US President Barack Obama’s net neutrality push puts FCC under pressure

12 Nov 2014

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US President Barack Obama

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Barack Obama’s net neutrality politicking has put Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in an extremely uncomfortable position.

The US president had called on the FCC to pass tougher regulations on high-speed internet providers, relating to how they delegate their services.

“Ever since the internet has been created, it’s been organised around basic principles of openness, fairness and freedom,” said Obama on Monday.

“There are no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get to access, no toll roads on the information super-highway. This set of principles – the idea of net neutrality – has unleashed the power of the internet and given innovators the chance to thrive. Abandoning these principles would threaten to end the internet as we know it.”

The crux of the dispute is the US government wants the FCC to ensure that internet service providers (ISP) treat all internet content as equal in terms of speed – rather than auctioning off premium service to the highest bidder, empowering tech giants and punishing start-ups.

In his response to Obama, Wheeler said the FCC has explored a “hybrid” solution but it had created as many questions as it had answered.

“The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do,” said Wheeler.

“What you want is what everyone wants: an open internet that doesn’t affect your business,” a frustrated Wheeler was reported to have told The Washington Post. “What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby.”

Net neutrality in the US – a growing issue

The idea of internet neutrality has become a big issue, both politically and professionally, in the US, “because some of our biggest ISPs are also media companies, like Comcast, which now owns NBCUniversal,” explained Alex Fitzpatrick on Time.com

“Advocates warn that opens up a scenario where an ISP like Comcast could slow down, say, Netflix, in an attempt to get users to view Comcast’s own video offerings instead, or the ISPs could ask Netflix for money to get its content to users faster than that of upstart rivals that have less cash on hand, stifling competition.”

Those against Obama’s idea of net neutrality said a free market keeps things fair and efficient, despite the fact broadband is a highly uncompetitive market in the US.

According to The Guardian, Obama’s move has set the stage for a political showdown in Washington, where the cable industry has been left looking flat-footed by a vocal and well- organised grass roots opposition.

The powerful National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), which represents Comcast and Time Warner, said it was “stunned” by the president’s proposals.

“The cable industry strongly supports an open internet, is building an open internet, and strongly believes that over-regulating the fastest growing technology in our history will not advance the cause of internet freedom,” said NCTA president Michael Powell, a predecessor of Wheeler.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal has responded to Obama’s public address in a highly critical manner, calling out the Democrat’s announcement as “another federal power grab over an innovative US industry.”

“The president also had the nerve to assert, amid his public lobbying, that ‘the FCC is an independent agency and ultimately this decision is theirs alone.’ But Obama might as well have painted a bull’s eye on FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who will now have to acquiesce or face a deluge of liberal abuse.”

This one will rumble on for some time yet.

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Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com