As a Presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama was unwavering in his commitment to ensuring the equal treatment of all online content. He was a staunch proponent of so-called Net Neutrality–keeping the Internet open and equal for everyone. Now, six years later and in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) narrow vote Thursday to approve a proposal that would virtually eliminate Net Neutrality, his position on the issue is not so clear. He has yet to make a statement about the FCC’s latest proposal.
During a campaign stop in 2007, candidate Obama was clear in his commitment to an open and equal Internet. In a speech at Google’s headquarters he told the crowd, “I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality. Because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose.”
You can watch his speech on YouTube here:
And it seems that the President is now trying to back away from those campaign promises in the wake of the FCC’s vote. While not yet himself making a statement on the matter, his Press Secretary Jay Carney released a statement yesterday that tried to distance the President from his previous statements.
“The President has made clear since he was a candidate that he strongly supports net neutrality and an open Internet,” Carney’s statement reads. “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. The FCC is an independent agency, and we will carefully review their proposal. 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. The President is looking at every way to protect a free and open Internet, and will consider any option that might make sense.”
By claiming the President “will consider any option” the statement does, however, seem to offer him a way to come out against the new proposal if he chooses to do so. He also could propose new legislation on the matter, but there seems to be little hope something like that would pass through Congress successfully.
The FCC’s vote on Thursday approved a plan that prohibited broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against content, but allowed for the addition of faster service options for paying content providers. The FCC’s Chairman, Tom Wheeler–who was appointed by President Obama last year–has argued that these new “fast lanes” do not violate Net Neutrality principles.
Yet not everyone agrees with the FCC Chairman.
According to Time magazine, the “fast lane” proposal offered by the FCC had already been dismissed as a “dangerous intrusion on open competition that violated net neutrality” when Candidate Obama made his speech in 2007.
“Companies like Google argued that once a “fast lane” was allowed, broadband companies like Verizon and Comcast would lose incentives to upgrade existing online speeds, creating over time a two-tiered Internet that gave advantage to incumbent content producers who could afford to pay the fees,” Time points out.
And Google continues to argue for Net Neutrality. In a letter to the FCC dated May 7, 2014, Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook and a host of other Internet companies made their case for Net Neutrality.
“We write to express our support for a free and open internet” the letter says. “Over the past twenty years, American innovators have created countless Internet-based applications, content offerings, and services that are used around the world. These innovations have created enormous value for Internet users, fueled economic growth, and made our Internet companies global leaders. The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination. An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.”
The letter concludes with a suggestion: “Instead of permitting individualized bargaining and discrimination, the Commission’s rules should protect users and Internet companies on both fixed and mobile platforms against blocking, discrim- ination, and paid prioritization, and should make the market for Internet services more transparent.
Conspicuous by its absence is Apple, which did not sign on to the open letter. In fact, Apple has pretty much been silent on the whole Net Neutrality question so far.
As Newsweek put it in an article dated May 8, “The most notable absence from the group of signatories on the letter was Apple. The company has yet to issue any statement on the FCC’s rumored guidelines, so its reasons for not joining the coalition are unknown. But it’s absence isn’t entirely surprising. Not known for being a champion of the market competition, last summer, it was found guilty of fixing the price of ebooks, and in doing so increasing their price for consumers by as much as 50 percent. (Apple has appealed the decision.)”
While Apple may not be making any statements on the matter, co-founder Steve Wozniak is on record as supporting Net Neutrality.
“The early Internet was so accidental, it also was free and open in this sense. The Internet has become as important as anything man has ever created. But those freedoms are being chipped away. Please, I beg you, open your senses to the will of the people to keep the Internet as free as possible. Local ISP's should provide connection to the Internet but then it should be treated as though you own those wires and can choose what to do with them when and how you want to, as long as you don't destruct them,” Wozniak wrote in The Atlantic in 2010.
At that time, Net Neutrality rules that did not permit the creation of a “fast lane” were established by a previous FCC chairman, also appointed by President Obama. But those rules were thrown out by the Washington D.C. Circuit Court in January 2014 on the grounds that the FCC lacks authority over broadband providers.
The proposed rules approved by the FCC on Thursday seek public input on whether the agency should re-categorize broadband providers, which would enable the FCC’s commissioners to establish new Net Neutrality rules. The proposed rules are open for public comment through July 15.