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Lawmakers grill FCC's Wheeler about Obama influence on net neutrality

Grant Gross | March 18, 2015
Republican lawmakers repeatedly accused the U.S. Federal Communications Commission of being improperly influenced by President Barack Obama during the agency's recent net neutrality proceeding, but lawmakers failed to produce solid evidence during a hearing Tuesday.

Republican lawmakers repeatedly accused the U.S. Federal Communications Commission of being improperly influenced by President Barack Obama during the agency's recent net neutrality proceeding, but lawmakers failed to produce solid evidence during a hearing Tuesday.

Still, Republican members of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee presented meeting logs showing that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler met with White House officials about 10 times between last May, when he first proposed new neutrality rules, and the end of the year, when he announced a plan to regulate broadband as a common carrier service.

The committee also released an email exchange between Wheeler and White House officials discussing concerns over April press reports on Wheeler's net neutrality plans. "You're supposed to be an independent agency, and you're interacting regularly with the White House" on public relations strategy, said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and committee chairman.

The FCC's inspector general has launched an investigation of the net neutrality process, Chaffetz announced during the hearing.

The FCC voted on Feb. 26 to approve new net neutrality rules and reclassify broadband as a regulated telecommunication service. The agency released the 400-page text of the order last week.

Wheeler's original proposal in May did not reclassify broadband, although it asked for public comment on whether the FCC should reclassify. Republican committee members accused him of changing his mind only after Obama called for reclassification in November.

Wheeler disputed that the White House had undue influence on the net neutrality decision. Commissioners took the total record into account, including 4 million comments from the public, hundreds of comments from telecom and Internet companies, and contact from more than 140 lawmakers, he said.

"Here, I would like to be really clear: There were no secret instructions from the White House," Wheeler said. "I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president's recommendation."

White House officials filed just one public document, a so-called ex parte, related to net neutrality from the 10 meetings between Wheeler and White House officials since May, Republican lawmakers noted.

But many of those meetings with White House officials didn't deal with the net neutrality proceeding, and instead addressed cybersecurity, trade policy, spectrum policy and other issues, Wheeler said. When the White House outlined its net neutrality position to Wheeler in a November meeting, it filed the required ex parte document, he said.

"Are you telling me that this proposed rule did not come up in any of those meetings but one?" Chaffetz said. "You meet with the White House multiple times ... and we're supposed to believe that one of the most important things the FCC has ever done, that this didn't come up?"

 

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