How the Obama Administration Used the FCC to Dismantle Internet Freedom

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Just after the one year anniversary of the FCC’s so-called “net neutrality” plan, a new report by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs exposes how the Obama administration unlawfully used the FCC as a tool to gain control over the Internet.

According to the report, the traditionally nonpartisan FCC fell victim to “unusual, secretive efforts inside the White House, led by two aides” who were determined to use this apolitical agency to pass crippling regulations on the Internet.

The pressure from the Obama administration began near the end of 2014 when “it became widely reported that the FCC would move forward” with a “hybrid approach” on passing new regulations to maintain an open Internet.

Apparently displeased that the FCC’s proposed regulations wouldn’t give the government enough new power over the Internet, the same week the FCC was preparing to circulate a draft of its new regulations, “the President directly weighed into the debate, stating: ‘I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.’”

As the report shows, “the career, nonpartisan, professional staff at the FCC identified White House influence in the drafting process of the [new Internet regulations] almost immediately after the President’s public statement.” FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has echoed this sentiment by publicly stating, “left to its own devices, the FCC never would have married utility-style regulation to the Internet,” “the FCC was dragged to the altar kicking and screaming by the White House.”

The culmination of pressure from the Obama administration resulted in a sharp U-turn in policy from FCC Chairman Wheeler. On “February 4, 2015, Chairman Wheeler revealed his plan to regulate broadband as a Title II utility service, treat wireless the same as fixed broadband, and assert jurisdiction over Internet interconnection agreements for the first time.” Just as President Obama had requested.

Despite Wheeler’s willingness to sellout to political pressure, it seems that many of his colleagues at the FCC were far more reluctant. The report found that “career FCC staff worried that the sudden change [in Internet regulatory policy] would violate federal law governing agency rulemaking.” Federal law requires notice and comment periods before the agency makes new rules, and FCC staff expressed concern that “the agency could be violating federal law.”

Now here is where it really gets dicey— in an effort to cover up the lack of public comments and notification surrounding this abrupt change in policy, FCC “General Counsel Jonathan Sallet solicited meetings with certain outside groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology. He also solicited a meeting in November 2014 with Marvin Ammori, an outspoken net neutrality activist.” Instead of outside groups asking the FCC for a meeting, the FCC was courting outside groups in order to obtain the comments they needed to ram through new regulations!

Lastly, the Committee believes that Chairman Wheeler stonewalled transparency requests by refusing to release adequate communications from his “dozen or more meetings at the White House.” What did Chairman Wheeler and President Obama discuss in the time leading up to the FCC’s massive power grab over the Internet? Apparently they don’t believe we have a right to know.

The report concludes by saying it should be “highly concerning” that an independent FCC was pressured by the White House to carry out its regulatory agenda— especially since the Internet is a “critical sector of the United States economy.” The FCC does not appear to have provided adequate public notice on their new rules as required by law, and if there had been adequate public notice “the record would presumably have been much more informed.”

But the Obama administration didn’t care about having a more informed public. They only cared about seizing more government power from the Internet-- even if they had to use a nonpartisan agency to do it.

Click here to read the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Report