Comcast opposes Obama plan to reclassify Internet service as public utility

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President Barack Obama has jumped into the debate on network neutrality, siding with advocates of the open Internet in a message addressed to the Federal Communications Commission.

“They should make it clear that whether you use a computer, phone or tablet, Internet providers have a legal obligation not to block or limit your access to a website,” he said in a video accompanying his official statement.

The way forward, Obama suggested, is to make Internet service akin to a public utility that would be regulated by the FCC under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

The president’s supporters include consumer protection groups and the streaming video giant, Netflix. But cable and telecom companies oppose the added regulation.

In a statement, David Cohen, executive vice president of Philadelphia-based Comcast, called the idea of reclassifying broadband as a Title II service “a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation.”

Christopher Yoo, an expert in Internet law at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed that it would be a huge change for the industry.

“Instead of being able to try new things, you now have to go ask permission from the government,” he said. “And that is a world that is quite alien to the one created by the Internet.”

But Harold Feld of the advocacy group Public Knowledge said Title II classification is the only legal way to ensure service providers obey rules that prohibit prioritizing Internet traffic.

“At the end of the day, this isn’t about the companies,” he said. “The whole point about having rules is so that people like you and me do not have to depend on whether companies cut deals with each other in order to protect our rights.”

The FCC was originally expected to make a decision on net neutrality rules by the end of the year, but that may be delayed. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler indicated in response to the president that his agency had recently been considering “hybrid” approaches that still protect open Internet principles but do so without full Title II classification.

Comcast is in the process of merging with Time Warner Cable, a deal that also must be approved by the FCC.

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