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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.

Wheeler said he couldn't remember the details of all those meetings, but he and White House officials were careful to follow ex parte rules. White House officials were "very scrupulous in making it clear that I was an independent agency," he said.

Republican lawmakers cited press reports from late October saying Wheeler was still opposed to reclassifying broadband.

"Before you were for [Obama's] position, you were against his position," said Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican. "Everything we have indicates you were headed in a different direction."

It appears that Jeff Zients, the director of the White House National Economic Council, "strong-armed" Wheeler during a meeting at the FCC in early November, Mica said.

Press reports suggesting reclassification was off the table in October were incorrect, Wheeler said. His move toward that position came during months of an "evolutionary process" at the FCC, he said, and his intention with his first proposal was to "see what it attracts in terms of concerns, and to learn from that experience."

Republicans committee members also questioned why Wheeler didn't release the text of the net neutrality order to the public before the commission voted on it. Wheeler declined those requests before the Feb. 26 vote, and on Tuesday, he defended his decision saying he followed standard FCC procedures. FCC commissioners typically negotiate a proposed order behind closed doors for three weeks before voting on it, and the FCC again followed that process, he said.

The net neutrality rulemaking proceeding was "one of the most open and most transparent" in FCC history, Wheeler said.

But Wheeler had the option of releasing the text of the rules before the commission voted on them, Chaffetz said. The new rules will have a huge impact on Internet service, and "the problem is Americans only got a chance to read them last week," he said. "You had the discretion to make [the order] public and you didn't."

 

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