President Obama waded forcefully into the intense debate about the future of the Internet on Monday, saying the federal government should prevent broadband companies from dictating access to the Web by, for example, charging content-makers higher fees for faster delivery to customers.
In a long-anticipated statement, Obama staked out an aggressive position in favor of Net neutrality, the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. The issue has triggered a fierce political battle in Washington among titans of the technology industry and has sparked millions of Americans to inundate regulators with recommendations and concerns.
“An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life,” Obama said in a video and statement issued by the White House. “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.”
One of the main concerns of Net neutrality advocates is that Internet providers would effectively set up so-called fast and slow lanes that would favor traffic that pays for speedier delivery, which would result in higher costs for that content or slower viewing speeds for non-paying traffic.
For example, despite supporting the principle of Net neutrality, Netflix struck deals to pay Comcast and Verizon to boost streaming speeds of its video content. The companies argued the deal would finance a more direct system to deliver videos to viewers. Netflix said it has not raised prices because of the deal.
In his statement, Obama said the government should ban any arrangement, known as “paid prioritization,” that would result in consumers being “stuck in a slow lane.”
Obama also said Internet service providers, or ISPs, should not be allowed to block viewers from seeing any legal content or intentionally slow down or speed up the delivery of content.
The president’s emphatic announcement ratchets up pressure on the Federal Communications Commission as it considers a proposal by its chairman, Tom Wheeler, to regulate the Internet as a public utility, much like telephone service. The FCC is searching for an oversight role after the US Court of Appeals in January struck down portions of its previous Internet rules in a challenge brought by Verizon.
In pushing the agency to adopt “the strongest possible rules,” Obama cited the sheer number of comments, some 3.7 million, the FCC has received from citizens and companies, most of them in support of Net neutrality.
“Having the president stand up for Net neutrality is going to dramatically raise the profile of this issue,” said US Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has specialized in telecommunications issues.
Markey said Net neutrality is crucial to the tech-heavy Massachusetts economy.
“Consider an app developer in Boston — how will she reach potential customers if her website is stuck on a gravel path while those with capital flash past on the interstate?” Markey asked.
“Imagine the stifling of creativity if startups need massive amounts of money to innovate.”
In Washington, Net neutrality faces stiff opposition from Republicans, who will control both chambers of Congress in January and are expected to try to undo any new rules that the agency adopts.
Both Republican congressional leaders hit back at Obama Monday, with House Speaker John Boehner saying “Net neutrality is a textbook example of the kind of Washington regulations that destroy innovation and entrepreneurship” and Senate GOP chief Mitch McConnell labeling it “heavy-handed regulation that will stifle innovation and concentrate more power in the hands of Washington bureaucrats.”
The FCC’s board is split between three Democrats and two Republicans, both of whom are opposed to Wheeler’s public-utility model of regulation. Wheeler is also reportedly exploring a “hybrid” approach in which the government would oversee Internet practices while allowing service providers to strike some deals with websites and content-makers.
On Monday, Wheeler warned that the FCC will probably take months to sort through the legal ramifications of its proposal.
“Like the president, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform for free expression, innovation, and economic growth,” Wheeler said. “We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online.”
Net neutrality is a popular cause in Boston’s large community of tech startups and venture capital investors, many of whom cheered Obama’s announcement as a potentially decisive turn.
“We are very glad that the president decided to step up and side with the people,” said Evan Greer, campaign manager at Fight for the Future, a Massachusetts organization that has organized pro-Net-neutrality protests.
Obama did make one exception to public utility regulations for the Internet: The government should not dictate the prices consumers pay for service. Vivek Krishnamurthy, an instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, said the president missed an opportunity to improve Net service.
“Americans pay some of the highest broadband prices in the world for services that are pretty slow compared to other developed countries,” Krishnamurthy said. “Rate regulation is an important tool at the government’s disposal to prevent the phone and cable companies from making excess profits from their current subpar broadband offerings.”
This year, the European Parliament gave preliminary approval to its own set of Net neutrality rules, which would mandate equal access to broadband service and cut mobile data fees.
While technology companies such as Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. support Net neutrality, the major Internet providers have been battling the FCC proposal and immediately denounced Obama’s position. They argued that using regulations first drawn up in the 1930s would stifle one of the most dynamic technologies used by consumers around the world.
Declaring the Internet a public utility “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,” said the Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents many of the nation’s Internet providers.
Obama also said new regulations should apply to mobile broadband services, such as the 4G LTE technology that smartphone owners use to surf the Web. Mobile data services are currently regulated under a separate set of rules, and those companies also criticized the president’s position.
Hiawatha Bray and Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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Find him on Twitter @DanielAdams86. Nidhi Subbaraman writes for The Boston Globe’s BetaBoston website. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.