Before leaving for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in China, President Barack Obama recorded a video message that surprised many. Not only did he declare that “An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life,” but he endorsed the only way to defend an open Internet, that is: real net neutrality.
The president now agrees with me on this: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must reclassify Internet Server Providers (ISPs) as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act to prevent cable, phone and wireless companies from forcing content providers from paying for fast access to your web browser.
The rest of this post is going to assume you know some of the basics about this issue, and I apologize for its deep wonkiness. If you’re not really up to speed, I’ve written about this before, and included some good links there.
While I’m not privy to the West Wing machinations that led to this statement, I can speculate as well as any other blogger. Here are some of the reasons I think he did the right thing here:
The people have spoken: It takes a lot for millions of people to take a stand on a single government regulation, even more for thousands to take to the streets to make sure that government listens. The FCC received some 4 million comments on the original “fast lane” proposal from FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. The vast majority of those comments asked for ironclad net neutrality rules, with the real wonks demanding Title II reclassification. Rallies were held in cities across the country to demand compliance with these principles. Powerful movements make change, regardless of who may hold office.
- The law is on his side: When ruling in Verizon’s favor on the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet rules, the judge in the case said the FCC had used the wrong law to justify their rules. The FCC said it had the right to enforce net neutrality through Section 706 of Communications Act. The court said that the common carrier part of the statute (that is, Title II) was the way to go. The former constitutional law professor in the White House clearly agrees. “Unfortunately, the court ultimately struck down the rules — not because it disagreed with the need to protect net neutrality, but because it believed the FCC had taken the wrong legal approach.”
- Obama was predisposed: As the statement notes, Obama has always favored the principle of net neutrality. Over the last year, though, he’s been less than specific on what he thought about reclassification. This is new, and again, reflects the impact the movement has.
- New Chief Technology Officer: The White House offered up Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith to discuss the statement on Monday’s PBS NewsHour. Smith came to the White House from Google just a few weeks ago, and you have to wonder if she got on the president’s case to take on this campaign.
- Follow the money: Free speech should not be a left-right issue, but look how the pundits and politicians responded to the president’s statement. I haven’t combed through the campaign finance statements, but judging simply from all those quotes, I’ll guess that the bulk of telecom money went in the opposite direction from the president’s party.
One more bit of speculation: FCC chair Wheeler has taken a severe beating after the first “fast lane” rules he proposed in May. Last week, it looked like Wheeler was going to aim for a compromise, hybrid set of rules. These would rely on both Section 706 and Title II regulation. This idea isn’t flying, either. This could mean that Wheeler is at least as much of a lame duck as the president is since the midterm elections.
Wheeler needs both of his Democratic allies on the five-member commission to approve any policy, as the two Republicans are likely to oppose anything that resembles a check on the “free market.” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel appears to harbor ambitions to chair the commission one day.
If that’s true, the White House may be signalling to Ms. Rosenworcel that supporting the president on this issue may help her reach her goal sooner.