Future Tense

Obama Urges FCC to Recognize Internet Access as a Utility

President Obama has struggled to see eye to eye with Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman appointed in 2013. Since taking the reins at the agency, Wheeler has proposed controversial regulations that would allow companies to pay for priority-speed Internet “fast lanes.” Meanwhile, Obama has a strong track record of supporting net neutrality. But during an open-comment period on Wheeler’s plans, Obama didn’t join the chorus of Americans supporting net neutrality and opposing the proposal. Now, post-midterms, he’s ready.

In a video and statement on Monday, Obama said he thinks the FCC should treat Internet service as a utility so the agency can more easily protect net neutrality. He said:

We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.

Obama said that if the FCC reclassifies Internet service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act to treat it as a utility, the agency will be better positioned to protect equal access to information and to ensure huge Internet service providers don’t dominate the market deleteriously. “This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone—not just one or two companies,” Obama said.

Obama’s recommendation to the FCC has four components: No blocking, meaning that all legal sites should be accessible from all ISPs. No throttling, so all sites and services are delivered at the same speed and none receive preferential speeds. Increased transparency to allow the FCC to evaluate an ISP’s entire network. And no paid prioritization, so that no service has to or can pay an ISP to be delivered to users at faster speeds. This would mean that companies like Netflix wouldn’t have to cut deals with ISPs anymore.

Obama also spoke about tablets and smartphones in the same category, saying that the mobile Web should be subject to these guidelines as well, which hasn’t previously been the case. Overall, though, he acknowledged that the FCC is an independent agency, and he can’t force it to support net neutrality.

Comcast and Time Warner shares are down since Obama’s statement, but some are now speculating about how it will impact the proposed Time Warner-Comcast merger:

And overall, responses to Obama’s statement range from supportive:

To, well, this: