Should there be slow lanes and fast lanes for content on the Internet? This is the province of the Federal Communications Commission, and has been long debated and litigated.
But President Obama today decided he needed to speak loud and clear on this, and tell the FCC what he thinks it should do. The president has long been against special fast lanes online. But this is the most direct he’s been, calling for “an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.”
The Federal Communications Commission is an independent agency. But the President called on the FCC to “create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online.”
The FCC is currently considering whether to treat Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast like phone companies, which are regulated under Title II of the telecommunications law. Obama endorsed Title II today.
“We’re experiencing Title II right here,” says Craig Aaron by phone. He heads Free Press, an advocacy group lobbying for such neutrality. “Your call to me gets treated the same way as your call to the White House. You get to decide what the priority is going to be.”
For their part, Internet providers proclaimed “unprecedented government interference” and a predicted a crippling future of Mother-May-I rules.
“Let me be clear: this is all about how do you regulate the Internet,” says former FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, now with the Hudson Institute think tank. “And the obvious answer is, you regulate it the way you have the past 20 years, which is not at all.”
For all the sound bites, this issue is incredibly complicated, litigated, obfuscated.
But emerging from the weeds, Daniel Weitzner of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory says the task for the FCC really is to keep the Web working as it does today. In his view, it does work.
“We know that companies both on the network side and on the edge as it were – the Amazons and Google and Twitters of the world – have all been able to grow,” says Weitzner.
The issue is where the Internet goes from here. Some analysts already see it moving in a direction of pay-to-play and more speed for the rich.
“That would be contrary to the way the Internet has worked and grown,” Weitzner says.