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Roslyn Layton: Orwellian Symbolism of Barack Obama, Seeking to Classify Broadband as a Utility, in China




Editor’s Note: With the announcement of President Obama’s desire to classify broadband as public utility, welcomes commentaries and opinions on the subject from a multitude of viewpoints.

November 12, 2014 – During President Obama’s official visit to China Monday, the White House issued a statement of support of government regulation of the Internet with the classification of broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act from 1934.  


The symbolism of this statement appearing while President Obama is in China could not be more Orwellian.  The Chinese internet is everything that we don’t want in the US:  state ownership of the enterprises that comprises the Internet, its infrastructure, content, and connectivity; top-down regulation of every aspect of the Internet experience; and government collusion with industry to create Internet companies.  Should the US take the route of reclassifying broadband under Title II as Obama suggests, it would bring the the US dangerously closer to the Chinese model where the internet is “government allowed”.

Title II is not only bad news for the US, but for the rest of world. Indeed foreign authoritarian governments have been looking for justification to monitor networks and users under the guise of net neutrality and the “Open Internet”. Obama’s announcement could not be a better present to the leaders of China, Iran, and Russia. 

The mid-term election which roundly favored the Republicans was also a proxy of voters’ dissatisfaction with the President.  Net neutrality was not even an issue in the last round.  Obama could have ensured his Open Internet legacy with a middle of the road approach by returning to the 2010 net neutrality rules, which a number of ISPs already agreed to uphold.  It would have also been an opportunity for bi-partisan bridge building.

Instead the President made an extreme proposal that reaches beyond the last mile broadband connection to regulate interconnection, where there is no evidence of market failure; and to wireless, where growth and innovation are greatest in networks.  It’s a lame duck, last-ditch attempt for severe rulemaking which will likely be for naught, but it signals solidarity with extreme constituents to whom the President made a campaign promise in 2008.

Indeed imposition of Title II on broadband will have a hard time surviving judicial review, as the FCC, expressly deciding not to regulate broadband as a utility for the last two decades, would be making an about face.  Moreover, reclassification is guaranteed to bring litigation.  Instead of net neutrality rulemaking delivered in 2014, it will probably take another decade.

Classification of broadband under Title II would reverse one of great legacies of the Democrats, the permission-less innovation policy implemented by the Clinton Administration. The internet that was open and free from bureaucratic meddling allowed America’s digital society to flourish and to foster the country’s global leadership in the broadband-enabled ecosystem.

For all those who think that Title II 1930s era monopoly rules are the way to manage the Internet, many more Americans do not favor government control.  A number of have observed that Congress needs to make the final decision on net neutrality.  Given the White House announcement Monday, that outcome is increasingly likely.

Roslyn Layton is a Ph.D. Fellow at Center for Communication, Media and Information Studies at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Editor’s Note: accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of and Broadband Census LLC.



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