United States President Barack Obama’s commitment to net neutrality is being questioned after the Federal Communications Commission officials appointed on his watch voted Thursday to advance a plan believed by many to be a blow to the open internet.
This week’s three-two decision by the FCC to consider proposed rules regarding net neutrality isn’t the final nail in the coffin of the open internet. Rather, the five-person panel agreed Thursday morning to open up for comments a proposal drafted by Chairman Thomas Wheeler that would set rules in place meant to address a federal appeals court’s decision earlier this year that paved the way for the possibility of paid prioritization with regards to how Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, deliver web content to customers.
As the panel weighs Wheeler’s plan, the public now has 120 days to offer their own critique before another vote is held. In the meantime, though, Pres. Obama is likely to draw fire from critics on his own in light of previous statements he made pledging to preserve and protect the open internet.
“Barack Obama was crystal clear during the 2008 campaign about his commitment to ensuring equal treatment of all online content over American broadband lines,” Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote for TIME on Friday. “But on Thursday, the president made no public statement when three Democrats he appointed to the FCC voted to move forward with a plan to allow broadband carriers to provide an exclusive ‘fast lane’ to commercial companies that pay extra fees to get their content transmitted online.”
Instead, Edwards acknowledged, White House press secretary Jay Carney offered a brief statement reiterating the president’s promise.
Obama, Carney wrote, “has made clear since he was a candidate that he strongly supports net neutrality and an open Internet. As he has said, the Internet’s incredible equality – of data, content and access to the consumer – is what has powered extraordinary economic growth and made it possible for once-tiny sites like eBay or Amazon to compete with brick and mortar behemoths”
Indeed, in 2010 the president’s chief technology officer wrote on the White House’s blog that “President Obama is strongly committed to net neutrality in order to keep an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, consumer choice and free speech.”
Years before that on the campaign trail, then-Senator Obama said his hypothetical FCC appointments would defend the notion of a “level playing field for whoever has the best idea.”
“As president, I am going to make sure that that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward,” he said.
With Friday’s vote, however, the FCC is well on track to implement rules that, while not necessarily encouraging the paid prioritization of web traffic, is expected to allow ISPs and other major players tied to the infrastructure of the internet to cut deals with content producers that, prior to January’s appellate decision, were illegal.
“Following the court of appeals decision earlier this year, there are no legally enforceable rules ensuring internet openness,” Julie Veach, chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau, acknowledged at Thursday’s hearing.
In Response, Wheeler said his plan offers “enforceable rules to protect and promote the open internet,” while denying allegations that it authorizes paid prioritization.
“The consideration that we are beginning today is not about whether the internet must be open, but about how and when we will have rules in place to assure an open internet,” he said.
Nevertheless, two of his co-commissioners dissented from his proposal at Thursday’s hearing, and suggested that perhaps the FCC is moving too swiftly to respond to January’s ruling.
As the panel moves forward, however, the president’s campaign trail promise could come under attack. Although all five members of the panel were appointed by his office, the three Democratic members of the president’s own political party, including Wheeler, approved the chairman’s proposed rules. Dissenting were Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, both Republicans.
“The FCC is an independent agency, and we will carefully review their proposal,” Carney told reporters on Thursday. “The FCC’s efforts were dealt a real challenge by the Court of Appeals in January, but Chairman Wheeler has said his goal is to preserve an open Internet, and we are pleased to see that he is keeping all options on the table. We will be watching closely as the process moves forward in hopes that the final rule stays true to the spirit of net neutrality.”
But comments from some have suggested that a statement delivered by the White House press secretary might not be enough to reassure fears about the future of the internet. Marvin Ammori, a technology-policy consultant, told the Washington Post this week that Silicon Valley is “very frustrated,” and that the tech community largely threw its weight behind Obama, and not his Democratic challenger, when he vied for the party’s bid ahead of the 2008 elections.
“We’re surprised by his silence, given every indication that the rule being proposed would allow the kind of pay-for-prioritization practices Obama spoke against in the past,” Timothy Karr, a senior director of strategy for the Washington-based media and technology public interest group Free Press, said to the Washington Examiner of the president.
Meanwhile, a petition on the White House website posted after the January ruling by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals has garnered the electronic signature of over 105,000 people asking the president to restore net neutrality.