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TIm Wu: Obama Has Hit 'Reset' On 'Net Rule Proposals

Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, who coined the term network neutrality, says he welcomed the President's call for Title II regulations and said it was a "terrific" statement," but had also introduced a new element of chaos to an already chaotic debate over net neutrality.

The President on Nov. 10, in an update on a We the People petition calling for Title II regulation of Internet access, echoed that call and said he wanted the FCC to do likewise.

Wu was being interviewed for C-SPAN's Communicators series, which will air Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m. ET  and Monday on CSPANII on the eights (a.m and p.m.).

The President was simply delivering on his 2007 campaign promise that he was "second to nobody in [his] belief in network neutrality," said Wu.

He also said the President hit the "reset" button after it looked like the FCC was pondering a variant of a hybrid Title II/Sec. 706 approach to justifying new open Internet regs (Wu has suggested such an approach. "Everyone is scrambling to figure out where it goes from here.”

Wu was asked whether the chairman can do other than what the President asked.

Wu pointed out, as has the President and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, that the FCC is an independent agency. The chairman of the FCC is not obliged to obey the President. He can't fire Tom Wheeler for not doing what he says, so it is possible for Tom Wheeler to say: "I'm glad for your input, but I have another view of this.' On the other hand, it is difficult to disobey the President."

Wu said that, even by network neutrality standards, "it is a new area of chaos" and he will find no way to please all of his constituencies.

He said the most likely outcome is that things will be delayed, and get tangled up in the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger review. "When you get down to it, net neutrality is trying to protect consumers and Internet companies against cable. And so is merger law. So they have in some ways the same goals."

Wu predicted a final rule on net neutrality would not be out until the spring, after which "act II" would be litigation.

Wu said that the effect of passing network neutrality rules under either Title II or Sec. 706, at least superficially, "is not any different." But he said, in the long run, Title II gives the agency more power to do things it later decides are more important, like mandating universal service or at least theoretically rate regulation.

He says carriers resist Title II in part because of lurking possibility of rate regulation, which Wu conceded could be a possibility down the line given the size of cable bills. He said you could imagine some future President saying it was time to regulate these prices. "And if Title II is alive and well that would be an easy route." He said he was not commenting on the merits. The President said he did not think the FCC should engage in rate regulation.

Wu does not buy the argument that Title II will threaten investment. He said carriers have been making such threats for all of their existence. "In some ways, the President is calling their bluff" out of concern about the rising power of consolidated cable companies.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.