During his tenure in office, Obama has earned a reputation for hemming and hawing. But there was no sign of that in the video he released today, where he came down hard in favor of net neutrality and gave ISPs the presidential middle finger. Why now? Because it's a rare no-lose scenario for the White House.
Obama left no room for misinterpretation on where he stands. "We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas," he wrote in an accompanying statement, and he called upon the FCC to commit to a set of key principles: No site or service should be blocked by an Internet service provider; no content should be purposefully slowed down or sped up; more transparency should be provided about where traffic is routed; and no paid deals should be made to provide a speed advantage to certain providers over others in delivering content.
And, perhaps most significant of all, he declared that all Internet services—including both wired and wireless ones—should fall under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Under that section, it's illegal "to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services." In effect, that would reclassify the Internet as a utility that is as essential as electricity and water, and endow the FCC with more regulatory power:
"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. That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. 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."
At this point, we cue the inevitable wailing and shouting about government power grabs and disruption of the free market from ISPs and Congressional Republicans.
In a statement, Verizon said:
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. That course will likely also face strong legal challenges and would likely not stand up in court.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared that "net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government"—which probably got a lot of fist pumping from Tea Party members but left everyone else perplexed. He's saying that blocking companies from giving preferential treatment to content would make things slower?
And Clyde Wayne Crews, Jr., a writer over at Forbes, reminds us that net neutrality is actually "infrastructure socialism." Thus far, the only anti-Obama talking point that's missing is that he is somehow using this as a way to disrupt further investigations into what really happened at Benghazi. (Your move, Fox News.)
This debate has been escalating for years. Why did Obama finally decide to weigh in so decisively?
First, to get the most obvious points out of the way, it's popular with millions of Americans. The people angriest at Obama right now are Republicans (meh) and ISPs, who won't be satisfied with any decision that the FCC makes.
Meanwhile, as the Washington Post observes, another happy constituency is Silicon Valley:
It also helps repair relationships with the tech community that were splintered in the wake of the National Security Agency's spying revelations. When leaks from Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the agency was infiltrating social networks, it put firms like Facebook and Google in an awkward commercial position. The administration reached out to the companies as it planned revisions. But an embrace of net neutrality — backed by big companies that don't want to have to pay more to push out their content — is a big win for for tech. It could use one; its marquee midterm race went poorly. (The Chamber of Commerce, with players on both sides of the issue, is neutral.)
As for why now:
The FCC is scheduled to unveil new rules on net neutrality soon, perhaps early next year. Clearly the president wanted to get ahead of this and probably preferred to wait until the furor of the midterms had passed. There's almost no way that a strong net neutrality stance from Obama would have shifted the midterm elections; it's not the sort of thing that the electorate who made up the voting pool is terribly worried about.
(This is where strong advocates of net neutrality get mad and say that it could have boosted turnout among young people, and where I respond that, since concerted efforts to turn out young people failed, this very-important-to-a-small-group issue almost certainly wouldn't have made much of a dent.)
Okay, so it makes sense that the president wanted to get ahead of the FCC's decision, especially since it appears to be favoring a "hybrid" approach toward Internet regulation that nobody will like.
Still, how does that make a difference, since the president has no authority over the decisions made by the FCC?
The White House today is forcing the FCC to take sides instead of reaching for an appeasement that isn't possible….There really is no middle ground here.
The White House's approach is not entirely without risk. The chairman of the FCC does not actually have to obey the President. He cannot be fired if he and the President disagree. There is also the possibility that Obama's action will create a sort of intra-administrative deadlock that causes the FCC to delay the rules for quite some time, leaving in its place, as with so many areas of federal policy, a confusing status quo.
That, however, seems unlikely. After the President's statement, it is hard to imagine that the commission can hold out forever and do nothing at all. If it does, the FCC will be remembered as the agency that presided over the closing of the open Internet.