FCC’s Tom Wheeler: Courts Will Uphold Net Neutrality

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler predicted that the agency’s recently passed net neutrality rules, in which the agency reclassified the Internet as a Title II common carrier, would survive a challenge in the courts. That’s despite opposition from major Internet service providers and two lawsuits already filed this week.

“The FCC’s new rules will be upheld by the courts,” Wheeler predicted in a speech at Ohio State University School of Law on Friday, adding that the commission has addressed issues raised by the D.C. Circuit Court of appeals when it struck down the previous set of rules of the road for the Internet.

“That gives me great confidence going forward that we will prevail,” he said.

The FCC passed new rules for broadband on Feb. 26 that prohibit ISPs from blocking or throttling content or from engaging in paid prioritization. In its 3-2 vote, the commission also reclassified Internet service as a Title II common carrier, a regulatory designation akin to that given to a utility.

USTelecom and Alamo Broadband filed court challenges to the FCC’s rules earlier this week, and more are expected from ISPs.

In his speech, Wheeler defended the rules, countering the argument from broadband providers and Capitol Hill Republicans that the agency overreached in applying regulation given that there have been few incidents of egregious market behavior.

But Wheeler said that the FCC’s rules were tailored for the 21st century, as the agency will be restricted from setting retail broadband prices.

And he said that the limited competition among high-speed wired broadband providers made the rules necessary.

“We should conclude that the biggest broadband providers in the land have one objective — to operate free from control by their customers and free from oversight by government,” he said, according to his prepared remarks.

“If they succeed, then, for the first time in America’s communications history, private gatekeepers will have unfettered power to control commerce and free expression.”

He noted that Verizon, challenging a set of net neutrality rules the FCC passed in 2010, was asked in appellate court if it wanted to restrict access through special commercial terms. Verizon’s attorney, Wheeler said, replied, “I’m authorized to state by my client today but for these rules we would be exploring those commercial arrangements.”

He also recalled that when he worked in the private sector, he saw the desire among major companies to exercise “gatekeeper power.”

“Once upon a time, I was part of a new pay-per-view video service,” he said. “When we’d seek to get on a cable system, the first question the cable operator would ask was ‘Where’s our cut?’ Access had to be purchased.”

He also suggested that new streaming services like those offered by Sling and CBS — and alternative to three-figure monthly cable bills — are dependent on net neutrality rules. “These streaming ventures only work if the network is open.”

Republicans have launched investigations into the FCC’s rulemaking process. Among the issues they are probing is whether the White House exerted undue influence on the FCC and Wheeler to pursue rules that reclassify the Internet.

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