The FCC's Wheeler of fortune
© Greg Nash

LAS VEGAS — Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler's speech yesterday to broadcasters attending the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show here dealt primarily with broadcast-specific subjects. But as expected, he also used the occasion to tout the commission's new Open Internet Order, arguing that broadcasters should support it because, like the must-carry rules, the order "assures that your use of the Internet will be free from the risk of discrimination or hold-up by a gatekeeper."

To characterize this claim as 100-proof claptrap would be to understate the case. Put simply, no Internet service provider has, or would have, the tiniest interest in discriminating against anything broadcasters might want to put online. Indeed, net neutrality is widely embraced by the phone and cable companies.

The real issue is the way in which the FCC — through Title II regulation — proposes to define and enforce net neutrality in the future.

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Much has been said about the inefficiencies and investment-reducing effects of Title II regulation, and most all of it is true. But the less-well-discussed aspect is the potential in it for activist groups and ideologues like Free Press and kindred organizations to exploit this order in attempts to impose certain types of content controls.

To get a fuller understanding of the outsized role such groups played in the enactment of the Open Internet Order, one need simply go to that section of the FCC's website that records the ex parte filings submitted, as required, by parties who met with FCC commissioners and/or staff about this matter.

Now numbering some 76 "pages" from March 3, 2014, to April 7 of this year, this section reveals that Free Press and other activist and ideologically motivated groups are vastly overrepresented among all the ex parte filers. (It bears noting that these filings cover the period of time both before and after President Obama put his feet up on Wheeler's chest and explained to him the error of Wheeler's own, and much sounder, proposal for net neutrality.)

Most of Wheeler's speech was given over to praise of broadcasters, and all the good things the FCC has planned for them. But one hopes that, before any one of them volunteers to carry a spear in Wheeler's Open Internet army, they'll think back to the bad old days, in the late 1990s, when President Clinton created the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters.

One of the earliest attempts by the government to get its hands around the digital media, the Gore Commission, as it came to be known, was the scene of so many absurd and unconstitutional proposals that had they been embraced, they would have caused broadcasters trouble without surcease. Fortunately, the effort was so filled with hot air that the whole enterprise simply rose into the ether, never to be seen or heard from again.

May the Open Internet Order suffer the same fate.

Maines is president of the Media Institute. The opinions expressed above are those of Maines alone.