President Obama is lobbying his own Federal Communications Commission chairman to enact stronger net-neutrality regulations.
Speaking in Los Angeles on Thursday, 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 has supported net neutrality since he first ran for president in 2008, but Thursday's comments were his most explicit condemnation of pay-for-priority Internet traffic deals.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed new net-neutrality rules earlier this year that would allow Internet providers to charge websites for access to special "fast lanes" as long as the deals are "commercially reasonable."
The FCC received 3.7 million comments on its net-neutrality proposal, most of them calling for stronger rules. The Obama administration frequently provides input to the FCC through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (a Commerce Department agency)—but the administration did not formally weigh in on net neutrality.
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."
Wheeler has said he doesn't want to see the Internet divided into the "haves" and "have-nots." But his legal options are limited after a federal court struck down the FCC's first attempt at net-neutrality rules earlier this year.
Consumer activists are urging the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet as a "telecommunications service" under the Communications Act. 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providers and Republicans are fiercely opposed to that option, warning it would strangle the industry's growth with outdated utility-style regulations.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 didn't weigh in on what legal path Wheeler should use to ban Internet fast lanes. But the FCC chairman is under intense pressure to find some way to toughen up his proposal.
The Internet Association, a lobbying group that represents Google, Facebook, Netflix, and other Web services that could potentially be forced to pay for fast speeds, applauded Obama's comments.
"The FCC should side with the vast Internet user community in creating enforceable net-neutrality rules for both mobile and home broadband that serve to protect innovation online," Michael Beckerman, the group's president, said in a statement.
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