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

Wheeler's position on reclassifying broadband seemed to change after Obama weighed in, Republicans say

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?"

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."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform CommitteeregulationTom WheelerJohn MicaU.S. Federal Communications CommissionJason ChaffetzBarack Obamagovernment

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