For President Obama, A Net Neutrality Reprise

President Obama’s recent comments in favor of strong net neutrality regulations ignited a fresh round of media coverage: He’s opposed to Internet fast lanes! Hold loose everyone, we’re in charted waters.

The president’s remarks illustrate the fact that the ultimate net neutrality decision is out of his hands, resting instead in those of his appointee, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. And despite the media splurge, the president did not break new ground in his commentary.

His comments, via a White House transcript:

Question: Speaking about preventative health care.  And I also have been a professional musician for about 20 years.  So I want to speak to the issues that the little guy is facing in terms of their innovation being protected, and in terms of boot-strapping their entrepreneurial endeavor.  I want to speak to net neutrality and to intellectual property rights protection.

President Obama: Yes, well, this is obviously an issue that we’ve been working on for a long time.  It was something that I spoke about back in ‘08.  And we’re continually trying to fine-tune it and stay focused on.

On net neutrality, I made a commitment very early on that I am unequivocally committed to net neutrality.  I think that it is what has — (applause) — I think it’s what has unleashed the power of the Internet, and we don’t want to lose that or clog up the pipes.

And so there are a lot of aspects to net neutrality.  I know one of the things that people are most concerned about is paid prioritization, the notion that somehow some folks can pay a little more money and get better service, more exclusive access to customers through the Internet.  That’s something I’m opposed.  I was opposed to it when I ran.  I continue to be opposed to it now.

Now, the FCC is an independent agency.  They came out with some preliminary rules that I think the Netroots and a lot of folks in favor of net neutrality were concerned with.  My appointee, Tom Wheeler, knows my position.  I can’t — now that he’s there, I can’t just call him up and tell him exactly what to do.  But what I’ve been clear about, what the White House has been clear about is, 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.  That ends up being a big priority of mine.

Fine stuff to be sure, but it does highlight the limited purview of the White House over the matter. Independence is a tricky thing.

For context, here’s the president in August (via the Washington Post):

One of the issues around net neutrality is whether you are creating different rates or charges for different content providers. That’s the big controversy here. So you have big, wealthy media companies who might be willing to pay more and also charge more for spectrum, more bandwidth on the Internet so they can stream movies faster. I personally, the position of my administration, as well as a lot of the companies here, is that you don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to different users. You want to leave it open so the next Google and the next Facebook can succeed.

That’s the same substance.

Going back even further, here’s then-candidate Obama on net neutrality:

That’s, again, the same substance. What we’re seeing today is the president reiterate and not much more. Again, the help is welcome, but it doesn’t ice the issue in any way.

What matters in the new comments is their increased pressure on Chairman Wheeler to heed the call of the White House — independence goes a long way, but the influence of the executive is strong.

Oddly, or happily, there has been interesting commentary in the past few weeks regarding how to structure net neutrality regulation following the official comment period — the so-called ‘hybrid’ approach that would employ both Section 706 and Title II authority is picking up steam. The President, you’ll note, did not call for a specific method to achieve an open Internet. Instead, he merely demanded it in polite terms.

As such, Chairman Wheeler has wide range to wrap the issue in the manner of his choosing. Keep in mind that two commissioners of the agency — the two Republicans — have all but backed out of discussions. That leaves the chairman in a position of negotiating with the two Democratic members of the Commission. He cannot lose a vote on that side, limiting his maneuvering room.

We’re heading towards an FCC report and order on the issue. The White House has again stated its views. What happens next is up to the agency. We’ll see.