Leaders of House and Senate oversight committees are calling on the FCC to turn over communications they had with White House officials over chairman Tom Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal, in a query that focuses on whether the administration “inappropriately influenced” the agency.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Wheeler on Monday, asking a series of questions over the proposal and for copies of correspondence between the FCC and the White House related to Internet regulation. That request follows a letter sent by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asking for correspondence, documents, meeting minutes and calendar logs related to the proposal.
Last week, Wheeler unveiled the outlines of a proposal to reclassify the Internet as a Title II telecommunications service, a regulatory move designed to give the FCC the authority to impose robust rules of the road for broadband service. The proposal, met with support from public interest groups but fierce opposition from Internet service providers, would prohibit ISPs from blocking or throttling content, as well as from charging sites for speedier access to their subscribers.
Wheeler’s approach marked a shift from an earlier proposal that didn’t reclassify the Internet but instead relied on existing authority in which ISPs would be prohibited from conduct that was “commercially unreasonable.” Net neutrality advocates sounded the alarm, arguing that such an approach would not prevent ISPs from creating “fast lanes” for those content companies who pay for faster delivery speeds to customers.
But Wheeler’s plans changed after President Obama announced his support for reclassification in November.
Johnson said in his letter that he was looking at “whether the White House and the FCC respected proper boundaries established by Congress between the Executive Branch and independent agencies.” He cited reports that Wheeler was prepared to circulate a “draft proposal at odds with the president’s views,” but then quickly pulled back and cancelled a vote on net neutrality scheduled for November.
“The FCC’s new position on net neutrality is not only a monumental shift from chairman Wheeler’s original net neutrality proposal but also a large deviation from the light regulatory touch applied to broadband services since the Clinton administration,” Johnson said in a statement. “The decision is wrong, and the process raises serious questions about the president’s inappropriate influence over what is supposed to be an independent agency that derives its authority from Congress and not the White House.”
A spokeswoman for Wheeler said that they are reviewing the letter.
Republicans proposed their own net neutrality legislation last month, including provisions that would ban ISPs from blocking and throttling of content, as well as paid prioritization, but Democrats have balked. The legislation would prohibit the FCC from reclassification, and also restrict the agency from other types of oversight over the Internet. The White House, meanwhile, has said such legislation is unnecessary.
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the net neutrality proposal on Feb. 26.
Wheeler did not address the GOP queries on Monday, when he spoke at the Silicon Flatirons Center in Boulder, Colo.
In his prepared remarks, Wheeler said that he changed his approach “after listening to countless consumers and innovators” and he “became concerned that the relatively untested ‘commercially reasonable’ standard might be subsequently interpreted to mean what was reasonable for the ISPs’ commercial arrangements. That, of course, would be the wrong conclusion. It was a possibility that was unacceptable.”