President’s Net Neutrality Push Gets Pushback

House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton reacted strongly Thursday to a report in the Wall Street Journal about the degree to which the White House had pushed for Title II regulation, but the President has consistently said he wanted the FCC to impose tough rules, dating back to his campaigning days.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced Wednesday that new network neutrality rules to be voted on Feb. 26 would be based in Title II common carrier regs, though only a few of them in a "tailored" attempt to restore regs thrown out by a federal court.

The President came close to directing a federal agency to take action in an online video last fall outlining why he thought Title II reclassification was necessary, and even sent an aide to the FCC in advance of that video to let the chairman know it was coming.

The Wall Street Journal pointed to what it called an "unusual, secretive campaign" by a couple of White House staffers to get strong network neutrality rules.

Upton responded: "Tom Wheeler infamously declared to reporters ‘I am an independent agency,’ after the president publicly pushed for heavy regulation of the Internet," Upton said in a statement. "Turns out that wasn’t the case then, it’s not the case now, and the White House needs to get its hands off the FCC. The White House’s efforts to drag the Internet into 1930s regulations is a move that puts the FCC on the fast-lane to the federal courthouse. We have a solution that achieves bipartisan goals to protect an open Internet, satisfying both the president’s and Chairman Wheeler's previously stated requirements.”

Upton has joined with other Republicans on legislation that would prevent blocking, throttling or paid prioritization, all things Wheeler and the President want to prevent. But the bill also would weaken the FCC's ability to regulate broadband under Sec. 706—Republicans say the FCC has overused it—and prevent the FCC from imposing Title II.

Wheeler has maintained he was considering Title II before the President pushed it, but he appeared to pivot toward a Title II approach at about the same time as the President's announcement after proposing a non-Title II approach previously—he has always said Title II was still on the table, however.

As former tech policy advisor to candidate and president-elect and president Obama, the President's support for strong network neutrality rules is no secret to Wheeler.

In October, at an innovation forum in California Oct. 9, the President said that he was opposed to paid prioritization, that tiered Internet service should not be allowed, and that he expected the FCC to insure that did not happen.

At a public meeting a week later, Wheeler was asked about his contacts with the White House over net neutrality. He said that he had not had “personal communications” with the President on the net neutrality rule revamp, but had kept the White House staff informed about the process, as he has Congressional staffers.

On Nov. 10, the President went further, echoing his opposition to paid prioritization and said that meant reclassifying consumer broadband services under Title II regulations.

In a video posted on the White House Web site, the President said cable companies and other ISPs should not let any company pay for priority.

"I'm asking the FCC to reclassify Internet service under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunications Act." 

The FCC is an independent agency, so the President can only ask, a point he made clear, but he made that "ask" clear, prompting some raised eyebrows at what sounded to some more like an executive order in "ask's" clothing.

The President campaigned on strong network neutrality rules back in 2008.

As far back as 2007, then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said he would make instituting network neutrality a priority in an Obama administration.

“Facebook, MySpace, Google might not have been started if you had not had a level playing field for whoever has the best idea,” Obama told an MTV online forum at the time. “I want to maintain that basic principle in how the Internet functions, and so as president I'm going to make sure that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.