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Obama wants to regulate the internet like a utility. His FCC chair disagrees.

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  • FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is not on board with President Obama's call for the commission to reclassify internet service providers as telecommunications services, Brian Fung and Nancy Scola report.
  • Instead, Wheeler told industry figures in a Monday meeting that he wants to figure out a way to "split the baby" and deliver some form of network neutrality in another way.
  • Wheeler's predecessor at the FCC, Julius Genachowski, sought net neutrality without reclassification but was rebuffed by the courts.
  • Obama appoints the Chairman of the FCC and a majority of its members, but it's an independent agency and he can't tell commissioners what to do.
  • It is not entirely clear what Wheeler's favored approach is, but in late October he floated a "hybrid" approach to the issue that would not go as far as Obama has called for.

The background

All year, net neutrality activists have been urging Obama to take a strong stance in favor of reclassification, which would subject internet providers to strict utility-style regulation. On Monday, the president changed that with a dramatic statement. The statement, combined with the Democratic majority on the FCC and the Republican majority in Congress served to drastically raise expectations. Maybe this was a forum in which Obama could get his way unencumbered by Congress.

Wheeler's statement on Monday casts some doubt on those expectations. Doubt that reenforces old criticisms of Wheeler's background as a lobbyist for cable and mobile phone companies.

Further Reading

See Vox's complete guide to the net neutrality debate. But also note Timothy Lee's argument that in some ways the net neutrality debate is becoming obsolete, as related — but legally distinct — issues are rising in the realm of "peering" and other areas. Susan Crawford believes the best solution to these problems is for the government to directly provide internet access. Giving a hint of the murky waters around Wheeler's search for a third way, America's biggest cable company reiterated today that they say they support the principle of net neutrality but object to reclassification.

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