What changed the FCC chairman’s mind?

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On the occasion last week of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s passage of “net neutrality” regulations, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the commission, announced that it was “the proudest day of my public policy life.” It’s not known whether that statement is a reflection of how little Wheeler feels he’s accomplished in life, or an embarrassing attempt to take credit for something that was forced on him.

What we do know is that the regulation that passed with his vote — and those of the other two Democrats on the commission — was not the much sounder one Wheeler initially proposed, but a radical version that carries within it opportunities for mischief and much worse than that.

So what happened to change Wheeler’s mind? The most obvious explanation is the interjection of President Obama who, a few weeks before the vote, publicly stated his view that the FCC should subject Internet service providers (ISPs) to utility-like regulation. This is the explanation for Wheeler’s switch held by most insiders, and there’s no doubt that these FCC commissioners, their notional “independence” notwithstanding, move like earlier ones to the music of their parties and the presidents that appoint them.

But to think that this is all that occurred with the net neutrality vote is both too comfortable and myopic. It’s too comfortable because it fails to challenge the inadequacy of the lobbies on the other side of the issue, and it’s myopic because it looks past the enormous role played by the nation’s crackpot left.

Take, for instance, the organization cynically misnamed Free Press. It’s headed these days by one Craig Aaron, the former managing editor of the far-left mouthpiece In These Times, and co-founded by Robert McChesney, a socialist communications professor at the University of Illinois. As David Frum has noted, “McChesney told the website SocialistProject in 2009 … the ultimate goal (of net neutrality) is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.”

Not, one would think, the kind of group that would be accorded respectful treatment by grownup policymakers. As it happens, though, one would be wrong. Indeed, writing in the Huffington Post, Aaron provides a compelling, if self-promotional, account of his own and ideologically kindred organizations’ roles in this affair.

In a piece titled “How We Won Net Neutrality,” Aaron names over 30 overwhelmingly left-wing organizations and the influence they had not only on the policy process but on companies that joined the net neutrality bandwagon.

Credit FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for listening to his critics and changing his mind about how best to protect the open Internet. Praise President Obama for using his bully pulpit. Thank John Oliver for coining the memorable phrase “cable company [f–ery].”

But know that none of this happens without a relentless push from the grassroots. The real story here was dozens of public interest groups, new civil rights leaders, and netroots organizers coordinating actions online and off, inside and outside Washington.

In between generating form-letter write-in campaigns, and arranging for protesters to sit in Wheeler’s driveway at home, many of these groups — Free Press most notably — enjoyed numerous meetings with FCC commissioners and staff, as shown by the large number of ex parte filings they have made, last year and this.

If net neutrality were the harmless codification of general principles that nearly everyone agrees with — and that have marked the operation of the Internet from day one until this very moment — there would be little occasion to look carefully into how it has come about.

But in fact, there’s much to worry about in the FCC’s assumption of regulatory oversight of the formerly unregulated Internet. For one thing, Wheeler’s pledge to “forbear” the full range of controls Title II makes possible means nothing. Forbearance, after all, doesn’t mean “never”; it just means “maybe not right now.”

One might consider, in this regard, the many attempts — all of which were later held by courts to be unconstitutional — that the FCC made to institute so-called “indecency” regulations on broadcasters.

And then there’s the moral certainty that groups like Free Press, and other activists, will use these regulations to extend their missions. As Aaron says in his Huffington Post piece: “With the key sections of Title II intact, Internet users will be able to file complaints and actually stop corporate abuse — including future nefarious schemes Comcast and Verizon haven’t even dreamed up yet.”

Lastly, Internet companies of all kinds, including some who foolishly got behind Title II regulation, should now expect that, going forward, they will have to be represented in Washington by lawyers and lobbyists who keep track of, and interact with, an agency of government — the very opposite of what many people hoped and imagined would be the future of the “free and open Internet.”

Maines is president of the Media Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes free speech, sound communications policies and journalistic excellence. The views expressed are those of Maines alone.

Tags Craig Aaron FCC Federal Communications Commission Free Press In These Times Net neutrality Robert McChesney Tom Wheeler

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