For all the withering criticism leveled at the White House for its botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, that debacle is not the biggest technology-related failure of Barack Obama’s presidency. That inauspicious distinction belongs to his administration’s incompetence in another area: reneging on Obama’s signature pledge to ensure “net neutrality,” the straightforward but powerful idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all traffic that goes through their networks the same. Net neutrality holds that ISPs shouldn’t offer preferential treatment to some websites over others or charge some companies arbitrary fees to reach users. By this logic, AT&T, for example, shouldn’t be allowed to grant iTunes Radio a special “fast lane” for its data while forcing Spotify to make do with choppier service.
On the campaign trail in 2007, Obama called himself “a strong supporter of net neutrality” and promised that under his administration, the Federal Communications Commission would defend that principle. But in the last few months, his FCC appears to have given up on the goal of maintaining an open Internet. This past January, a U.S. federal appeals court, in a case brought by Verizon, struck down the net neutrality rules adopted by the FCC in 2010, which came close to fulfilling Obama’s pledge despite a few loopholes. Shortly after the court’s decision, Netflix was reportedly forced to pay Comcast tens of millions of dollars per year to ensure that Netflix users who connect to the Internet through Comcast could stream movies reliably; Apple reportedly entered into its own negotiations with Comcast to secure its own special treatment. Sensing an opening, AT&T and Verizon filed legal documents urging the FCC to allow them to set up a new pricing scheme in which they could charge every website a different price for such special treatment.
Obama wasn’t responsible for the court’s decision, but in late April, the administration signaled that it would reverse course on net neutrality and give ISPs just