WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Monday waded into the debate over "net neutrality" by suggesting that Internet service should be regulated more heavily to protect consumers.
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A look at the issue and what's at stake:
Q. What's net neutrality?
A. Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers shouldn't manipulate, slow or block data moving across its networks. As long as content isn't against the law, such as child pornography or pirated music, a file posted on one site will load generally at the same speed as a similarly sized file on another site. It means anyone can connect to the Internet and offer content without having to pay to reach consumers.
Q. Why is it being debated now?
The Federal Communications Commission embraced the idea of net neutrality in a 2010 rule. But last January, a federal court knocked down that rule after it was challenged by Verizon. Since then, the FCC has been trying to figure out how it can enforce open Internet principles in a way that would survive any future legal challenges.
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Q. Doesn't everyone want an open Internet?
A. Yes, although not everyone defines it the same way. The major cable and telecommunications companies that supply most of the nation's broadband say blocking or slowing down content would never be in their best interest commercially. But, some industry officials say, data hogs like Netflix might need to bear some of the cost of handling heavy traffic. And they want flexibility in thinking up new ways to package and sell Internet services. Industry says that's only fair, considering they are investing hundreds of billions of dollars into a network infrastructure that, so far, has prospered without much government intervention.
Q. So what did Obama propose?
A. Obama on Monday suggested that the FCC reclassify Internet service as a public utility using the 1934 Communications Act. He also called for a strict ban on "paid prioritization," meaning that Internet companies can't charge content providers for faster access. Obama's proposal falls in line with what much of the public and consumer advocates want, according to a review of the record-breaking 3.7 million public comments filed with the FCC on the issue this year. But Internet providers and several high-ranking Republicans in Congress say the proposal would stifle new developments and kill jobs. In the immediate hours after Obama's announcement, stocks for major cable providers tumbled.
Q. What happens next?
A. Probably nothing for a while. While FCC commissioners are politically appointed and Obama's statement indicates political pressure, the FCC isn't under any obligation to do what the president wants. Further, the issue of net neutrality is so highly technical and legally complex that even FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler — who was appointed by Obama — suggested that the president may have oversimplified things. In a statement issued Monday, Wheeler said applying Title II of the 1934 Communications Act raises "substantive legal questions," including whether that law would cover mobile devices.