White House says it backs FCC in efforts to protect network neutrality

February 18

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Since President Obama took office in 2009, the Federal Communications Commission has been struggling to decide what to do about network neutrality. In 2010, the FCC approved a set of "Open Internet" rules designed to safeguard network neutrality, but an appeals court struck down those rules earlier this year.

The rules failed because the FCC had previously classified broadband as an "information service." Congress has limited the FCC's powers to regulate services in this category. But the law also gives the FCC the option to re-classify broadband as a "telecommunications service." There's broad agreement that that would give the FCC the power to impose network neutrality regulations and more. A petition on the White House's petition site supporting such a reclassification recently garnered 100,000 signatures, prompting an official response from the White House.

In the response, Obama advisers Gene Sperling and Todd Park note that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has "reaffirmed his commitment to a free and open Internet," an effort that the Obama administration says it "strongly supports." However, the presidential advisers note that "the FCC is an independent agency," and the president can't direct the agency to change its stance on network neutrality. While the White House says it will "vigorously support" Wheeler in his effort to promote an open Internet, it refused to endorse any specific strategy for making network neutrality regulations legally binding.

Still, the supportive statement may give Chairman Wheeler a bit of political cover as he ponders the best way to re-establish network neutrality regulations. The last time the FCC considered reclassifying broadband as an information service in 2010, the result was a backlash from Congress. That reaction prompted Chairman Julius Genachowski to try to impose network neutrality regulations without formal re-classification. But the courts nixed that approach, leaving his successor with fewer options.

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