Obama pressed to use State of the Union for Internet push

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The State of the Union address offers President Obama a huge platform to double down on his call to reclassify the Internet as a utility, advocates say.

Obama inserted himself into the net neutrality fight in November, when he urged the Federal Communications Commission to adopt strong regulations ensuring that the Internet remains a level playing field for businesses and the public.

But the White House has yet to say whether the issue will make it into his agenda setting speech.

“The President should reiterate his support for a free and open Internet,” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said, noting its economic importance. “We cannot afford to have Internet fast lanes or a two-tiered Internet system in this country.”

The speech on Jan. 20 will come a little more than a month before the FCC votes on new Internet rules, which have yet to be released.

Matsui and Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahySenate Dems rip GOP on immigration ruling Bernie Sanders’s awkward return to the Senate Senate heads toward internet surveillance fight MORE (D-Vt.) recently re-introduced legislation that would force the FCC to ban Internet service providers from negotiating deals with websites for faster service — precisely what the FCC is trying to block with its new rules.

Last November, Obama joined advocates in calling for the commission to reclassify broadband Internet similar to traditional telephones under Title II of Telecommunications Act, to enforce stronger rules.

Obama’s recommendation in a YouTube video has been viewed more than 800,000 times, and nearly four million people submitted comments to the FCC on the issue last year.  

But the State of the Union address in front of both chambers of Congress provides a much larger stage. Around 33 million viewers regularly tune in, though viewership has declined in recent years.

The FCC is in the end stages of finalizing its open Internet rules meant to ensure all Internet traffic is treated equally. A mere mention in Obama’s speech would help build public support ahead of the FCC vote next month, advocates say.

“It would give everyone who is pushing for strong net neutrality rules an additional boost,” said Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge. “If the president talks about an issue you care about, and he talks about it in a way that aligns with your beliefs, that is a great thing to happen.”

The administration has just begun highlighting issues that will make it into the speech, including a series of cybersecurity and Internet access initiatives to be highlighted this week. But the White House declined to preview whether net neutrality would make the cut.  

“I think it’d be interesting if he mentioned net neutrality in the [speech] with everything else going on,” said Gabe Rottman of the American Civil Liberties Union. “His earlier call for Title II was surprisingly, and welcomingly, unequivocal.”

Weinberg, of Public Knowledge, emphasized that while a mention would be helpful, it is not vital since Obama has already made such a public recommendation. On top of that, Chairman Tom Wheeler is already hinting at siding with Obama.

Last week at the Consumer Electronic Show, Wheeler gave the strongest indication yet that he would use the authority, mentioning that mobile calling has successfully operated under similar regulations for years.

Internet service providers and Republicans have pushed hard against reclassification, arguing it would raise taxes and fees on consumers and stifle innovation. The contentious issue is expected to spur litigation, after courts struck down previous rules in the past.

Obama is expected to use a portion of the speech to highlight other issues in the technology world, including increased broadband Internet access, privacy and cybersecurity. 

Obama will travel to Iowa on Wednesday to highlight plans to increase broadband access nationwide ahead of the speech. He will host an event at the Federal Trade Commission dealing with ways to improve consumer privacy, and will hold another in Washington regarding voluntary collaboration on cybersecurity between business and the government. 

Last year’s speech highlighted plans to increase high-tech manufacturing jobs with a series of hubs that connected researchers and businesses. He also mentioned the need for patent reform legislation, rolling back cuts to research funding, and progress on his pledge to provide nearly every U.S. student with high-speed broadband in the next few years. 

Any of those issues could see another appearance. Observers see patent reform as increasingly likely now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

“Anything that is included in the State of the Union automatically becomes big, because it is a huge stage for the president and a huge stage to highlight issues,” Weinberg said.