Obama U.S. Africa Summit

U.S. Africa Business Forum

Policy


The Federal Communications Commission has received more than a million comments about its controversial net neutrality plan, but none may have as much impact as those made Tuesday by the main resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who said he, too, has a few concerns.

President Obama said Tuesday at the U.S. Africa Business Forum that he’s uncomfortable with the idea of allowing Internet providers to sell fast-lane access to content companies, an idea that puts him squarely at odds with his own FCC Chairman.

(The transcript has been edited for brevity, not content; the whole exchange can be found here.)

Question: So just to clarify on the issue of net neutrality, you are advocating for an open and fair Internet –

President Obama: Yes.

Question: Which would — then it has structure to ensure that the platform itself isn’t abused.

President Obama:  Well, there are two issues — net neutrality — in the United States, one of the issues around net neutrality is whether you are creating different rates or charges for different content providers. That’s the big controversy here.  You have big, wealthy media companies who might be willing to pay more but then also charge more for more spectrum, more bandwidth on the Internet so they can stream movies faster or what have you.

And I personally — the position of my administration, as well as I think a lot of companies here is you don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to various users.  You want to leave it open so that the next Google or the next Facebook can succeed.

There’s another problem, though — there are other countries — and I think this is what you were alluding to — that feel comfortable with the idea of controlling and censoring Internet content in their home countries, and setting up rules and laws about what can or cannot be on the Internet.  And I think that that not only is going to inhibit entrepreneurs who are creating value on the Internet; I think it’s also going to inhibit the growth of the country generally, because closed societies that are not open to new ideas, eventually they fall behind.  Eventually, they miss out on the future because they’re so locked into trying to maintain the past.

Wheeler has also been trying to distance himself from his own proposal for the past few months, after the idea drew immediate criticism from Internet startups and consumers shortly after it was leaked in April. He has said he also didn’t like the idea of fast lanes and the agency would discourage Internet companies from offering them.

But President Obama’s remarks are likely to make life more difficult for Wheeler, who is trying to figure out how to craft rules that can withstand legal scrutiny without re-regulating Internet lines under rules designed for old phone networks. Internet providers including AT&T and Comcast*, which spend millions of dollars each year on lobbying and campaign contributions, have already warned the FCC to back away from the re-regulation route.

One problem for Wheeler is that the president’s remarks — while not endorsing the idea of re-regulating Internet lines — gives the FCC’s two other Democratic members cover to reject his fast-lane proposal. Both have already expressed reservations about the idea. The FCC’s two Republican commissioners have already said they don’t see a need for net neutrality rules since there haven’t been a lot of complaints.

Obama made the remarks at a hotel about a block from the FCC during a meeting at the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit, which has been going on in D.C. this week. He was unexpectedly asked about net neutrality during the gathering Tuesday afternoon, as an interview turned to how to keep the Internet open and free from government interference worldwide.

Meanwhile, consumer interest group Public Knowledge took the first step Wednesday toward filing net neutrality complaints against AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, alleging the wireless carriers haven’t been open about their network management policies.

Verizon’s recent announcement that it would begin throttling the traffic of some customers with 4G LTE unlimited data plans raised questions about how wireless carriers are managing data traffic.

The FCC’s old net neutrality rules were mostly rejected by a federal appeals court in January, but a provision requiring Internet providers to clearly disclose their traffic management practices remains in effect.

* Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit is an investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.



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