David McNew/Getty Images

Obama taps Silicon Valley cash as tech firms blast FCC net neutrality plan

New rules would would allow large ISPs to block or slow traffic to or from certain sites

President Barack Obama headed west to meet with Silicon Valley tech companies on Thursday to raise campaign cash. But the cap-in-hand visit comes as many in the sector are engaged in their own lobbying effort, pushing the White House for action to safeguard Internet freedom and fairness.

More than a hundred firms and free speech advocates spoke out prior to the president’s visit against new rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would allow "paid prioritization" for giant Internet service providers

The FCC say the changes are in line with their vision of “net neutrality," but critics say the plan would achieve the opposite — effectively creating a monopoly of large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that would shut out startups.

“The tides have been turning against FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal,” Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press — a D.C.-based media and technology public interest group, told Al Jazeera.

“There has been a massive outcry in the media in the weeks since the proposal became public; more members of Congress and even Wheeler’s fellow commissioners have spoken out against it.”

The chairman said the plan would protect net neutrality — the principle that ISPs and their regulators treat all Internet traffic the same way. Activists said that this was misleading, as the proposed rules would allow large ISPs to block or slow down traffic to or from certain sites.

On Wednesday, more than 100 technology companies — including large ones like Google and Facebook as well as Silicon Valley start ups — wrote to the telecom regulators opposing the proposed “net neutrality” plan.

Among those who signed were Amazon, Dropbox, Ebay, Etsy, Foursquare, Google, LinkdIn, Microsoft, Netflix, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Yahoo and dozens of small Internet startups.

Some startups are already being shunned by venture capitalists based on the possibility that Wheeler’s proposal may be approved, Technology Review reported Wednesday.

In their letter to the FCC, they warned of a “grave threat to the Internet,” as one of the agency’s commissioners called for a delay of a vote on the plan scheduled for May 15.

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel expressed doubts about the plan and said Wednesday the vote on the proposal should be postponed by “at least a month."

Wheeler's spokesman said the vote would go ahead as scheduled. The ballot will not solidify new rules, but could approve a "notice of proposed rulemaking" and make a draft available for public comment.

Internet libertarians have camped out in front of the FCC headquarters in the capital, vowing to "occupy" the agency until net neutrality is restored. Activists worry that if that if it is approved, ISPs could then block certain legal content that it dislikes. 

“It’s like with telephones, if you were to pick up the phone and dial your favorite pizza place, your phone has to connect you with the best service available,” Karr said. “It cannot suggest that you call Domino's or degrade your service in any way.”

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama courted Silicon Valley firms in a bid to boost party funds. Obama, who appointed Wheeler chair of the FCC, made a campaign promise in 2008 to protect net neutrality, and many are now hoping he keeps to his word.

“Obama has been an outspoken advocate of net neutrality … the problem is that once those commissioners and the chair are sworn in, the White House is not supposed to exert control,” Karr said.

“They can make public statements, and it would be great if Obama made a statement in favor of net neutrality where paid priority proposal is a bad thing — but we have yet to hear from Obama since news of this proposal.”

This being an election year, the president and other Democrats are very interested in raising political and financial support from Silicon Valley. But they are also raising political money from donors associated with the big ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.

It is those giant corporations that are set to benefit most from Wheeler’s plans. The FCC proposal will allow them to charge more to prioritize certain Internet traffic — creating slow and fast lanes for consumers.

Critics say that if implemented, the new rules would impede on First Amendment rights to free speech and consumer choice, and that the decision could impact the future of the media.

Wheeler said in a blog post last week that he was being misunderstood. “There has been a great deal of discussion about how our proposal to follow the court’s roadmap will result in a so-called ‘fast lane’ and Internet ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’” he wrote.

He added that the rules are designed “to ensure that everyone has access to an Internet that is sufficiently robust to enable consumers to access the content, services and applications they demand, as well as an Internet that offers innovators and edge providers the ability to offer new products and services.”

The chairman said he has no choice because a January court ruling that said the FCC must allow such discrimination unless it reverses a 2002 decision and reclassifies broadband providers as common carriers under the law. Common carrier allows free speech over networks without discrimination — it is a neutral conduit connecting users to websites and services they want to use.

The FCC chairman may be fearful to reclassify because powerful phone and cable companies and their lobbyists have been outspoken in their opposition to reclassification, net neutrality advocates said.

“They are in favor of deregulating themselves to the point where they can monopolize their control over Internet access, while also taking control of the content that travels over the Internet,” Karr told Al Jazeera.

With wire services

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter