President Obama's push for open internet: what does it mean for you?

Making sense of the net neutrality policy talk

President Obama may be branded a lame duck for the remainder of his second term after last week's sweeping congressional defeat, but his announcement in support of net neutrality on November 10 certainly kicked sand in the face of those who oppose him.

In a statement posted on the White House website, President Barack Obama threw his hat in the ring alongside net neutrality supporters and content providers. Political maneuvering or legacy-building aside, will this make a difference for consumers? Let's take a look at what we know so far.

Net neutrality in a nutshell

At its core, net neutrality refers to the concept that everyone should have equal and unrestricted access to the internet. That means all traffic is treated the same, regardless of whether it's originates from a one-man startup or a major corporation with thousands of employees around the globe.

The term "net neutrality" may have been coined more than a decade ago, but the underlying principles of free and open internet have heated up in recent months as streaming giants like Netflix began cutting deals with internet service providers (ISPs) in an effort to guarantee network performance for mutual customers - one of the very scenarios supporters have feared all along.

Net neutrality email warning parody

Consumers held hostage (credit: Detroit Free Press)

Who is affected?

The internet has become a service we all depend upon for information, entertainment, shopping and just about everything else in our lives. But imagine if your ISP started blocking access to Amazon.com because the etailer refused to pay to receive priority treatment for its using its online services?

Anyone who regularly streams video content over the internet is probably familiar with the dreaded "buffering" that goes on during peak viewing hours. What would happen if ISPs started intentionally throttling the speed of such content purely on a whim?

There's a good reason the net neutrality debate rages on: It affects most Americans with access to broadband service.

Obama thumbs up

Barry has a plan (credit: RT.com)

What does Obama propose?

"We cannot allow internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas," Obama said on November 10.

The president's proposed rules clearly forbid blocking, throttling and "paid prioritization" (i.e., those aforementioned Netflix deals), while calling for increased transparency for all "points of interconnection" between ISPs and every American using the internet.

To accomplish these goals, Obama made a public statement encouraging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to step in and "reclassify consumer broadband service" as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

Such a move would effectively treat the internet like other utility services American consumers and businesses are accustomed to, such as landline telephone, electricity or gas, without the strict regulatory control usually applied to such utilities.

There's also another key difference: The government would (at least for now) refrain from dictating how much ISPs should charge for the service they provide. (So much for making the internet truly "free"…)

Internet open sign

Open for business? (credit: hajjflemings.com)

When can we expect policy changes?

Using Title II as leverage, the FCC could move swiftly to turn Obama's words into actual policy, but the clock is ticking: The President's second term will be up in January, 2017 at which point there's likely to be a changing of the guard for FCC leadership as well.

It's also important to note the FCC is an independent agency; Wheeler and his staff could choose to simply ignore Obama's advice and go in their own direction, although that seems unlikely given how much support the president's statement has already received.

The internet

A battle for another day

Where will changes apply?

The president's statement primarily addressed the subject of net neutrality for wired broadband service, although he clearly hopes the debate won't end there.

"The rules also have to reflect the way people use the internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device," Obama added. "I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks."