Commentary

Obama Touts Neutrality, But Can FCC Deliver?

President Barack Obama reiterated his support for net neutrality this week during an interview on YouTube.

"I'm a big believer in net neutrality," he said, responding to a viewer's question about the issue. "My FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, has indicated that he shares the view that we've got to keep the Internet open, that we don't want to create a bunch of gateways that prevent somebody who doesn't have a lot of money, but has a good idea, from being able to start their next YouTube or their next Google on the Internet."

Obama's remarks aren't surprising, given that he has consistently touted the importance of improving broadband access and insuring neutrality. But whether the FCC will be able to enact neutrality regulations remains to be seen.

Already the commission's attempt to craft rules pitted Web companies, Internet service providers, entertainment organizations, civil rights advocates and media reform groups against each other.

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Warning of an FCC power grab, the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation says the commission lacks authority to impose regulations.

Hollywood and the record industry want the FCC to encourage network providers to prevent piracy -- presumably by deploying filtering technology or otherwise blocking the transfer of copyrighted material.

For their part, ISPs argue that they should be allowed to make deals to charge companies more for prioritized delivery.

Meantime, it's not clear that any new neutrality laws would even be legal. Industry watchers are awaiting an appellate decision about whether the FCC had the authority to sanction Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer traffic. But the only real question appears to be whether the court will overturn the FCC's ruling on relatively narrow procedural grounds, or whether it will state more broadly that the FCC lacks authority over the Web.

If Obama really wants to see neutrality protections enshrined in law, he might have to encourage elected officials to pass new legislation, rather than hope that any rules crafted by the FCC hold up in court.

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