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FCC chair said to balk at Obama's Net neutrality plan

Tom Wheeler tells Internet executives he is considering an approach that includes some of Obama's proposals as well as addressing ISPs' concerns, the Washington Post reports.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may be consider a Net neutrality tack that diverges from Obama's. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

In the wake of President Obama's call for the FCC to adopt tighter regulations to preserve a free and open Internet, the agency's chairman is reportedly considering a different tack.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during a meeting Monday with executives from major Internet companies that he was considering an approach that included some of Obama's proposals as well as addressing the concerns of Internet service providers, according to the Washington Post.

"What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn't affect your business," a visibly upset Wheeler told executives, according to sources in attendance. "What I've got to figure out is how to split the baby."

During the meeting, Wheeler reportedly reminded executives that the FCC was not beholden to the White House, repeatedly saying, "I am an independent agency."

Earlier Monday, Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to enforce the principle of treating all Internet traffic the same way, commonly known as Net neutrality. The president urged passage of regulations that treat broadband services like utilities, so that ISPs would be unable "to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas."

Wheeler's alleged subsequent comments signal that a major policy battle may be in the offing over how to treat Internet traffic -- a contentious debate that has only heated up as the FCC works to prepare an official guideline. The debate has centered on whether broadband should be placed under Title II regulation under the Telecommunications Act, which regulates how common carriers must conduct business across all forms of communication in order to act "in the public interest."

Proponents argue that Title II regulation would ensure the free and fair flow of traffic across the Internet. Opponents, however, believe the reorientation would mean onerous rules that would limit investment in the infrastructure and in new services, and that toll roads of sorts would provide better service to companies that can support their higher traffic volumes. But that in turn has created widespread concern that ISPs could throttle service in some instances, intentionally slowing some content streams and speeding others.

Obama also said that the FCC should limit some of the regulation relating to rates and "other provisions less relevant to broadband," creating potential wiggle room for further debate on the limitations.

An FCC representative told CNET that Wheeler's comments at the meeting were taken out of context and that no decision has been made been made on the rules the agency will consider.

"Reports that Chairman Wheeler has decided on the best approach for implementing legally sustainable open Internet rules are inaccurate," spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said in a statement Wednesday. "No decision has been made. All options remain on the table, including Title II reclassification."

Wheeler, who praised Obama's statement Monday as "an important and welcome addition to the record of the Open Internet proceeding," came under fire in April when details of the FCC's proposal to reinstate Open Internet rules were made public. While Wheeler has said that he fully supports the open Internet, the proposal could allow for paid prioritization of Internet traffic.

CNET's Roger Cheng and Don Reisinger contributed to this report.

Update, November 12 at 1:50 p.m. PT: Adds FCC comment.