President Barack Obama is urging the Federal Communications Commission to set the "strongest possible rules" to safeguard net neutrality as the agency begins crafting new regulations for Internet traffic.
Obama's position puts him on the side of Internet activists and much of the public who fear that broadband providers are moving toward creating "fast lanes" on the Internet.
The FCC, an independent regulatory body led by political appointees, is nearing a decision on how far to go to regulate these backroom deals, but is stumbling over the legal complexities.
"We are stunned the president would abandon the longstanding, bipartisan policy of lightly regulating the Internet and calling for extreme" regulation, said Michael Powell, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the primary lobbying arm of the cable industry, which supplies much of the nation's Internet access.
This "tectonic shift in national policy, should it be adopted, would create devastating results," Powell added.
Mr. Obama in a public statement asked the FCC on Monday to prohibit so-called "paid prioritization," which open the door for Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge tech companies to send content to consumers more quickly.
If the Federal Communications Commission approves Obama's recommendations, the Internet would be regulated like other utilities such as electricity, water and telephone service.
The president said "an entrepreneur's fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and...access to a high school student's blog shouldn't be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money."
The FCC should regulate consumer broadband service more like a public utility, Mr. Obama urged.
"There should be no gatekeepers between you and your favorite online sites and services," the president said. "Ensuring a free and open Internet is the only way we can preserve the Internet's power to connect our world."
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Monday said welcomed President Barack Obama's comments on his work on new Internet traffic, but was cautious about saying whether or not they would be implemented.
"The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do," Wheeler said in a statement, according to Reuters.
"The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. ... We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online."
The issue of net neutrality has the potential to become another partisan battleground. Many congressional Republicans have come out against the idea of the government regulating Internet speeds.
New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that Obama's proposal "in favor of more heavy-handed regulation that will stifle innovation and concentrate more power in the hands of Washington bureaucrats is a terrible idea. The Commission would be wise to reject it."
In an earlier letter to Wheeler, several Republican leaders said implementing Obama's plan is "politically corrosive rulemaking, relying upon new and untested court-defined powers rather than upon clear Congressional intent and statutory authority."
In May, the FCC endorsed a new two-tier system for Internet service providers, overturning the principle of net neutrality, which essentially treats all web traffic the same.
The FCC calls the Internet the "Open Internet."
According to the agency: "It's open because it uses free, publicly available standards that anyone can access and build to, and it treats all traffic that flows across the network in roughly the same way. ... Under this principle, consumers can make their own choices about what applications and services to use and are free to decide what lawful content they want to access, create, or share with others. This openness promotes competition and enables investment and innovation."
The potential ban on content deals, and the possibility of heavier government regulation, sent investors scurrying on Monday out of cable stocks. Time Warner, Comcast, Cablevision and Charter Communications have all seen shares drop between two and four percent.