America’s major telecoms and cable companies and business groups came out fighting on Monday after Barack Obama called for tough new regulations for broadband that would protect net neutrality, saying they were “stunned” by the president’s proposals.
The president called for new regulations to protect “net neutrality” – the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. His move came as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finalises a new set of proposals for regulation after the old rules were overturned by a series of court defeats at the hands of cable and telecom companies.
In response, Republican senator Ted Cruz went so far as to call Obama’s proposal for regulating the web “Obamacare for the internet”, saying on Twitter “the internet should not operate at the speed of government.”
“The cable industry strongly supports an open internet, is building an open internet, and strongly believes that over-regulating the fastest growing technology in our history will not advance the cause of internet freedom,” said NCTA president Michael Powell, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is now rewriting the internet rules.
The cable and telcoms giants are particularly concerned by Obama’s call for FCC to reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Such a move would reclassify consumer internet as a “common carrier” service – like the telephone – and give the regulator greater power to control prices and services.
“We are stunned the president would abandon the longstanding, bipartisan policy of lightly regulating the internet and [call] for extreme Title II regulation,” said Powell.
Fred Campbell, former head of wireless communications at the FCC and now executive director of free market tech group Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology said applying Title II to the internet would create “legal uncertainty at home and encourage the efforts of totalitarian regimes abroad to tighten their control over the internet – the 21st Century’s mass media communications system.”
Obama’s endorsement “of 1930s era Title II classification would lead to unprecedented government interference in the internet, and would hurt consumers and innovation,” said lobby group Broadband for America.
Obama’s statement also set him at loggerheads with David Cohen, the executive vice-president of Comcast, who has been one of the president’s biggest fundraisers.
Cohen said the cable company “fully embraces the open internet principles that the president and the chairman of the FCC have espoused” but argued section 706 of the telecommunications act – the regulatory legislation preferred by the cable and telecoms industry “provides more than ample authority to impose those rules”.
The president’s move has set the stage for a political showdown in Washington where the cable industry has been left looking flat-footed by a vocal and well- organised grass roots opposition.
The FCC is chaired by Tom Wheeler, a Democrat and former cable lobbyist. There are two Republican members of the five-member board, and both are expected to be staunchly against Obama’s proposals.
But their opposition comes after over four million comments were submitted to the FCC about its new internet regulation rules. Analysis has shown the overwhelming majority of submissions called for more regulation, not less.
The split is likely to be one of the key battlegrounds after Obama’s midterm election defeats. Mitch McConnell, who will become majority leader in the Senate when the Republicans take control in January, urged the FCC to reject Obama’s comments, saying it amounted to “heavy-handed regulation that will stifle innovation”.
The FCC will ultimately decide on its own rules but will face intense political pressure as it finishes drawing them up. Washington sources had expected the proposals to be circulated as soon as this month before a meeting of the FCC in December.
A leaked proposal last week suggested a “hybrid” compromise was under discussion which would expand the FCC’s powers to regulate broadband while also allowing a carve out for cable providers to charge more money for fast lanes.
In his response to Obama, Wheeler said the FCC has explored a “hybrid” solution but that it had created as many questions as it had answered. “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,” said Wheeler.
This article was written by Dominic Rushe in New York, for theguardian.com on Monday 10th November 2014 19.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010