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Obama exhumes Net neutrality from the Tomb of Forgotten Issues

May 29, 2009 | 10:23 am

cybersecurity, Net neutrality, President Barack Obama The debate over Net neutrality has quieted considerably since the Federal Communications Commission rebuked Comcast in August for its discriminatory handling of BitTorrent traffic. Congress has been silent on the issue as one of the leading proponents of Net neutrality, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), has focused on cap-and-trade legislation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The FCC is still awaiting confirmation of President Obama's pick for its chairman, Julius Genachowski, and has been preoccupied by the looming analog TV cutoff. The new chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Jon Leibowitz, has dropped hints about regulating broadband providers, but for the most part, whatever momentum that the Net neutrality drive had in 2007 and 2008 seems to have dissipated.

So when Obama brought up the issue today in a speech on cyber-security, it seemed like a bolt out of the blue. Here's the relevant excerpt:

"Let me also be clear about what we will not do. Our pursuit of cyber-security will not -- I repeat, will not include -- monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic. We will preserve and protect the personal privacy and civil liberties that we cherish as Americans. Indeed, I remain firmly committed to net neutrality so we can keep the Internet as it should be -- open and free."

This isn't a change for Obama -- he strongly endorsed Net neutrality during the presidential campaign. And it's consistent with some elements of the cyber-security strategy he laid out today, which emphasized (in a striking contrast with the previous administration) protecting individual liberties and privacy along with critical digital infrastructure. On the other hand, such a regulatory impulse conflicted with another important tenet of Obama's cyber-security initiative: that private companies will be free to choose how to protect themselves. As Obama put it:

"The vast majority of our critical information infrastructure in the United States is owned and operated by the private sector.  So let me be very clear: My administration will not dictate security standards for private companies. On the contrary, we will collaborate with industry to find technology solutions that ensure our security and promote prosperity."

At any rate, it looks like the Net neutrality debate may be revving up again. Let the lobbying begin!

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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