President Obama has released a statement coming out strongly in favor of net neutrality. This has angered the President’s opponents and will bring new pressure on Tom Wheeler, Obama’s appointed FCC Chair, to side with his fellow Democrats on the Commission and strengthen regulation of the internet.
The core issue is whether internet service providers (ISPs) can discriminate in their treatment of content. This could include strictly economic transactions, such as charging a premium to heavy bandwidth users such as Netflix for a speedier trip through the web pipeline. What net neutrality proponents fear more, however, is that content disfavored by an ISP would be slowed or even blocked. This could extend to controversial political content, for example, or content from providers who compete with an ISP such as Comcast. The ISPs, for their part, decry any increased regulation as government overreach that will stifle innovation.
ISPs are currently regulated under the same provisions of the Communications Act that apply to cable television, which give the FCC only limited authority. In fact, the courts have struck down previous neutrality regulations on the ground that the FCC exceeded its authority under those provisions. If, however, ISPs are reclassified as common carriers (equivalent to telephone companies), the FCC could require them to treat all comers equally. This is within the FCC’s power, and it is what the President has urged it to do.
Public opinion seems to be squarely in favor of net neutrality. The recent FCC call for public comment on the issue prompted nearly 4,000,000 emails in favor of strong regulation. Internet content providers such as Netflix have weighed in on that side of the debate as well. On the other side are the ISPs themselves, which are mostly the telephone and cable companies, and conservative voices that oppose regulation as a matter of principle, including Congressional leadership.
The neutrality debate has been simmering for years. While it may have first appeared to be of interest mostly to nerds, the level of public, and now, Presidential engagement is a sign of how central the internet has become in all of our lives.