Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday defended meetings he had with the president and White House staff while drafting net neutrality rules, telling senators they were routine and didn’t require disclosure.
Wheeler testified Wednesday with the four other FCC commissioners at the Senate Commerce Committee. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) pressed the chairman about his communication with the White House after President Obama laid out a vision for a strong set of rules to protect the internet in November. Johnson on Tuesday released a report claiming that the FCC completely changed course on net neutrality after Obama’s announcement, and he chastised Wheeler for not properly documenting meetings around that time.
“There were a number of meetings that we uncovered in our investigation, emails going back and forth between yourself and members of the White House where clearly this open internet ruling was being discussed, and yet there was never a record made of those ex parte communications,” Johnson said. “I find that very troubling.”
Wheeler said the commission had done nothing wrong. He said that he had checked the rules and that “ex parte” communications are only necessary when there is “substantial significance and is there is clearly intended to affect the ultimate decision.”
Johnson’s report also says that on Nov. 9, 2015, Wheeler and his staff decided to “pause” drafting the Open Internet Order to craft a response that wouldn’t undermine Obama’s vision. Johnson and his staff concluded that Obama essentially forced his agenda onto the commission. Johnson was particularly perturbed by this since, as he pointed out, the FCC is an independent agency.
“I think what we did was that we hit ‘pause,’ and I publicly announced that we were hitting pause for the purpose of enriching the record,” Wheeler said. “I think I said at that point in time we know the big dogs are going to sue on this, and we want to make sure we’ve got I’s dotted and T’s crossed.”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who played a part in the 1996 Telecommunications Act and is a big supporter of the net neutrality rule released by the FCC last year, defended the commission’s communication with the White House.
“I want to make clear that the FCC has done precisely what Congress intended the commission to do, classify broadband internet service according to its best understanding of the technology of that day and how consumers use that technology,” Markey said. “I am confident that is how you are proceeding.”