic growth," Wheeler said Monday. "The Internet must not advantage some to the detriment of others."
Wheeler did not commit to reclassifying broadband providers. The FCC's staff has been exploring hybrid approaches that would reclassify broadband providers for some online services but not others.
Puzzanghera reported from Washington, Mitchell from San Francisco.