President Obama has called on federal regulators to toughen proposed net-neutrality rules for Internet traffic, including taking the controversial step of changing the way the law treats broadband providers so they are subject to stricter utility-like regulation.
In a two-page statement and a two-minute online video Monday, Obama came out in favor of the toughest possible regulation of Internet service providers on an issue that has flooded the Federal Communications Commission with a record of about 4 million public comments.
"Ever since the Internet was created, it's been organized around basic principles of openness, fairness and freedom," Obama said in the video posted 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."
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Monday that he was "grateful" for Obama's input and called the president's statement "an important, welcome addition" to the agency's deliberations.
But Wheeler said the legal issues involved with crafting the rules are complex and the FCC had "more work to do."
"We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online," Wheeler said.
Obama's comments Monday inflamed an issue that pits liberal advocates of tougher regulation to protect consumers against conservatives who view net neutrality rules as an unnecessary intrusion of heavy-handed government regulation on the Internet.
Net neutrality supporters welcomed Obama's strong statement of support.
"Thank you, Mr. President," said former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now a special advisor to government watchdog Common Cause. "And thanks to the millions of Americans who helped make this happen."
But broadband providers said Obama's proposals risked harming the Internet. And Republicans, who have fought adamantly against net neutrality rules, slammed the president for urging stronger government regulation.
" 'Net Neutrality' is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
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.
The rules proposed by Wheeler, whom Obama appointed last year, could allow preferential treatment for some companies willing to pay broadband providers for faster content delivery.
The FCC asked the public for comments and was inundated with opposition to such a move. Consumer groups and net-neutrality advocates have pushed the FCC not to allow such preferential treatment, which they have likened to Internet toll roads.
Supporters of tough net-neutrality rules want the FCC to reclassify broadband providers to make them subject to regulation similar to that of telephone companies under Title 2 of the Telecommunications Act.
Wheeler has said he's open to such a move, which is strongly opposed by Internet service providers and most Republicans. And Wheeler has said he and the president are in agreement on the need for tough net-neutrality rules, although Obama had not detailed the exact rules he would prefer.
"Like the president, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform for free expression, innovation and economic growth," Wheeler said Monday. "We both oppose Internet fast lanes. The Internet must not advantage some to the detriment of others."
On Monday, Obama was clear that he wanted the FCC to reclassify broadband providers, even though he does not have the power to force them to do so.
"In plain English, I’m asking them to recognize that for most Americans the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life," he said in the video.
"The FCC is an independent agency and ultimately this decision is theirs alone, but the public has already commented nearly 4 million times asking the FCC to make sure the consumers, not the cable company, gets to decide which sites they use," Obama said.
Obama also called for net-neutrality rules to apply to mobile Internet access as well as land-line access, which the FCC said it also is considering.
Cable companies and other broadband service providers have opposed tougher regulation, saying it's unnecessary and could stifle investment and innovation.
“Verizon supports the open Internet, and we continue to believe that the light-touch regulatory approach in place for the past two decades has been central to the Internet’s success," Verizon Communications Inc. said in a statement Monday.
"Reclassification under Title 2, 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," the company said.
"That course will likely also face strong legal challenges and would likely not stand up in court," Verizon said.
Wheeler on Monday did not commit to reclassifying broadband providers. Recently, the FCC's staff has explored what he called hybrid approaches that would involve reclassifying broadband providers for some online services but not others.
Reclassification involves "substantive legal questions" that will take more time to address," Wheeler said.
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