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White House says it won't direct FCC to reclassify broadband

Obama administration says it supports a free and open Internet but doesn't have the authority to tell the FCC what to do.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
2 min read

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The Obama administration said Tuesday that although the president "vigorously supports" a free and open Internet, he can't order the Federal Communications Commission on how to proceed in reinstating Net neutrality protections.

The statement was in response to an online petition asking that the White House order the FCC to reclassify broadband providers as so-called "common carriers," which would put them under the same regulatory framework as the traditional phone network. The petition, which has received more than 105,000 signatures, was launched in January after the DC Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's Open Internet rules and questioned the agency's authority to impose rules that dictate how broadband providers manage traffic on their networks.

The FCC had adopted the rules, which were meant to ensure that broadband providers couldn't block access or discriminate against Internet traffic traveling over their connections, in late 2010. However, while rejecting Verizon's contention that the FCC doesn't have the authority to regulate broadband, the court rejected the rules because the FCC based them on the belief that broadband networks must follow "common carriage" rules. The court reasoned that this belief conflicted with the FCC's previous classification of broadband services as so-called "information services" and that the idea of common carriage only applies to "telecommunications services."

Despite the legal setback, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said earlier this month that he will soon reveal details of a plan to reinstate Net neutrality protections. Wheeler said during a speech at the University of Colorado Law School that the agency was encouraged by the court's decision, which rejected the regulation on a legal technicality, but upheld the agency's authority to regulate broadband networks to encourage adoption and investment.

In a blog post on the White House's We the People petition platform, White House officials said the administration "strongly supports" the FCC and Wheeler's efforts in the matter, but noted that even though the agency commissioners are appointed by the president, that the FCC is still an independent agency.

"Preserving an open Internet is vital not just to the free flow of information, but also to promoting innovation and economic productivity," Gene B. Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, and Todd Park, US chief technology officer, wrote in the post. "Absent net neutrality, the Internet could turn into a high-priced private toll road that would be inaccessible to the next generation of visionaries."

Politicians have been pressuring the FCC "to act with expediency" in efforts to reinstate Internet protections. Earlier this month, Democrats in both the Senate and House of Representatives drafted legislation to reinstate the FCC's Net neutrality rules until the agency can craft a solution that will withstand judicial review.