(TNS) — In his final public address as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler implored the incoming Trump administration to press ahead with efforts to preserve and strengthen net neutrality amid increasingly strong signals that the policy designed to keep the Internet fair and open may be in jeopardy.
Before a crowd gathered at the Aspen Institute, the think tank Wheeler will be joining after formally relinquishing his post this week, Wheeler said Friday that the country stands at a crossroads when it comes to Internet policy.
“One path leads forward; the other leads back to re-litigating solutions that are demonstrably working,” Wheeler said. “All the press reports seem to indicate that the new commission will choose an ideologically based course.”
Passed in 2015, net neutrality, which requires that Internet service providers treat all Web traffic equally, is the hallmark of Wheeler’s three-year tenure at the helm of the FCC. The regulations were widely praised by open-Internet advocates as crucial to keeping the access to the Internet on a level playing field.
But the rules have been assailed by critics who see it as needless regulation that will prevent investment and innovation in Internet technologies. Some of net neutrality’s most vocal detractors have come from within the FCC itself.
Commissioner Ajit Pai, widely considered to be on President-elect Donald Trump’s short list of candidates to replace Wheeler as chairman, has been outspoken about his desire to revisit many of the policies enacted under Wheeler’s watch.
In a Dec. 7 speech delivered to the Free State Foundation think tank, Pai pledged to “fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation.”
“On the day that (net neutrality rules were) adopted, I said that ‘I don’t know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress, or overturned by a future commission. But I do believe that its days are numbered.’”
Several advisers that the incoming Trump administration has brought on to help manage transitional matters at the commission have been outspoken critics of net neutrality. Mark Jamison, for example, wrote a post for the American Enterprise Institute in which he said that the rules were “backfiring” and “frequently work against the entrepreneurs and consumers the rules are intended to help.”
In his speech, Wheeler fought back against the idea that net neutrality had hobbled Internet service providers. “Network investment is up, investment in innovative services is up, and ISPs’ revenues — and stock prices — are at record levels,” Wheeler said.
“So, where’s the fire? Other than the desires of a few (providers) to be free of meaningful oversight, why the sudden rush to undo something that is demonstrably working?”
Many net neutrality advocates have vowed to fight against dismantling the policy. Chris Lewis, a vice president at the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge and former deputy legislative affairs director at the commission, attended Wheeler’s farewell address Friday, and praised his efforts to protect consumers during his time as chairman.
Looking ahead to the incoming administration’s antagonistic posturing toward net neutrality, Lewis said his organization and others were “on guard”: “We’re certainly concerned, but at the same time this is why our organization exists. We’ll be there working to preserve those protections that are working for the American people right now.”
Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that while his group is anticipating an “aggressive effort to roll back” the scope of net neutrality, he remains optimistic that the broad public support behind the regulations will help to shape the president-elect’s selection for the next FCC chair.
“Ajit Pai represents a clear establishment Republican mind-set, that all regulations are bad in the FCC space,” Falcon said. “But it’s worth remembering from the campaign that Trump ran against Republicans on a handful of issues, and he defeated the entire Republican establishment.”
Wheeler’s appointment in 2013 touched off a firestorm of criticism over his long career as a top lobbyist for the cable and cell phone industries. But critics who decried what seemed like a “fox guarding the henhouse” nominee were quickly silenced by the pro-consumer issues Wheeler took up once in office.
“They thought he would be a cable stooge, and he ended up being the exact opposite. He was an extreme adversary of the cable industry,” said Bruce Leichtman, the president and principal analyst at Leichtman Research Group, which conducts research on the broadband and media industries.
George Foote, the lead telecommunications attorney at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, has known Wheeler since the two crossed paths at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, where Wheeler served as president and CEO from 1992 to 2004. Foote dismissed the initial backlash against Wheeler as the knee-jerk reaction of a polarized public.
“He struck a balance between protecting the public good and advancing the good through these technologies without overburdening business, and I think his vision has been proved out,” Foote said.
“He believes in government, and he believes that governments should make things work,” he said.
©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.