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President Obama Reaffirms Net Neutrality Support but Stays Out of Real Fight

It’s up to the FCC to figure out how to stop fast lanes, President Obama says.

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Net neutrality supporters were cheering this morning, after President Obama reaffirmed his dislike of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s fast lane/slow lane net neutrality proposal.

But he carefully didn’t weigh in on how the FCC should prevent Internet providers from offering a fast-lane service. That’s important because the debate about net neutrality has shifted away from whether the FCC should allow a fast-lane/slow-lane model, to how it can prevent it.

During a town hall meeting yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles, President Obama was asked about net neutrality. Here’s what he said:

“Yes, well, this is obviously an issue that we’ve been working on for a long time. It was something that I spoke about back in ’08. And we’re continually trying to fine-tune it and stay focused on [it].

On net neutrality, I made a commitment very early on that I am unequivocally committed to net neutrality. I think … it’s what has unleashed the power of the Internet, and we don’t want to lose that or clog up the pipes.

And so there are a lot of aspects to net neutrality. I know one of the things that people are most concerned about is paid prioritization, the notion that somehow some folks can pay a little more money and get better service, more exclusive access to customers through the Internet. That’s something I’m opposed [to]. I was opposed to it when I ran. I continue to be opposed to it now.

Now, the FCC is an independent agency. They came out with some preliminary rules that I think the Netroots and a lot of folks in favor of net neutrality were concerned with. My appointee, Tom Wheeler, knows my position. Now that he’s there, I can’t just call him up and tell him exactly what to do. But what I’ve been clear about, what the White House has been clear about, is that we expect whatever final rules to emerge to make sure that we’re not creating two or three or four tiers of Internet. That ends up being a big priority of mine.”

Here’s the problem: this isn’t the first time President Obama has said he doesn’t like the idea of fast lanes. He made very similar remarks in August during an interview.

What the president didn’t say is how the FCC should prevent Internet companies from providing fast-lane service to consumers. The agency is basically looking at two options, re-regulating Internet lines like a utility under Title II of the Communications Act or using a different part of the law — Section 706 — which lets the FCC take actions to ensure people have broadband access. More recently, it’s begun looking at variations of using both.

Internet providers don’t want to be regulated under Title II because it gives the agency the ability to do things like set rates. Net neutrality supporters don’t like Section 706 because it doesn’t give the FCC clean legal authority to enforce net neutrality rules.

So while President Obama did increase pressure on the FCC to ban paid prioritization services yesterday, he didn’t offer any political cover for the agency to take the hardest path, which is re-regulating Internet lines. We’ll just have to stay tuned to see what the FCC chairman tries to do next.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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