For Net Neutrality, Political Theater

The FCC is moving on net neutrality. And past internal dissension at the agency, Congressional forces are lining up to mostly kick up dust and whine as the Commission readies to vote on stringent rules in under two weeks.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler initially intended to ground new net neutrality rules on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. Later, he changed his mind, deciding that Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 was more appropriate. And in between the two, the President weighed in, advocating for use of Title II.

Insert controversy. The President, in his statement, made the following note: “The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone.” Correct. Still, the FCC bridled a bit in the face of the President’s very public comments:

As an independent regulatory agency we will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding. We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act.

In the end, Chairman Wheeler announced the broad outline of his net neutrality proposal in a public op-ed, including an explanation of how his mind changed when it came to Section 706 and Title II:

Originally, I believed that the FCC could assure internet openness through a determination of “commercial reasonableness” under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While a recent court decision seemed to draw a roadmap for using this approach, I became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers.

That is why I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.

What is worth noting in that phrasing is Wheeler’s admission that he was originally wrong. You don’t hear that much from anyone in Washington.

The Response*

In the face of Chairman Wheeler likely having the votes to pass his plan, we are seeing what I can only summarize as political theater. FCC commissioner Ajit Pai held a press conference, during which he called Chairman Wheeler’s plan the President’s plan, a direct slight, implicating the Chairman as little more than Obama’s poodle.

Other Republicans are pushing investigations concerning whether the White House essentially runs the FCC. Here’s The Hill:

During an interview, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) did not rule out holding hearings or calling White House officials to testify before his panel, if that is where the investigation leads.

“I think there’s enough smoke here that it’s really worth looking at,” he told The Hill. “And we’ll let the facts dictate where we go. But we are going to look at it with a skeptical eye and see what the documents demonstrate.”

Oh my.

After proposing legislation that would have stripped the FCC of any authority over the net neutrality regulatory issue, it seems that our Congressional majorities are huffing themselves into a puff over the FCC doing its job. How dare the regulatory body regulate. This is America!

There are in fact two main bodies of bitching going on here: Congressional, and from ISPs. ISPs are going to sue over the new neutrality rules, provided that they pass. The FCC doesn’t appear too worried about that. What impact the Congressional response might have appears to be in mild dispute, but I have yet to hear from anyone I find intelligent that what the Republican party is up to in Congress is potentially lethal.

And so here we are. The vote is in 11 days. Expect more silliness to ensue.

*Not a Rick Perry joke.