This "tectonic shift in national policy, should it be adopted, would create devastating results," Powell added.
Netflix swung behind Obama, posting to its Facebook page that "consumers should pick winners and losers on the Internet, not broadband gatekeepers."
"Net neutrality" is the idea that Internet service providers shouldn't block, slow or manipulate data moving across its networks. As long as content isn't against the law, such as child pornography or pirated music, a file or video posted on one site will load generally at the same speed as a similarly sized file or video on another site.
In 2010, the FCC embraced the concept in a rule. But last January, a federal appeals court struck down the regulation because the court said the FCC didn't technically have the legal authority to tell broadband providers how to manage their networks.
The uncertainty has prompted the public to file some 3.7 million comments with the FCC — more than double the number filed after Janet Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl.
On Monday, Obama waded into the fray and gave a major boost to Internet activists by saying the FCC should explicitly ban any "paid prioritization" on the Internet. Obama also suggested that the FCC reclassify consumer broadband as a public utility under the 1934 Communications Act. That would mean the Internet would be regulated more heavily in the way phone service is.
"It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call, or a packet of data," Obama said.
This approach is exactly what industry lobbyists have spent months fighting against. AT&T on Monday threatened legal action if the FCC adopted Obama's plan, while Comcast Corp. said reclassifying broadband regulation would be "a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation, as today's immediate stock market reaction demonstrates." Similar statements were released by Time Warner Cable Inc. and several industry groups including CTIA-The Wireless Association, USTelecom, the Telecommunications Industry Association and Broadband for America.
Many Republicans including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sided with industry in denouncing the plan as government overreach.
"'Net Neutrality' is Obamacare for the Internet," declared Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a tea party favorite, on Twitter. "The Internet should not operate at the speed of government."
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, Democrat from Silicon Valley, had the opposite reaction.
"It’s easy for people who don’t want to support Net Neutrality to try to obfuscate. ... What we’re trying to get back to in Net Neutrality is only the rules that we had that allowed the Net to flourish. We don’t want additional regulations, only what we used to have."
Congresswoman Jackie Speier
“Millions of Americans, including thousands of my own constituents, have voiced their support for net neutrality. Since its inception, the Internet has played an important role acting as an open space for communication, innovation, and market access, but this growth depends on the Internet’s status as a neutral platform of information sharing.
The Internet Association, which represents many content providers like Netflix, Twitter, eBay and Google, also applauded Obama's proposal.
On Monday, as the Standard & Poor's 500 index edged up slightly, big cable companies slid. Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Cablevision and Charter Communications dropped 2 percent to 4 percent in the hours immediately after the announcement.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he is open to using a "hybrid" approach that would draw from both Title II of the 1934 law and the 1996 Telecommunications Act. On Monday, Wheeler said he welcomed the president's comments, but suggested that his proposal was easier said than done.
"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. "The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. We found we would need more time to examine these to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face."
The FCC isn't under a deadline to make a decision.
The president's statement all but guarantees that the major cable companies will spend the next few months trying to encourage Congress to step in to protect their interests. Still, Internet activists are hoping that Obama's position will go a long way, even as his popularity among his party has waned.