WASHINGTON — Officials with the Obama administration said Tuesday that the president continues to support a free and open Internet but that he cannot order the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband service as a utility that is subject to the same rules and rate regulation as local telephone service.
The statement was a response to an online petition that has attracted more than 105,000 signatures since Jan. 14, when a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC had overstepped its authority in drafting rules requiring Internet service providers to treat equally all traffic that passes through their pipes, rather than giving priority to some traffic – presumably from companies willing to pay for the privilege.
In a post on the White House blog, the officials said Obama “strongly supports” the promised effort of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler “to use the authority granted by Congress to maintain a free and open Internet.”
But because the FCC is an independent agency, Obama cannot order the action, the officials said. The five FCC commissioners – three from the president’s party, including the chairman, and two from the party not controlling the White House – are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
In its ruling in Verizon v. FCC, the court said the agency did have some legal authority over broadband service. It cannot, however, subject broadband to “common carrier” regulations, the type that govern telephone traffic.
Wheeler has said that the commission will soon introduce principles to preserve an open Internet. After the court ruling, most Internet service providers said they supported the concept as well.
“Preserving an open Internet is vital not just to the free flow of information, but also to promoting innovation and economic productivity,” wrote Gene B. Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, and Todd Park, the country’s chief technology officer. “Absent net neutrality, the Internet could turn into a high-priced private toll road that would be inaccessible to the next generation of visionaries.”