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Why is Obama weighing in on net neutrality?

November 10, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
More than 3 million commenters crashed the Federal Communications Commission website in July to weigh in on the issue of net neutrality. Now President Obama has added his strong support, directing the FCC to protect equal access to all web content. Judy Woodruff speaks with U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith about the president’s move.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The president’s focus may be on Asia, but earlier today, he surprised many by weighing in on the future of the Web.

The subject? Net neutrality, or the idea that all traffic on the Web should be treated equally. It’s been the focus of a major debate and battle for years, as the Federal Communications Commission must decide how to treat broadband providers. Some of the biggest ones have argued there’s a place and a need to offer premium service at a different price, while still maintaining vital access for all.

The White House released a video in which the president made his most direct comments yet about how he thought the FCC should proceed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They should make it clear that whether you use a computer, phone or tablet, Internet providers have a legal obligation not to block or limit your access to a Web site. Cable companies can’t decide which online stores you can shop at or which streaming services you can use, and they can’t let any company pay for priority over its competitors.

To put these protections in place, I’m having the FCC to reclassify Internet service under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunications Act. In plain English, I’m asking them to recognize that for most Americans the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We get a deeper explanation of the president’s move and look at the reaction to it with Megan Smith. She’s the chief U.S. technology officer at the White House.

Megan Smith, welcome to the “NewsHour.”

I think the first question is, why is the president making I think what some are saying is an unprecedentedly strong statement of his own views about how the Internet should operate?

MEGAN SMITH, U.S. Chief Technology Officer: Thanks, Judy.

Yes, it’s important to note the FCC has already received 3.7 million comments from Americans. And today the president is adding his voice to that. Net neutrality is such an important principle for the Web and for the Internet. It’s how the Internet’s operated for all this time.

And we just want to make sure that that stays very clear as we advance into the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me — let me read you some of the comments that have been pouring in today from some folks who are concerned about this.

MEGAN SMITH: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The former chairman of the FCC, he’s now president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Michael Powell, he issued a statement saying — quote — “We are stunned the president would abandon the longstanding bipartisan policy of lightly regulating Internet and call for extreme regulation.”

MEGAN SMITH: It’s interesting some of those reactions. I have seen some of those as well.

This principle of net neutrality is how the Internet has been operating for — since the beginning. And so the FCC has an opportunity here to just put that into practice with moving to Title II. So there’s not some kind of extreme regulation being added here.

The most important thing is, we really want to make sure the American people are able to get to any Web site they’d like to get to. Let’s say, for example, you wanted to reach a couple different video providers. You don’t want one of those providers to be able to pay extra so that they can get to you faster and others are slower. You want the Internet to operate just as it operates equally across all that.

Also, can you imagine if you’re making a brand-new startup and there’s one or two of you in a garage? You want to make sure that that Web site can get to you just as fast as a Web site from a very powerful company. It’s one of the most important principles of net neutrality and it’s how it has been operating from the beginning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re also seeing comments from Verizon. It’s calling it a radical reversal of course that would, in and of itself, threaten great harm to the Internet. We have the leading mobile phone association, CTIA, saying imposing antiquated commentary or regulation on the — quote — “vibrant mobile wireless ecosystem is a gross overreaction.”

MEGAN SMITH: Yes, I’m seeing those too, but it’s not playing out in how the Internet actually works.

One of the things that’s interesting today, if you look at Twitter, you see an extraordinary amount of comments on the other side of that. So it’s a natural American conversation. What is great is, people like Vint Cerf, inventor of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, who is the inventor of the Web, very supportive of continuing the Web to be — have the same kind of regulation that it’s had the whole time.

Net neutrality is very important. For example, if you were on the phone, you wouldn’t want your phone provider to, say, stop you from calling Hertz if you wanted Avis or vice versa, Avis vs. Hertz. We want to make sure that the Internet operates the same way that the phone service operates.

And that’s what Title II in these telecom regulations make available. And so we can do this lightweight, flexible law for the Internet service providers to have them be covered under this law, and then one of the things is it allows for something called forbearance, so there’s a long history of these folks not having to have the regulations where they are having price controls or other things like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s, in effect, the president telling or at least saying to the independent Federal Communications Commissions that this is how sees — he wants it to issue regulations. What does that say about the president’s view of the independence of the FCC?

MEGAN SMITH: The FCC is an independent regulator, an independent organization, and they will make a decision. They call for input from across the country.

And so the president is weighing in today with a voice — he’s been supportive of net neutrality since the very beginning, since he was candidate Obama before he was president. So, again, there were 3.7 million comments that came into the FCC and continue — they are going to be mixing all those different comments together and looking at the opportunities and deciding this themselves as an independent regulator.

It’s just such an important principle for our economy and for our future and for innovation and for the protection of the American people to be able to have access to whatever Web sites they would like to go to, and for the independence of the savviest entrepreneurs who have been able to make these incredible Web sites that have really grown our economy. And we want to make sure that that continues strong into the future, and that the ISPs are not able to create paid toll roads or unfair advantages for different Web sites and have people pay different amounts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say 3.7 million people have weighed in, but you would agree the president expressing his view is a heavier, shall we say, finger on the scale than anyone else’s, isn’t it?

MEGAN SMITH: It’s very important.

But the FCC is an independent organization, and they are going to look at all the different things in front of them. But the president’s feels very strongly that this is important for our economy, it is important for entrepreneurs, it’s important for the protection of the American people and for the flexibility, of course, in this industry to make sure that we have this lightweight expression of this Title II law available to us to keep the Internet free and open for all the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Megan Smith, some have asked, why is the president doing this now? Was it — is there a reason he waited until after the election to step in?

MEGAN SMITH: I’m not a pundit, so I’m not sure about timing in that.

But I think, really, the most important thing is, he feels incredibly strongly about this, and these are the times when the FCC is considering these issues. So it’s important for he and the rest of the American people to be out there with our voices.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Megan Smith, who is the chief technology officer at the White House, we thank you.

MEGAN SMITH: Thank you, Judy.

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