Wheeler Denies Secret Instructions From Obama on Internet Regulations

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday told lawmakers the White House did not give him “secret instructions” in connection with Internet regulations that he proposed.

Critics of Tom Wheeler including Republicans on Capitol Hill have questioned whether he decided to recommend utility-style regulations in response to pressure from President Barack Obama, who issued a public statement in November advocating for regulation of the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

In a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Wheeler noted he had been exploring Title II regulation since the summer of 2014, although he acknowledged Obama’s statement had an impact.

“You have asked whether there were secret instructions from the White House. Again, I repeat the answer is no,” Wheeler said in prepared remarks. “Now, the question becomes whether the President’s announcement on November 10 had an impact on the Open Internet debate, including at the FCC. Of course it did,” he continued. “The push for Title II had been hard and continuous from Democratic members of Congress. The President’s weighing in to support their position gave the whole Title II issue new prominence.”

Some lawmakers have questioned whether Wheeler’s decision was unduly influenced by the White House. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the oversight committee chairman, cited press reports in October 2014 that Wheeler was considering treating broadband under a different classification than Title II.

“Just days later, President Obama appeared in a YouTube video calling for a radically different proposal—full Title II reclassification, similar to a utility or telephone company,” Chaffetz said Tuesday in an opening statement. “Emails provided to the Committee by the FCC suggest that this came as a surprise to FCC staff, including Mr. Wheeler.”

Chaffetz also raised concerns about transparency, saying Wheeler refused to testify before Congress prior to announcing his Internet proposal.

Last week, the FCC released its 400-page Internet order, drawing mixed reactions from the telecommunications industry, consumer groups and others. The regulations treat broadband as a telecommunications service, prohibit blocking and slowing down of Web content, ban Internet providers from prioritizing certain traffic, and require certain disclosures about Internet providers’ commercial terms and network management practices.

The broadband industry is expected to challenge the regulations in federal court.

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