ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Obama says it's time for the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet as a public utility to keep it free and open.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get to access. There are no toll roads on the information superhighway. This set of principles, the idea of net neutrality, has unleashed the power of the Internet and given innovators the chance to thrive. Abandoning these principles would threaten to end the Internet as we know it.
SIEGEL: The White House posted that video message today. The president has signaled his support for open Internet rules before, but this signals a stronger approach. Obama reiterated that the FCC is an independent agency, but now he is calling on the Commission to take a very specific action and as NPR's Joel Rose reports, that could be a very big deal.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In the video, the president is clear that he wants the FCC to craft rules that will protect net neutrality - the idea that your Internet service provider has to treat all the traffic flowing to your phone or computer equally- and he's also very clear about how he wants the Commission to do it.
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OBAMA: I'm asking the FCC to reclassify Internet service under title two of a law known as the Telecommunications Act. In plain English, I'm asking them to recognize that for most Americans the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life.
ROSE: Titled two - pretty arcane stuff, but it's arcane stuff that's going to set off major fireworks in Washington because it gets at one of the most fundamental questions about the Internet. What is it? Is it a utility like your old-fashioned landline phone?
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ROSE: Or is it more like cable television?
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is where we bring together the fastest Internet and the best in entertainment.
ROSE: For roughly the past two decades the FCC has treated the Internet more like cable TV and imposed very little regulation. What the White House is proposing would be a major shift, giving the government more power to regulate broadband under the Telecommunications Act of 1934.
ROBERT MCDOWELL: What they're doing here is saying America's high-tech policy for the future is going to be to retrofit an 80-year-old law onto it and that's going to produce a lot of unfortunate results.
ROSE: Robert McDowell is a former FCC commissioner who's now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He says cable and telecom companies and their Republican allies in the new Congress will certainly fight the Commission if it goes in the direction the president wants.
MCDOWELL: The FCC and the president had an opportunity to find bipartisan compromise here and they've rejected it.
ROSE: The agency has been trying for years to craft open Internet rules, but each time they've been struck down by the courts. Earlier this year, FFC chairman Tom Wheeler proposed allowing broadband providers to make special deals with content companies like Netflix or Amazon to deliver their data faster.
RICHARD BENNETT: I think Chairman Wheeler's first attempt to craft a set of rules was the right approach.
ROSE: Richard Bennett is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He says heavy-handed regulation will hurt more than it helps.
BENNETT: The fundamental difference between the Internet and public utilities is that we expect the Internet to improve.
ROSE: In other words, to get faster. Wheeler's plan had some support from the industry, but public interest groups rejected it as net neutrality in name only. The FCC was flooded with nearly 4 million public comments, mostly against Wheeler's plan.
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University who says the FCC needs all the authority it can get to prevent broadband companies from prioritizing services they like and slowing down services they don't, including their competitors.
TIM WU: No blocking Netflix, no trying to kill that company because you don't like them and it's ultimately the consumers continue to get what Internet's given them, which is better stuff for cheaper.
ROSE: What had been a fairly wonky debate took a big step into the political spotlight today with President Obama's announcement. His Republican critics were quick to push back. Texas Senator Ted Cruz called net neutrality quote, "Obamacare for the Internet," unquote.
In a statement, the FFC chairman hinted that the Commission would take its time drafting new open Internet rules. A major fight in Congress and the courts is waiting.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.