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Obama's Net Neutrality Support Shows Liberal Activists Can Still Sway the White House

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

Anyone who thought the White House would be chastened by large midterm election losses got a jolt Monday morning, when President Obama released a video affirming his support for net neutrality, the concept that all information on the Internet should be delivered with equal speed and access.

On the surface, the president merely reinforced a view he has shared on dozens of occasions since the 2008 campaign. But Obama had a direct target—the Federal Communications Commission, whose net neutrality rules had strayed from Obama’s principles. His statement doesn’t bind the FCC leadership, but it makes it extremely difficult for the agency to move in any other direction on net neutrality. Activists who pressured for the action Obama endorsed Monday should be proud of their efforts. And activists with other priorities—think immigration—should take the lesson that their insistent voices can still make a difference. 

Beyond the flowery language about “the Internet’s power to connect our world” and declarations of “no toll roads on the information superhighway,” the president advocated for something very specific. “To put these protections in place, I’m asking the FCC to reclassify Internet service under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunications Act,” Obama said. This seemingly technical change means everything for how the Internet will be governed in the future.

Under Title II, Internet service—and in the president’s plan, that means through computer, mobile or tablet—would become a “common carrier,” much like your phone line. And just as phone providers like AT&T or Verizon cannot deliberately slow down particular phone calls or charge certain businesses more money to connect faster, those standards would apply to the Internet under Title II. That means no “fast lanes,” where companies pay for quicker load times for their Web sites. It means no deliberate throttling of any content. It effectively means no special treatment for anyone, from Netflix and Google to photos of your cat.

Broadband providers have argued that Title II authority would subject their businesses to all sorts of cumbersome and costly regulations, and potentially even price-setting. But Obama made clear in his statement that the FCC should exclude the industry from those kinds of rules, focusing on only those “relevant to broadband services.” This mirrors the proposal floated by retiring Representative Henry Waxman last month. 

Activists have demanded Title II reclassification since 2002, when George W. Bush’s FCC classified broadband as “information service providers” instead of common carriers. They believe reclassification to be the only durable way to ensure protections for Web surfers and Internet companies from telecom gatekeepers.

But activists faced long odds to reach their goals. Obama’s FCC avoided reclassification for years, trying to strike middle-ground deals using other authorities. Appellate courts predictably overturned them. This April, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled a new plan, that would have allowed Internet “fast lanes,” bolstering established companies with the ability to pay fees for faster content and creating barriers to entry for startups. Through enormous effort, inspiring millions of people and dozens of large websites to act against Wheeler’s fast-lane deal, activists transformed reclassification from a remote wish to a viable alternative.

Last week, Chairman Wheeler responded to this pressure with another compromise, a “hybrid” proposal that would distinguish between back-end traffic from content providers and front-end traffic to the consumer. It would apply Title II protections to the back end, but not to the front end. This was a shift from Wheeler’s initial proposal, but activist groups were still not satisfied, calling the proposal “legally dubious” and arguing it would still not prevent telecoms from charging companies more for faster speeds. “Chairman Wheeler can't wave a wand, change the law, and pretend to break the Internet in two,” said Craig Aaron, CEO and President of the activist group Free Press.

That’s what makes the president’s intervention at this time so powerful. Two of the Democratic FCC commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, already had openly resisted the idea of paid prioritization for Internet content. And Chairman Wheeler has close ties to Obama, going back to when he raised millions of dollars for his presidential campaigns.

“I think this sends a very strong message to the FCC Chair,” said Tim Karr, Senior Director of Strategy at Free Press. “Abandon the hybrid approach and any other concoction that doesn't use the agency's full Title II authority to prevent discrimination and blocking of online content.” 

The president’s move won’t automatically impose net neutrality. The FCC is an independent agency, with the exclusive right to write rules as they see fit. Already, Chairman Wheeler has reacted somewhat coolly, by saying “we will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding,” as if Obama were just another constituent. After laying out all the ways he’s already changed his proposal, Wheeler added that he needs more time to figure out the best path forward, meaning the final rules may not come out until 2015. “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,” Wheeler said. 

Buying time gives opponents of reclassification an opportunity to press their case. Verizon immediately attacked the president’s plan as a “radical reversal of course” that would be challenged in court. Senator Ted Cruz was more blunt, and more random, calling net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet,” which makes about as much sense as calling wilderness preservation Obamacare for birds.

Activists immediately pressed for an end to delays over reclassification, setting up a fight between Wheeler and Obama. It’s hard to argue with their strategy; so far, they’ve been able to move the center of gravity on this issue, in ways that looked impossible just a few months ago.

As for the president, this maneuver signals that he’s not looking to be a caretaker in his final two years, at least on discrete issues. Net neutrality activists correctly reasoned that getting Obama involved would provide the surge of support they needed for reclassification, and they targeted him as much as the FCC over the past several months. Obama showed that he listened, and it should give some solace to other groups wanting him to use his executive authority.

In other words, Obama’s action on net neutrality is very good news for those who want him to move on immigration. After the drubbing in the midterms, some feared that the president would again pull back from his vow to undertake fixes to halt deportations. But he was pretty steadfast in his post-election news conference, and the net neutrality statement shows that he’s not afraid to take bold steps. One might have hoped for such a backbone before the election, but conservative Democrats fighting for Senate seats told him not to make any waves—and lost their races anyway. 

Beyond the politics, this is a huge victory on policy for the millions who spoke out and the millions more who could continue to enjoy a free and open Internet as a result. It also gives hope that sometimes, somehow, the voice of the people matter.