Obama makes push on Internet rules

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President Obama is urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to treat broadband Internet as a public utility to protect net neutrality, a move that would ban companies from cutting deals for faster service.

"No service should be stuck in a 'slow lane' because it does not pay a fee," Obama said in a Monday Web video.

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“That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect," he continued.

The comments are an aggressive push by the president to influence the controversial debate over net neutrality rules. It marks the first time the president has explicitly called on the FCC to treat broadband Internet as a utility.

The agency’s “common carrier” rules would allow the FCC to regulate Internet broadband providers similar to traditional phone companies.

Advocates for the tighter regulations — under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — say they will prevent service providers like Comcast from negotiating deals with websites willing to pay for faster Internet service. The rules would also prevent providers from blocking or slowing access to particular websites. 

During a town hall in California last month, Obama explicitly called for a ban on Internet "fast lanes,” but did not detail which approach he believed the FCC should adopt.

Many advocates say reclassifying broadband to treat it like phone utilities is the only way to completely ban the practice. 

The FCC is considering new rules after an appeals court struck down its previous net neutrality rules earlier this year. 

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is reportedly debating an alternate “hybrid” plan that would use the authority it has over phone lines to regulate transactions between Internet service providers and websites. Separate regulations would handle the relationship between broadband providers and customers.  

Wheeler welcomed Obama's call for stronger regulations of broadband Internet — noting the agency is independent and will add it to the record. Wheeler said the agency will need "more time" to consider the various proposals on rules governing the Internet. 

"We both oppose Internet fast lanes," Wheeler said in a statement. "The Internet must not advantage some to the detriment of others."

But critics on all sides panned his reported proposal, which might still allow companies to negotiate faster Internet deals. 

Wheeler has been expected to unveil his plans by the end of the year, but reports suggest they could be delayed.

Obama's move puts new pressure on the agency to act decisively to protect net neutrality.

Major Internet service providers, though, have long opposed treating broadband like a utility, saying it would burden the Internet with outdated regulations and would surely lead to a lawsuit.

“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,” Verizon said in a statement in response to the president.

“That course will likely also face strong legal challenges and would likely not stand up in court,” the statement added.

Internet service providers say the utility approach could saddle them with regulations that have little relevance to the tech industry. Instead, companies have urged the FCC to issue rules under a legal authority that allows it to promote competition in the broadband marketplace.

Obama maintained that Internet companies could be spared any onerous burdens from the legal maneuver.

The president also called on the FCC to extend the open Internet rules to mobile devices, something wireless companies have opposed. 

"The rules also have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device," Obama said. "I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks."

Obama’s call was cheered loudly by supporters of tough rules who have said that treating broadband like a utility is the only avenue to protect against “fast lanes” on the Internet.

Gene Kimmelman, the head of consumer interest group Public Knowledge, said that the president was endorsing “the strongest tools” to protect the Internet.