The White House wants you to know that it values the internet as the most transformative communications tool since the invention of the printing press. “More than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago,” a statement published by the administration on Monday read. Given this praise for the internet’s developmental trajectory up to this point, it is something of a wonder that the White House has determined the first public policy prescription that it would embrace in the wake of Democrats’ historic 2014 defeats is the regulation of this communications platform and internet service providers.
By backing a policy commonly referred to as Net Neutrality, President Barack Obama is advocating for that the internet to be regulated like any other public utility. “To put these protections in place, I’m asking the [Federal Communications Commission] to reclassifying internet service under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunications Act,” Obama said in a statement on Monday.
The stated aim of this proposal is to prevent the formation of internet “fast lanes,” which would allow service providers to create pathways through which major services get priority access to bandwidth while smaller firms do not enjoy the same priority speeds.
The White House is putting pressure on the FCC to embrace Net Neutrality:
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) November 10, 2014
Obama conceded in his statement, however, that he cannot order the FCC to impose new rules on internet providers. “The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately the decision is theirs alone,” the president said. “But the public has already commented nearly 4 million times asking that consumers — not the cable company — gets to decide which sites they use.”
According to reporting in The Verge, this push may be somewhat moot given the FCC’s amenability toward priority bandwidth pathways:
Obama’s support of Title II reclassification comes at a critical time for net neutrality. While the FCC is in the process of making new rules to protect net neutrality, those rules would actually allow internet providers to offer so-called “fast lanes,” effectively defeating the purpose of net neutrality in the first place. During a public comment period over the summer, Americans spoke out loudly against the proposal, but it’s not yet clear what the commission plans to do in response. FCC chair Tom Wheeler has said that he isn’t entirely opposed to Title II, but that’s appeared to be only if other methods won’t work first.
Whether or not this is good policy is in question, but what is undeniable is that this push from the White House is a signal that they are focused on mollifying the president’s anxious progressive base even if it invites more conflict with the incoming Republican-dominated Congress.
Republicans seeking to capitalize on their midterm victories have already expressed their intention to overhaul the nation’s web and television regulations in order to create a more streamlined regime. According to a report in The Hill, the largest barrier to the Republicans’ hopes for reforming communications regulations is the long-floated Net Neutrality proposal now backed by the White House.
The FCC is expected to release new rules by the end of this year, after months of controversy over a previous proposal from Chairman Tom Wheeler that some critics said would allow for companies to cut deals and speed up service, effectively creating “fast lanes” for the Internet.
Current law lays out different rules for treating “common carriers” such as traditional phone service from other types of communications. Supporters of strong rules have urged the FCC to declare that broadband Internet is a common carrier and regulate it as such — a move that has been strongly opposed by many Republicans and industry groups.
Some Republicans have opposed the FCC’s attempt to write new rules, after a top appeals court tossed its previous regulations out earlier this year.
The standoff could spell trouble for the effort to update the Communications Act.
Polls suggest that a majority of the public doesn’t know enough about Net Neutrality to form an opinion, while a narrow plurality back the measure. On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his aides fired the opening salvos of the coming messaging war over Net Neutrality:
"Net Neutrality" is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) November 10, 2014
Just wait. Pretty soon, Obama will tell you "If you like your Internet, you can keep it." #DontNeutertheNet
— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) November 10, 2014
These comments inspired a predictable surge of condescension from the pundit class, but there is reason to believe it will be a powerful message in opposition to Net Neutrality. Despite general favorability toward a message of free and open access to the internet, Americans have little faith in the ability of the federal government to regulate online communications technology or internet service providers. A 2010 Rasmussen Reports survey found 54 percent opposed internet regulations while only 21 percent supported them. A 2014 survey sponsored by CLAInnovates found that those margins remain essentially unchanged four years later.
Despite the dubious comparisons between Net Neutrality and the Affordable Care Act, tethering Obama’s plan to impose regulations on the internet to the unpopular experiment in regulating America’s health insurance marketplace is savvy political messaging.
Barack Obama has invited a fight with the GOP over his support of regulating internet providers, and an emboldened Republican Party is more than happy to engage him over this issue. This is just the latest signal to suggest that the White House wants confrontation rather than accommodation with Republicans in his final two years in office