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President Obama Turns The Internet Into A Political Weapon

On Monday, the president surprised just about everyone with a pitch for net neutrality right out of the activist playbook.

Posted on November 10, 2014, at 10:11 p.m. ET

Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Obama has finally made the internet the subject of mainstream politics.

His proposal Monday to reclassify the internet as a utility caught almost everyone involved in the movement by surprise, from large tech companies to the policy advisers on Capitol Hill.

The move, a recommendation to allow the FCC to enforce more robust regulations to protect net neutrality, has bigger implications beyond the basic announcement. The presidential platform can turn an issue mired in regulatory details into one with much broader, bigger appeal and an emerging partisan divide: President Obama cast himself as protecting the free internet from corporate greed, while Republican Sen. Ted Cruz immediately accused the federal government of unnecessary meddling.

Obama has been a vocal supporter of net neutrality since his years as a candidate for president, but the lead-up to Monday's announcement was very quick, according to those who watch the process closely. The White House decision to stake out the strong position came as a surprise even to their allies.

Officials at top tech companies declined to be identified when talking about the White House net neutrality plan, preferring to let a glowing statement from the industry's trade group, the Internet Association, speak on the record on their behalf. In interviews with BuzzFeed News in the hours after the morning announcement from the White House, net neutrality proponents at the most powerful companies on the internet spoke of being pleasantly surprised by a White House stance that they said changed the game on the net neutrality debate.

"As of 48 hours ago everything was up in the air and on the table," said one tech industry insider. "There was hope there, but it's another thing to actually see that turn into a real policy stance."

"It's clear that the FCC was moving toward this so-called hybrid approach," another net neutrality staffer said, referring to a proposal unveiled by FCC chair Tom Wheeler late last month. Net neutrality activists viewed the approach as too weak. The industry proponents said they now consider it dead after Obama's forceful support for the stricter rules favored by netroots activists.

"I think this changes that dynamic," the insider said. Other industry sources expect Monday's presidential declaration to give Wheeler cover to scrap the hybrid plan and go for Obama's.

The extent of Obama's embrace of the activist position on net neutrality delighted supporters.

For several seconds before Obama began touting his proposed regulatory rules changes in a White House video, a buffering symbol appeared, a nod to the so-called Internet Slowdown campaign, an effort by activists to show the worst-case scenario in a net neutrality–free world. The logo for the campaign is a raised protest fist.

"It's definitely a play to the netroots organization," a tech company net neutrality staff expert said. "They sort of aligned."

A White House official told BuzzFeed News the video was made by the White House Office of Digital Strategy.

A senior Democratic congressional technology adviser told BuzzFeed News that there was surprise on the Hill at the extent of the president's proposal.

"He's spoken too often recently in vague terms, and I believed he would speak more clearly before the FCC made a decision. That said, I was shocked by the force and clarity of today's statement," the adviser said. "This is a sign of a president who looked at all the facts, current alternatives, and old compromises that ISPs rejected and made the gut call to urge the chairman and the rest of the commissioners to do the right thing."

A White House official said Obama's decision to take to the bully pulpit on net neutrality Monday was the result of conversations inside the White House for "the past months." The strength of the argument notwithstanding, Obama's efforts Monday lean more on the phone side of his 2014 "pen and phone" strategy than the pen end of things. The White House official emphasized that Obama can't actually force the FCC to rule in favor of reclassification, only that he can use his rhetorical power to amplify other calls for the commission to do so.

Republicans, meanwhile, have a phone of their own, and they quickly lined up to condemn Obama's support for a reclassification-based net neutrality enforcement mechanism. Telecom and cable companies also blasted Obama's statement, but the aggressiveness of the White House position set the stage for a battle that could bring net neutrality out of its current home in internet circles and into the wider polarized political debate.

Cruz kicked that effort off when he tweeted that net neutrality was "Obamacare for internet."

Industry proponents of net neutrality said the White House was well-aware of how Republicans would react to Obama's statement Monday and say the GOP response was par for the course.

"The president knew the reactions he would get," said one tech company net neutrality staffer. "I don't think he did it with any premonition."

The FCC delayed its expected December net neutrality plan in the wake of Obama's announcement Monday. The industry views that delay as a good thing for proponents of stricter net neutrality regulations.

"Everybody's betting" on Wheeler backing Obama, one staffer said.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.