Obama pledges Net neutrality laws if elected president

The presidential hopeful says if elected, he'll prioritize enacting antidiscrimination rules for broadband providers during first year in office. Will others follow?

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read

If elected president, Barack Obama plans to prioritize, well, barring broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast from prioritizing Internet content.

Affixing his signature to federal Net neutrality rules would be high on the list during his first year in the Oval Office, the junior senator from Illinois said during an interactive forum Monday afternoon with the popular contender put on by MTV and MySpace at Coe College in Iowa.

Sen. Barack Obama

Net neutrality, of course, is the idea that broadband operators shouldn't be allowed to block or degrade Internet content and services--or charge content providers an extra fee for speedier delivery or more favorable placement.

The question, selected through an online video contest, was posed via video by small-business owner and former AT&T engineer Joe Niederberger, a member of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org. He asked Obama: "Would you make it a priority in your first year of office to reinstate Net neutrality as the law of the land? And would you pledge to only appoint FCC commissioners that support open Internet principles like Net neutrality?"

"The answer is yes," Obama replied. "I am a strong supporter of Net neutrality."

He went on to explain the issue briefly: "What you've been seeing is some lobbying that says that the servers and the various portals through which you're getting information over the Internet should be able to be gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different Web sites...so you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you'd be getting rotten service from the mom and pop sites," he went on. "And that I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet--which is that there is this incredible equality there."

Obama added that companies like Google may not have gotten started without a "level playing field" and pledged to make sure Net neutrality "is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward."

Obama's revelation wasn't exactly jaw-dropping. After all, when debate over enacting Net neutrality laws was raging in earnest last summer, he devoted a podcast to touting the need for regulations and denying the Bells and cable the ability "to change the internet as we know it." He also signed on as a cosponsor of legislation proposing Net neutrality regulations for broadband providers.

He's also not the only presidential candidate to voice support for the rules. On the Democratic side, so have Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), former Democratic senator John Edwards, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and Democratic New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Among the Republicans, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has also reportedly given a thumbs up to the idea, although some opponents of Net neutrality laws contend he was blindsided in a conference call with bloggers and questioned whether he was familiar enough with the issue to take a real stand. With only a few exceptions, however, Republicans have generally rejected proposals for Net neutrality regulations, arguing the market should be left to sort out complaints of discrimination and that new regulations will stifle investment in new broadband networks.

If nothing else, Obama's remarks are noteworthy because they seem to affirm that Net neutrality is alive and well as a political issue. His decision to promise "concrete steps," as MoveOn.org called them, at a public forum could create a ripple effect, eliciting similar pledges (or opposite ones, as the case may be) from rivals and becoming a defining issue in the campaign.

Still, I don't know about you, but as polarizing as the proposed regulations may be, I'm just not sure I can picture Net neutrality becoming a make-or-break issue akin to healthcare, immigration or the Iraq War.