FCC Boss Tom Wheeler Resigns, Signals Beginning Of End For Net Neutrality
With a Trump presidency looming, and the dismantling of net neutrality a seeming inevitability Tom Wheeler, the boss of the FCC and long time defender of net neutrality recently announced his resignation.
Guest post by Karl Bode of Techdirt
We've been discussing how FCC Boss Tom Wheeler was stuck between a rock and a hard place with a Trump Presidency looming. While Wheeler's tenure at the FCC doesn't officially end until 2018, under FCC rules he can only stay on as a vanilla Commissioner — not the agency boss. With the incoming Trump administration and GOP making it very clear they want to gut net neutrality and defang and defund the FCC, Wheeler sticking around would have resulted in a 2-2 partisan deadlock keeping the FCC in a holding pattern — at least until a new FCC boss is chosen and approved.
But even then, it was only a matter of time before Wheeler found himself stuck in a 3-2 minority, spending a chunk of his retirement years watching as a slow series of 3-2 partisan votes dismantled many of the efforts Wheeler has worked on during his tenure (most notably net neutrality rules, Title II reclassification, and new broadband privacy consumer protections). As a result, Wheeler this week formally announced his resignation from the agency (pdf), taking effect on January 20.
In his last meeting at the FCC today, Wheeler wouldn't comment on Trump's incoming administration, but did issue a farewell warning to those that think gutting the FCC's regulatory oversight of industry giants like AT&T or Comcast ends well for anybody not named AT&T or Comcast:
"The cry for a laissez-faire government that walks away from market oversight is also highly dangerous to consumers and those that operate in the market. And this is especially true in our interconnected world, because eliminating regulation does not mean that there will be no oversight. It only means that the regulation will be provided by other rule makers and other countries who might be incented to make rules that benefit their companies and traditions."
…As much as we would like to retreat to simpler times and simple solutions, the realities of today just don’t give us that luxury,” Wheeler said. “In the 21st Century, the common good is often defined by how we connect, and that is why the FCC is so darned important. Ignoring that reality is bad for consumers and for those who provide services to them."
Wheeler had promised to resign immediately if the GOP committed to reappointing FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to a second term. The GOP had been stalling on her confirmation for some time, but refused the offer knowing full well they'd prefer the early partisan advantage.
While many had doubts about Wheeler given his past lobbying for the cable and wireless sectors (which occurred largely when those sectors were in their infancy), he arguably became the most consumer, competition, and innovation-focused FCC Commissioner in the broadband era (which, admittedly isn't saying much). Unlike most Republican and Democratic FCC Commissioners — who either outright ignored or underplayed the lack of competition in telecom — Wheeler actively tried to highlight and repair the sector's duopoly dysfunction, be it via net neutrality or attempting (unsuccessfully) to thwart protectionist state laws.
As we've noted countless times, most of these issues have broad, bipartisan consumer support, but are quite intentionally framed as partisan by industry lobbyists and policy folks to help sow division and dissent, stalling substantive progress. Consumers generally approve of things like net neutrality, healthy competitive markets, and not letting companies like Comcast run amok or write awful state legislation that benefits solely itself. But time and time again, meaningful progress gets mired in a game of partisan pattycake, all quite by design.
It's unlikely the incoming administration will work to gut net neutrality, privacy and other broadband protections immediately for fear of activist backlash. Initially, it's more likely they'll simply refuse to enforce them. After that, the challenge will be to gut consumer protections like net neutrality without making it clear that's what they're doing. To accomplish this goal, you'll likely see a Congressional proposal (or Communications Act rewrite) that will pay endless lip service to the poor, competition and net neutrality, while actively working to undermine all of these things under the false banner of populist reform.