Nearly a decade after he vociferously defended an Internet that didn't speed up Web traffic to Fox or slow traffic to BarackObama.com, President Obama's stance on net neutrality has considerably softened.
On Friday, White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to say whether a federal proposal that could change the basic economics of the Internet ran afoul of Obama's campaign promises on net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, not slowed down or blocked by Internet providers.
"What was passed yesterday was something that kept options on the table," Carney told White House reporters, referring to a vote Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to advance the proposal. Pressed further, Carney added merely that Obama would be "looking very closely to see that the outcome of this results in a final rule that stays true to the spirit of net neutrality."
The exchange offered no definitions about what constituted net neutrality, in Obama's view. Carney offered no official perspective on Internet fast lanes, nor on requiring broadband providers to be more transparent about their traffic practices. Carney only repeated the White House's statement from Thursday, which said Obama was "looking at every way" and "consider[ing] any option that might make sense" on net neutrality.
The vagueness of the statement is a far cry from 2007, when Obama gave a lengthy response to a town hall question on net neutrality. Then, Obama said he was specifically opposed to "charging different rates to different Web sites" — which is to say, creating a fast lane.
Obama was far more specific in his claims back then, arguing that what he meant by net neutrality was "a level playing field for whoever has got the best idea." This online equality and fairness was so important, he said, that it amounted to a "basic principle in how the Internet functions."
"As president," said Obama, "I'm going to make sure that that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward."
It's hard to know what to make of Obama's apparent reluctance to define net neutrality that way now. Although Carney vowed that Obama is committed to the free and open Internet, those are terms that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has also used — and consumer advocates are less than enthused about how Wheeler appears to be interpreting the words.
Obama clearly wants to avoid publicly backing Wheeler into a corner. If Obama came out more forcefully in favor of regulating Internet providers like phone companies, he'd be closing off Wheeler's options. Worse, Obama would come off as a meddler, tipping the scales at what's supposed to be an independent agency. And if he did that, what would stop a future Republican president from doing the same with Internet policy?
The president knows he can't force the FCC to reclassify broadband providers as utilities for the same reasons that Wheeler hasn't already done so himself: It would be a political nightmare, filled with lawsuits and angry lawmakers who hold the FCC's purse strings.
Some Switch readers have suggested that Wheeler's and Obama's "connections" to industry be explored as a possible reason for the weakened stance on net neutrality. (For instance, Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts is a Democratic donor and an Obama golf partner.) As I've written elsewhere, though, this is getting into conspiracy theory territory.