Barack Obama says the internet is a public good, and that’s why the US needs net neutrality

Is this thing on?
Is this thing on?
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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The White House has put its weight behind a plan to treat the internet like a public utility, akin to water, electricity and telephone services.

“For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business,” president Barack Obama said. “It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information—whether a phone call, or a packet of data.”

The move puts the president in the middle of a contentious battle over telecom regulation. The internet is currently lightly regulated, and previous rules that called for equal treatment of data and users were thrown out in a court challenge in January (paywall). The Federal Communications Commission has been working to develop a regulatory regime that ensures equal treatment for internet access, under intense scrutiny from businesses, consumers and politicians.

Big internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon have come out against a sweeping reclassification of the internet as a public utility, which would prevent them from discriminating against specific content or charging extra for “internet fast lanes.” While internet companies say this is necessary to generate investments in infrastructure for better and faster services, companies like Netflix say the service providers are abusing opaque service agreements and market power.

Some tech investors also fear that absent net neutrality, new companies will face unfair barriers to competition.

Consumer advocates fear that paid internet “fast lanes” will lead to discrimination against all users, and civil liberties advocates worry that without net neutrality rules, controversial content could be harder the access, chilling free speech on the internet.

Experts on all sides say that the FCC’s decision, expected in 2015, will have important ramifications for the internet in the years to come. Obama’s comments may boost the chances of reclassifying the internet as a public utility, but last week’s election results will play a role as well: Republicans, who now control Congress, have sided with internet companies that believe weaker regulation will allow for the most innovation and investment.

While neither they nor Obama can intervene directly to change the FCC’s decision, the Republicans now have a broader pulpit to push back against the president’s arguments.

This is the first major policy statement by Obama since the election, and it strikes a confrontational tone with the new Congress. Internet activists have proven effective at mobilizing political pressure, at least temporarily, on major internet policy issues—a record 3.7 million citizens weighed in on the FCC’s net neutrality deliberations, for example. In siding with them, the president may be acknowledging the political potency of a clearer message.