Tom Wheeler Resigns From the FCC—So Long, Net Neutrality

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The man who saved net neutrality is stepping aside.

Federal Communication Commission chairman Tom Wheeler will resign on January 20, the agency announced today. Wheeler’s decision to step down means Donald Trump will have two FCC seats to fill, one Republican and one Democratic. His resignation will also give Republicans a 2-to-1 majority on the commission even before those seats are filled after the departure of fellow Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel at the end of the year.

(FCC commissioners are nominated by the president, but the agency’s rules dictate that only three members of the five-member board can belong to the same party. It’s customary for the chairperson to resign when a new president is elected.)

Consumer advocacy groups praised Wheeler, a former telecommunications lobbyist, for standing up to the industry he once represented. Wheeler backed net neutrality, new broadband privacy rules, and subsidies for low-income families to buy broadband, among other initiatives. He also pushed back against Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable.

“When President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler chairman, many people voiced open suspicion of a man who had led two major industry trade associations,” Harold Feld of the digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge said today in a statement. “But rather than be the lapdog of industry some feared (or hoped for), Tom Wheeler proved himself to be the most ferocious watchdog for consumers and competition in nearly two decades.”

While consumer groups praised Wheeler, his Republican colleagues accused him of over-regulating the telco industry. Now, under a new Republican-controlled FCC, much of what Wheeler worked for during his tenure will likely be undone.

Wheeler’s most famous achievement at the FCC was the passage of clear, unequivocal net neutrality rules. Although the FCC had long tried to ban internet providers from blocking or slowing certain apps or websites, courts struck down the agency’s previous rules because existing law didn’t classify internet providers as “common carriers.” Without that designation, the FCC didn’t have authorization to regulate them as utilities in the same way the agency can regulate traditional telephone companies. After a groundswell of support for stronger net neutrality protections, Wheeler led the agency in reclassifying internet providers as part of its Open Internet Order.

The move attracted immediate criticism from the telco industry, which sued the FCC in attempt to strike down the new rules. Congressional Republicans have also sought—unsuccessfully so far—to pass legislation to reverse the decision. Now, with a Republican majority and president imminent, the party will have a number of options for undoing Wheeler’s work.

Wheeler’s Legacy

Republican FCC commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, who both voted against the Open Internet Order, have both already promised to roll back regulations. “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation,” Pai said at an event in Washington, DC, last week.

“President-elect Trump has repeatedly noted the detrimental impact of the current stifling regulatory environment on the American economy overall, and he has promised fast relief,” O’Rielly said at the same event. “I particularly like his call for the elimination of two regulations for every new one created.”

Republicans will have a number of options for undoing Wheeler’s work.

It’s still possible that Congress will pass some sort of bipartisan net neutrality legislation that doesn’t require common carrier classification for internet providers, Feld tells WIRED. But such a bill would almost certainly be weaker than Open Internet Order. For example, the FCC recently told AT&T that exempting its own streaming video service DirecTV from AT&T internet customers’ data caps—a practice called zero rating—is likely a violation of net neutrality. Any new rules passed by a Republican-controlled congress would probably permit this form of zero rating.

Other parts of Wheeler’s legacy may be safer, however. Earlier this year the FCC passed new privacy rules that require internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to get your explicit permission before collecting personal information such as what sites you visit that the companies would use for targeting ads. Although Pai and O’Rielly voted against the rules, Feld suspects that reversing the rules would be politically unpopular.

Feld jokes that if the privacy rules are struck, he’ll leave his job at Public Knowledge and start a company that collects and sells information about who donates to Republican politicians online. Plenty of political fundraisers and opposition researchers would love to pay for that information, but Republican constituents and donors wouldn’t likely be happy to have that information out there, either. “If Republicans make their first action exposing people’s private lives to their internet providers for their internet providers to do what they want, I think that will be tremendously unpopular.”

Wheeler’s legacy, then, will depend largely on how the public responds to future proposals to scale back net neutrality, privacy rules, or other consumer protections in coming years. Americans might not like the coming changes. But they may not notice until the protections they took for granted are gone.

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