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Chaffetz Accuses FCC Of Caving To Obama On Net Neutrality

At a committee hearing Tuesday, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz took Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to task for allegedly caving to White House pressure on “net neutrality.”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing dealt with “process and transparency” at the FCC, and opened with a bang when Chaffetz strongly implied that the ostensibly independent agency had bowed to President Barack Obama’s demands for net neutrality. (RELATED: FCC Votes in Favor of Net Neutrality)

In his opening statement, Chaffetz gave two main justifications for his belief that the FCC’s recent decision to regulate the Internet as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act was improperly influenced by the Obama White House:

1. The FCC abruptly changed its approach to net neutrality shortly after Obama announced his support for different regulations than those the agency had been considering.

“In May 2014, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning Internet regulation that indicated broadband and mobile services would remain classified under Title I. Public statements made by Chairman Wheeler, and communications received by this committee, demonstrate that this was the chairman’s intent during this time period.

“In October 2014 — and after the FCC’s public comment period ended — media reports indicate that Chairman Wheeler intended to finalize a hybrid approach that continued to classify broadband and mobile Internet services under Title I.

“Just days later, President Obama appeared in a YouTube video calling for a radically different proposal— full Title II reclassification, similar to a utility or telephone company. (RELATED: Net Neutrality Bait and Switch to Title II)

“Emails provided to the committee by the FCC suggest that this came as a major surprise to FCC staff, including Mr. Wheeler.

“On Jan. 7, Chairman Wheeler announced the FCC would radically alter course and reclassify broadband and mobile services under Title II. I’m sure much will be made about the 4 million comments that were made. But they were not made in the context of fully changing this to Title II.”

2. The FCC, and Wheeler in particular, have been notably opaque throughout the rule-making process, disclosing information only reluctantly, if at all.

“Chairman Wheeler did not make the Open Internet rule public, did not invite public comment, and declined to appear before this committee. We find that wholly unacceptable. (RELATED: Congress Questions FCC Chief About ‘Secret Meetings’ With White House Over Net Neutrality)

“Further, it appears the FCC is concealing certain communications from the public without legal basis. Organizations that hold our government accountable depend on the FOIA process to gain insight into agency decision-making. The FCC’s track record in responding to FOIA requests is weak, at best.

“At the outset, the FCC denies more than 40 percent of all FOIA requests. The documents FCC does produce, however, contain a number of redactions, including some that black out entire pages of text. This committee has received 1,600 pages of unredacted email traffic previously provided in a highly redacted form through FOIA requests to various organizations including VICE.com.”

Wheeler countered that the FCC gave no more weight to Obama’s opinion than it did the opinions registered by 140 members of Congress and 4 million American citizens, though he also freely admitted that pressure from policymakers influenced his eventual decision.

“There were no secret instructions from the White House. I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president’s recommendation,” Wheeler said.

“Now, the question becomes whether the president’s announcement on Nov. 10 had an impact on the Open Internet debate, including at the FCC. Of course it did.

“The push for Title II had been hard and continuous from Democratic members of Congress. The president’s weighing in to support their position gave the whole Title II issue new prominence.

“The president’s focus on Title II put wind in the sails of everyone looking for strong Open Internet protections. It also encouraged those who had been opposing any government involvement to, for the first time, support legislation with bright line rules.”

Follow Peter Fricke on Twitter

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