US President Barack Obama voiced support Monday for "free and open Internet" rules to protect against putting online services that don't pay extra fees into a "slow lane."
Obama endorsed an effort to reclassify the Internet as a public utility to give regulators more authority to enforce "net neutrality," the principle barring Internet service firms from playing favorites or opening up "fast lanes" for services that pay fees for better access.
In a statement, Obama said he wants the independent Federal Communications Commission to "implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality."
Obama's comment comes amid heated debate among online industry sectors as the FCC seeks to draft new rules to replace those struck down this year by a US appeals court, which said the agency lacked authority to regulate Internet service firms as it does telephone carriers.
"'Net neutrality' has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation -- but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted," Obama said in a statement.
"We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas."
Obama said that while the FCC is an independent agency, he wants the regulatory body to maintain key principles of net neutrality.
He said the rules should ensure "no block" of any legal content, to ensure that an Internet firm does not block one service such as Netflix to promote a rival one.
Another key principle endorsed by Obama would prohibit "paid prioritization" that would allow one service to get into a faster lane by paying extra.
- No 'gatekeeping' -"No service should be stuck in a 'slow lane' because it does not pay a fee," Obama said.
"That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet's growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect."
Obama said he wants the rules to bar any "throttling" or slowing of content at the discretion of the service provider.
He also said he wants the same rules to apply to mobile broadband, which was not covered in the earlier regulations.
To accomplish this, Obama said the rules should reclassify consumer broadband service as a public utility -- a move that has been fiercely opposed by the companies that would be affected.
Obama's statement places him squarely in the camp of many consumer activists and online services and against industry sectors involved in Internet delivery.
The FCC is redrafting its rules after the court decision struck down its regulations in a case brought by US broadband giant Verizon.
Verizon and its allies have argued that the FCC lacks authority to interfere with their business, and that Congress never decided these companies were regulated utilities or "common carriers."
- 'Rusty sledgehammer'Scott Belcher, who heads the Telecommunications Industry Association, said the reclassification "would set the industry back decades, and threaten the private sector investment that is critically needed to ensure that the network can meet surging demand."
In a Seattle Times column Sunday, National Cable & Telecommunications Association chief Michael Powell said this kind of regulation is "a rusty sledgehammer that has been sitting in the garage for 20 years."
Walter McCormick at the US Telecom Association said Obama's proposal would be "a shift that will redefine the Internet, insert the government deeply into its management and invite other countries to do the same."
Others welcomed the initiative.
Nuala O’Connor, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the proposals "is one way to ensure everyone has equal access and the opportunity to thrive in the digital economy."
The consumer group Common Cause said the plan would "preserve the innovative capacity of the Internet and ensure that its transformative power extends to all consumers -- not just those who can afford a fast lane."
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler welcomed Obama's statement but offered no timetable for the new rules.
"Like the president, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform for free expression, innovation, and economic growth. We both oppose Internet fast lanes," Wheeler said in a statement.
But he noted that reclassification poses "substantive legal questions," and that the agency needs time "to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face."