Barack Obama has set the cat among the pigeons in the battle over net neutrality – by issuing a blunt demand that internet access be treated as a public utility in the United States.
In a two-minute video, also given its own page on the White House website, Obama warns that "abandoning the principles" behind the internet's neutrality would mean the "end of the internet." "There should be no toll roads on the information highway," he said.
US watchdog the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is due to decide on new rules governing internet access – crucially, whether or not ISPs are allowed to prioritize some web traffic over other traffic.
It's feared broadband providers will charge, say, TV streaming websites and their viewers extra cash to carry their video data over their networks, if net neutrality – the principle of treating all packets the same – is not enforced. The telcos claim they need to charge more to fund new infrastructure to take all the extra data.
Two weeks ago, the FCC ago put the feelers out for a so-called hybrid plan that would separate internet access into "wholesale" and "retail", with different rules for different parts of the network. That plan sparked protests across America, including outside the White House.
Obama's statement throws that attempt at compromise out and sides firmly with consumer groups who have argued that cable companies need to be put under a set of rules that would make it illegal for them to discriminate against particular bits of web traffic (cough, cough, Netflix).
"I am urging the FCC to do everything they can to protect the internet for everyone. I am asking the FCC to reclassify internet service under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunication Act," he said.
(Title II of that law requires carriers to provide services without "unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.")
That doesn't mean the issue is decided, however. As the president noted in the video – and previously – "the FCC is an independent agency and ultimately this decision is theirs alone."
Unsurprisingly, the statement received a distinctly frosty reception from the cable companies, which want internet access put under a much lighter regime so they are in a position to segment the market much in the way they segment the cable market: by offering different types of access for different prices.
The company that brought about the FCC rules change by suing the US government agency over its previous "open internet order", Verizon, threatened – again – to sue, questioning whether putting broadband under Title II was "legally sustainable." That said, Verizon also threatened to sue over the hybrid plan. Suing, it seems, is what Verizon likes to do.
The CTIA, a lobby group representing the wireless industry, also put out a quick statement arguing that "imposing antiquated common carrier regulation, or Title II, on the vibrant mobile wireless ecosystem would be a gross overreaction that would ignore the bipartisan views of members of Congress and the FCC."
Equally as unsurprising were the messages of support from the other side. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called Obama's statement "very welcome news" while also stating that the hybrid plan was "legally unsustainable."
The EFF also noted one of the problems with imposing Title II on the cable companies: the legislation dates way back to 1934, and so in some respects is grossly outdated. Large chunks of it would have to be "forebeared" – ignored, in other words – if it were imposed.
Obama's statement came right in the middle of a flurry of meetings the FCC is having this week with all parties in an effort to find a solution. One of these groups, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), was behind a 120,000-person petition in support of net neutrality, and was also happy with the news: "White House support for reclassifying the Internet as a public utility is great news, and the kind of bold executive action that America needs," it said in a statement.
Both the EFF and PCCC noted, however, that despite the strong views put forward by the President, it is the FCC that will decide. "The fight isn't over yet," the EFF pledged, "we still need to persuade the FCC to join him." ®