Netflix and the Writers Guild of America loved it. Time Warner Cable and Comcast — not so much. And media watchdog orgs and tech-centric think tanks were all over the opinion spectrum in reacting to President Obama’s strong statement in favor of net neutrality principles that have long been articulated by his administration.
Obama’s decision to deliver a contemporary version of a fireside-chat via a nearly two-minute Internet video sparked a torrent of reaction from constituencies with a dog in the fight amid the FCC’s review of its net neutrality policy. The FCC’s action was spurred by a federal court’s decision in January to strike down aspects of the existing rules that barred ISPs from discriminating or blocking consumers’ access to any online content.
Obama clearly took a strong stand in framing the debate in stark lay terms, suggesting that losing the ban on ISPs discriminating against content “would threaten to end the Internet as we know it.” He cast cable giants as wielding ominous powers if his push to have consumer broadband service reclassified by the FCC as a public utility, or Title II service, which would open providers up to broader oversight and regulation by the commission.
In Obama’s words, net neutrality is the thin virtual line to ensure that “cable companies can’t decide which online stores you can shop at or which streaming services you can use, and they can’t let any company pay for priority over its competitors.”
In response, Time Warner Cable predicted a long slog through the courts if the FCC goes the Title II route, even with Obama suggesting that broadband should be given some “forbearance” exceptions to certain aspects of public utility regulation.
The timing of the net neutrality skirmish couldn’t be much worse for TW Cable and Comcast as they await federal approval of their $45 billion merger.
After issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in May and inviting public comments, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said he’d hoped to release a new proposal for net neutrality rules out by year’s end. But with the scrum intensifying over the issue, the proposal isn’t expected to hit the FCC for a vote until early next year, at the soonest. Wheeler in recent comments has hinted that he was investigating a hybrid path to the get around the thorny problems raised by Title II reclassification.
The volatility surrounding the issue was evident in the responses that poured in after the White House issued its statement and video early Monday.
“Regulating broadband service under Title II, as the President proposes, will create unnecessary uncertainty, lead to years of litigation and threaten the continued growth and development of the Internet,” Time Warner Cable said. “The FCC has sufficient tools without reclassifying broadband to protect the openness of the Internet, while at the same time encouraging continued investment and innovation in the Internet ecosystem.”
Comcast was more blunt in its objection, arguing that cable companies have laid the track for the broadband revolution, something that “only happened because we were not subject to the intrusive regulatory regime designed for a different era.” Comcast also noted that Wall Street was alarmed too. A Title II shift “would be a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation, as today’s immediate stock market reaction demonstrates,” Comcast said.
Netflix’s response was short and sweet, delivered appropriately enough via Facebook and Twitter: “We agree with President Barack Obama: Consumers should pick winners and losers on the Internet, not broadband gatekeepers.”
The WGA West, not surprisingly, was more verbose. “Reclassification of broadband service as a Title II telecommunications service recognizes that the open Internet works just like the phone lines and will allow the FCC to institute the strong rules the President calls for—no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency and no paid prioritization. The policies outlined by the President will prevent a few online gatekeepers from picking winners and losers and will allow creativity, innovation and free speech to flourish,” WGAW prexy Chris Keyser said.
Showbiz has long been divided on the net neutrality issue, with distributors arguing that they should have more control over their networks when bandwidth-hungry companies like Netflix use them to build profitable businesses, while arts orgs have fretted over the potential loss of the low barriers to entry provided by Internet distribution. The big Kahuna of showbiz lobbying orgs, the MPAA, stayed noticeably silent (so far) on Obama’s statement.
Among watchdog and advocacy orgs, the responses fell in line as expected.
Common Cause gave the President a fist bump: “The President wasn’t kidding when he said he’d take a back seat to no one on net neutrality,” said former FCC commish Michael Copps, an advisor to the org.
Latino advocacy group Presente.org declared it a “huge win for the Internet and for Latinos” and warned “we can’t allow a few corporations to put their profits above access to the Internet for the masses.”
Michael Powell, former FCC chairman and now prexy of the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., the cable biz’s largest lobbying org, declared that he was “stunned” by the President’s proposal of a “tectonic shift in national policy.” Perhaps in response to the GOP extended its power in the Senate and the House in last week’s midterm elections, Powell suggested the focus should shift away from his old employer to the Capitol building.
“This is truly a matter that belongs in Congress and only Congress should make a policy change of this magnitude,” Powell said. “Congress can easily unravel the legal and jurisdictional knot that has tied up the FCC in crafting sustainable open Internet rules, without resorting to rules of the rotary-dial phone era.”
Tech Freedom, which bills itself as a non-partisan tech policy think tank, bristled at the idea of more federal oversight of the Internet — even if it’s designed to keep the playing field level for all. The org accused Obama of engaging in a “cynical political ploy” that panders to left-leaning activists. It also sounded an alarm that had a whiff of the Red Menace to it.
“Title II would raise a host of other problems, including choking broadband competition, inviting regulation of the rest of the Internet and validating Russia and China’s push to have the International Telecommunications Union regulate the Internet as a telecom service,” Tech Freedom prexy Berin Szoka said.