Barack Obama delivered on his promise to make a stand for a free and open internet: by declaring his support for network neutrality this week, he has finally put the weight of his administration behind a position he had originally – and strongly – campaigned for. Now, after six years of posturing, will he get something done?
Network neutrality is a regulatory commitment to preserving the architectural principles upon which the internet was founded, guaranteeing that no content or application could be discriminated against by a network owner. It was guaranteed because the technology of the internet didn’t have the capacity to do anything else – the ability to discriminate was not in its code.
But over the last decade, technologists have developed new code that makes it increasingly simple for network owners to pick and choose the content and applications they want to favor, or to block or slow the content and applications they oppose. And armed with these new anti-neutrality tools, it could be Comcast or AT&T that decides what the future of the internet will be, not the innovators and users who have built it so far. Without the rules of network neutrality, they would use the power their own code provides, as any corporation would, to maximize their profits, regardless of the effect on internet innovation.
The puzzle in the president’s move, however, has little to do with the substance. Network neutrality is the right policy. It cuts across the left and right among internet activists. But does the president’s willingness to take up this issue now signal a newly liberated, post-political Obama? Or is this the beginning of a fight for executive authority against a clunky and captured “independent” agency – the Federal Communications Commission?