House Republicans are not happy that the FCC may reclassify Internet service as a utility to preserve net neutrality—so much so that on Thursday they launched an investigation into whether the agency is operating as an independent body.
According to one Democratic congressman, however, the investigation is little more than political maneuvering against the president.
“I don’t think there has been undo influence. I think the president had every ability to voice his views on the subject.”
“I think the argument—to be a little crass about it—is the same argument that is made about everything else that goes wrong, depending on your attitude about a policy,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) during a net neutrality-focused event in Austin, Texas, on Thursday. “And that [argument] is, ‘Obama done it,'”
In November, President Barack Obama came out in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet service as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, publicly urging the Federal Communications Commission to vote in favor of the change. The reclassification, long a goal of Internet freedom advocates, would allow the FCC to set regulations forcing Internet service providers (ISPs) to comply with net neutrality, the principle that all data on the Internet be treated equally.
The FCC’s original plan, announced early last year, eschewed Title II reclassification in favor of so-called open Internet rules that would allow ISPs to establish “fast lanes,” or service deals with content providers, like Netflix or Google, that paid more for prioritized access to customers.
In response to the fast-lanes plan, Americans flooded the FCC with more than 4 million comments, many in favor of Title II reclassification of broadband, to make net neutrality the most-commented-upon topic in the Commission’s history.
Despite outcry from citizens, Obama’s endorsement and the FCC’s decision to vote on the issue has raised concern among the Republican ranks, specifically from House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who claim that the FCC, an independent agency, has lost its ability to remain neutral on issues due to influence by the White House.
Republican members of both the House and the Senate have also sent letters demanding more information about White House communications with the FCC. In a Feb. 6 letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Rep Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) demanded a variety of documentation, including visitor logs, meeting minutes, and other internal documents related to communication with the White House.
“Reports indicate that the 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,” Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote in the letter. “Specifically, there are questions regarding the FCC’s decision to promote the reclassification of broadband services under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.”
“There are questions regarding the FCC’s decision to promote the reclassification of broadband services.”
During Thursday’s event, hosted at Austin-based technology incubator Capital Factory, Doggett told the Daily Dot that he is skeptical of claims that Obama put inappropriate pressure on the FCC or Wheeler.
“I don’t think there has been undo influence. I think the president had every ability to voice his views on the subject. He could have voiced them just the opposite way and said that it’s a real mistake to ever use Title II and that utility regulation is inappropriate here and will stifle innovation, reduce investment,” Doggett said. “He took a different point of view, and there’s no doubt that his statement must have had some effect on the chairman of the FCC. But that doesn’t mean that there’s been some improper, behind-the-scenes operation.”
Doggett said that he believes the investigation will not yield evidence supporting accusations that the White House has been influencing the FCC away from public view.
The current net neutrality proposal, put forth by Wheeler earlier this month, has been met with multiple efforts to undermine its passage, including bills introduced by Republican lawmakers and threats of lawsuit by ISPs.
The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is also scheduled to hold a hearing, dubbed “The Uncertain Future of the Internet,” on Wednesday, Feb. 25, to discuss the Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal.
The FCC will vote on adoption of the net neutrality proposal on Feb. 26.
Photo via Commodore Gandalf Cunningham/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III