FCC Chief Says He Agrees With Obama on Net Neutrality. Advocates Don't Buy it.

The chairman's proposal would allow for Internet "fast lanes" in some cases.

Thomas Wheeler testifies in his confirmation hearing to become Federal Communications Commission chairman, before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on June 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. Wheeler testified that he supports a spectrum auction but likened it to a Rubik's cube, with many different facets that must be aligned perfectly in order to be completed. (National Journal)

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Friday that he and President Obama agree on the importance of protecting net neutrality.

"My position is unchanged," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said at a press conference. "The president and I agree—and have always agreed—on the importance of an open Internet."

But net-neutrality advocates responded that as long as Wheeler supports allowing large companies to pay for special "fast lanes" on the Internet, he and the president are miles apart.

Obama has supported net neutrality since he first ran for president in 2008, and he emphasized his opposition last week to any pay-for-priority Internet traffic deals.

Marvin Ammori, a consultant for tech companies and one of the leading net-neutrality advocates, said Wheeler's "legal proposal has the support of AT&T and Comcast, not Obama or the American public."

"He needs to propose a final rule that will actually ban tolls, discrimination, and paid prioritization. Rhetoric is not enough," Ammori said.

The goal of net neutrality is to ensure that Internet service providers like Comcast can't abuse their gatekeeper power to distort the Internet for their own purposes.

In May, Wheeler proposed net-neutrality rules that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking websites. But they would be allowed to charge websites for faster service as long as the agreements are "commercially reasonable."

His goal is to enact rules that can survive legal challenges after the FCC's first attempt at net neutrality was struck down in court earlier this year. But the proposal sparked a massive backlash, and 3.7 million people filed comments with the FCC—the most ever for any issue.

Asked about the issue last week in Los Angeles, Obama said he is "unequivocally committed" to net neutrality and that he is opposed to "the notion that somehow some folks can pay a little more money and get better service, more exclusive access to customers through the Internet."

Obama was careful to note that the FCC is an independent agency and that he can't "just call [Wheeler] up and tell him exactly what to do." But he said the FCC chairman "knows my position."

"What I've been clear about, what the White House has been clear about, is that we expect whatever final rules to emerge to make sure that we're not creating two or three or four tiers of Internet," Obama said. "That ends up being a big priority of mine."

On Friday, Wheeler said he hasn't spoken with Obama personally on the issue, but that he has kept White House staff informed.

He pointed to numerous statements he's made over the last several months criticizing pay-for-priority Internet traffic deals.

For example, in May, Wheeler emphasized that he would ban any fast lane deals that hurt consumers, competition, or innovation. He has also said he doesn't want to let Internet providers choose "winners and losers" or for there to be "haves and have-nots" on the Internet.

But the FCC chairman did not explicitly commit to revising his proposal to ban all paid-prioritization of Internet traffic in all circumstances.

A White House spokesman declined to respond to Wheeler's latest comments.

Michael Weinberg, a vice president at the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said he's encouraged that Wheeler thinks he's on the same page as Obama.

"If that's true, then the proposal that comes out has to reflect the rules that President Obama has articulated," Weinberg said.

Wheeler has said he wants final rules on the books by the end of the year. But the court decision earlier this year has left him with limited legal options in enacting new net-neutrality rules.

Net-neutrality advocates are urging the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet as a "telecommunications service." The activists claim the legal maneuver, which would grant the FCC sweeping new powers, is the only way to put the rules on firm legal ground.

But broadband providers and Republicans are fiercely opposed to that option, warning it would strangle the industry's growth with outdated utility-style regulations.

Obama hasn't commented on which legal powers the FCC should use.