House to Probe White House Role in FCC’s ‘Net Neutrality’ Proposal

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Panel to Investigate Whether White House Improperly Influenced Agency on Broadband Rules

WASHINGTON — Gautham Nagesh and Siobhan Hughes report: A House oversight committee on Friday said it was launching an investigation into whether the White House improperly influenced the Federal Communications Commission on its new rules for how broadband providers treat traffic on their networks.

“The White House needs to get its hands off the FCC.”

— Rep. Fred Upton

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Friday demanding all documents and communications between the FCC and the White House or other executive-branch agencies on the issue, along with all internal discussion at the FCC.

Mr. Wheeler on Wednesday made public the outlines of a proposal that would ban broadband providers from blocking, slowing down, or speeding up certain websites in exchange for payment.

The plan would use strong utility-like rules to regulate broadband companies, an approach largely in line with President Barack Obama ’s call in November for the “strongest possible rules” to protect net neutrality—the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.

To implement those rules, Mr. Wheeler proposed reclassifying broadband from a lightly regulated information service to a more strictly overseen telecommunications service. Advocates of such an approach say that without such rules, broadband companies could charge tolls to websites for their fastest speeds, putting startups and smaller websites at a disadvantage.

internet-surrender-2014

Mr. Wheeler had previously laid out proposals to his fellow commissioners that wouldn’t have used the public-utility route. Then Mr. Obama made his statement in November, one of a series of events outlined in a Wall Street Journal article Thursday that appeared to leave Mr. Wheeler little choice but to go with the stronger rules.

“[R]eports indicate that views expressed by the White House potentially had an improper influence on the development of the draft Open Internet Order circulated internally at the Commission on February 5, 2015,” Mr. Chaffetz wrote.

Neither the White House nor the FCC responded to requests for comment.

Earlier on Friday, FCC Special Counsel Gigi Sohn rejected the notion that the president’s statement forced Mr. Wheeler’s hand.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

“I think what the president’s statement did was rather than force the chairman’s hand was give him cover to do something that he already was thinking about doing,” Ms. Sohn said during an interview on C-Span.

In his letter, Mr. Chaffetz said he is particularly interested in “how the FCC communicated with the White House and other Executive Branch agencies.”

He also requested a briefing on the issue within two weeks. The commission plans to vote on the proposal Feb. 26.

Other Republicans in Congress had already expressed concerns about the FCC proposal. The chairman of the House committee that oversees the FCC, Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), noted that Mr. Wheeler himself said in November that the agency was independent. “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,” he said Thursday.

Senior FCC officials said Wednesday that reclassifying broadband puts the new rules on much firmer ground in the face of a legal challenge from the broadband industry.

But the broadband industry and conservatives strongly opposed changing how broadband is classified, arguing it would…(read more)

WSJ

Write to Gautham Nagesh at gautham.nagesh@wsj.com and Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com



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