Appearing at a town hall in Santa Monica on Thursday, President Obama said he was “unequivocally committed to net neutrality,” weighing in on an issue that has triggered an avalanche of comments to the FCC as its tries to come up with the rules of the road for the Internet.
“I think that it is what has unleashed the power of the Internet, and we don’t want to lose that or clog up the pipes,” Obama said, speaking to workers at Cross Campus, a workspace for startup tech companies. Obama also said that he is opposed to paid prioritization, in which a company can pay for speedier delivery of its web traffic to consumers.
“The notion that somehow some folks can pay a little more money and get better service and more exclusive access to customers through the Internet, that is something that I am opposed to,” he said. ” I was opposed when I ran [for president in 2008] and I continue to be opposed to it now.”
But he said that the decision on net neutrality would be left to the FCC and its chairman, Tom Wheeler. Although Obama said that Wheeler “knows my position,” he said that the FCC was an independent federal agency.
“Now that [Wheeler] is there I can’t just call him up and tell him what to do,” Obama said, although he said that the White House has been clear that “we expect whatever final rules to emerge to make sure that we are not creating two or three or four tiers of the Internet.”
The FCC has been flooded with millions of public comments on net neutrality as it devises new rules, after a previous set of net neutrality regulations were struck down by the D.C. Circuit in January.
After Wheeler made an initial proposal in April, advocates of net neutrality expressed alarm, warning that it would be insufficient to protect the Internet from paid prioritization. He has since encouraged the public to weigh in on other possible actions, including classifying the Internet as a telecommunications service, a controversial step that nevertheless would increase the FCC’s authority over broadband.
Obama arrived in Los Angeles at about 2 p.m. for an overnight trip that includes two fundraisers and a visit to San Dimas on Friday for an event commemorating his designation of a portion of the San Gabriel Mountains as a national monument.
Before his town hall, Obama took a tour of Cross Campus, which houses freelancers, creative professionals and startup teams. His first stop was at *Newzcard, a live and continually updating photo news wire.
“He took the time to ask questions about what we were doing,” said Justin Kahn, co-founder and CEO. “He came around and met everyone on the team, and spent a few minutes going through our products and the site.”
Steve Granitz, co-founder and president of *Newzcard, described the experience as bit surreal (they even invited Obama to try to tweet photos out), but said that he “was very impressed by what he had to say.”
Later on Thursday, Obama is scheduled to attend a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Mandeville Canyon home of Gwyneth Paltrow, with tickets starting at $1,000 per person and rising to $32,400 per person for a more intimate reception, dinner and photo with the president. About 200 people were expected at the reception, and 50 at the dinner.
In his town hall at Cross Campus, Obama also addressed intellectual property protection, suggesting that it has been a “trickier issue” because it has meant balancing the interests of the tech and content communities.
“The basic concept is you want sufficient IP —whether patents or copyrights — that you are continually encouraging and rewarding innovation and creativity. But you don’t want those structures so tight, in terms of protecting that intellectual property, that it ends up being actually an inhibitor to people getting good information, folks coming up with new uses for existing information,” he said.
He also said that a challenge was curbing piracy overseas, even as he said his administration has tried to step up enforcement.
“That’s why we actually have to have an international system to deal with this,” he said.
His visit to Cross Campus emphasized the future of the digital economy and the role of the millennial generation in it. With polls showing it will be a struggle for Democrats to retain their Senate majority in the midterms, Obama’s visit was viewed as a way to appeal to younger voters and encourage them to vote.
“Despite some of the gridlock in Washington, we are making progress, and when I come to places like this, it inspires me and reminds me why I’m chronically optimistic about America,” he said to the crowd of about 100 people in the warehouse-like space.
Kahn said, “I definitely believe that [the president’s visit] helped. The president hit all of the hot points that deal with millennials.”
Update: The Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook, Netflix and other major Internet companies, released a statement praising Obama’s net neutrality remarks as well as the president’s call for patent reform.
The association said, “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. The Internet should remain a place where users can access the content they desire at the speeds they pay for. Segregation of the Internet into fast lanes and slow lanes will distort the market, discourage innovation and harm Internet users.”