US President Barack Obama speaks to people at 1776, a tech startup hub, on July 3, 2014 in Washington
Washington (AFP) - US President Barack Obama voiced support Monday for a new regulatory system for Internet providers aimed at avoiding a two-speed system leaving some services in an online "slow lane."
Obama endorsed an effort to reclassify the Internet as a public utility to give regulators authority to enforce "net neutrality," the principle barring Internet service firms from playing favorites or opening up "fast lanes" for those who pay more.
In a statement, Obama said he wants the independent Federal Communications Commission to "implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality."
Obama's comment comes as the FCC seeks to draft new rules to replace those struck down this year by a US appeals court, which said the agency lacked authority to regulate Internet service firms as it does telephone carriers.
"'Net neutrality' has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation -- but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted," Obama said in a statement.
"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."
Obama said that while the FCC is an independent agency, he wants the regulatory body to maintain key principles of net neutrality.
He said the rules should ensure no blocking of any legal content, to ensure that an Internet provider does not shut out a service such as Netflix to promote a rival one.
Obama seeks to ban "paid prioritization" that would allow one service to get into a faster lane by paying extra, or the flip side of that, which would be "throttling" or slowing a service which does not pay.
- No 'gatekeeping' -
"No service should be stuck in a 'slow lane' because it does not pay a fee," Obama said.
Obama also said he wants the same rules to apply to mobile broadband, which was not covered in the earlier regulations.
To accomplish this, Obama said the rules should reclassify consumer broadband service as a public utility -- a move that has been fiercely opposed by the companies that would be affected.
The FCC is redrafting its rules after the court decision struck down its regulations in a case brought by US broadband giant Verizon.
Obama's plan puts him squarely in the camp of consumer activists and many tech firms, such as Google and Microsoft, which have endorsed net neutrality.
Ed Black at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents major tech firms, said Obama's plan "is the best legal strategy if the much needed open Internet rules are to be effective."
- Political fight looms -
But Obama's move swiftly drew fire from Republican lawmakers, who said the proposal amounts to old-style regulation.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Obama's approach smacks of "heavy-handed regulation that will stifle innovation and concentrate more power in the hands of Washington bureaucrats."
Senator Ted Cruz said the plan "puts the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service, and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities, and higher prices for consumers."
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, said Obama appears to be girding for a fight with Republicans despite the sweeping victory for the opposition in last week's midterm elections.
"The president's statement is exactly the wrong reaction to the election. It endorses a backward-looking policy that would apply the brakes to the most dynamic sector of America’s economy," Marshall said.
Scott Belcher, who heads the Telecommunications Industry Association, said the reclassification "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."
Walter McCormick at the US Telecom Association said Obama's proposal would be "a shift that will redefine the Internet, insert the government deeply into its management and invite other countries to do the same."
Others welcomed the initiative.
Nuala O’Connor, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the proposals "is one way to ensure everyone has equal access and the opportunity to thrive in the digital economy."
The consumer group Common Cause said the plan would "preserve the innovative capacity of the Internet and ensure that its transformative power extends to all consumers -- not just those who can afford a fast lane."
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler welcomed Obama's statement but offered no timetable for the new rules.
"Like the president, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform... We both oppose Internet fast lanes," Wheeler said in a statement.
But he noted that reclassification poses "substantive legal questions," and that the agency needs time "to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face."