Just seven months ago, Tom Wheeler was a dingo.
Criticism that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman and former cable and wireless industries lobbyist was too cozy with his former employers had only intensified after he proposed tepid net neutrality rules that would have allowed companies to create “fast lanes” on the Internet.
Since then, however, Wheeler has steadily changed course and this week announced that he is pushing forward with the toughest net neutrality rules the U.S. has ever seen.
The stunning reversal is the product of a sustained lobbying effort from a group of dedicated Web activists, startup tech company executives and the direct intervention of the president — plus the begrudging acceptance from some of the biggest Web providers in the country.
Depending on one’s view, the evolution has either enshrined Wheeler as the man who saved the Internet or tainted him as a partisan puppet who undermined the integrity of an 80-year old arm of government.
The change of heart has been “really remarkable,” said Free Press president Craig Aaron, who has been fighting for strong net neutrality rules for a decade.
“We’ve had questions about the chairman’s background ... but he clearly at some level changed his mind [and] changed his policy, based on the input he received,” Aaron added. “And he deserves to be praised for that.”
The current battle stretches back a year, when a federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s previous net neutrality rules, written by President Obama’s law school buddy and then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
In its ruling, the court effectively told the FCC that it had the authority to police traffic on the Internet, but that its rules were written incorrectly. The previous rules were written for “telecommunications” services such as phone lines, the court said, whereas broadband Internet had been classified as an “information” service.
The message: scale them back or reclassify the Internet.
At first, Wheeler took the first option, yielding to major Internet service providers that had repeatedly warned that reclassifying the Internet to apply rules under Title II of the Communications Act would saddle companies with outdated restrictions that would lead to higher prices and worse service.
The decision came under quick fire from Web activists and, soon after, by 150 Internet companies including giants like Google and Netflix, who sent a letter warning that it represented a “grave threat to the Internet.”
The letter made it clear that Web companies had a stake in the fight and “totally shifted the way people in D.C. thought about it,” said Marvin Ammori, a tech policy lawyer who helped to rally startups around the push.
Activists also targeted Congress to provide political cover for stronger rules, raised the profile of the issue on the Internet and made it easier for people to get their word to the FCC.
But it took a bookish British comedian with a half-hour weekly HBO show to really make net neutrality — and Wheeler’s K Street past — a household name.
In a 13-minute video that has now been watched nearly 8 million times online, John Oliver said that Wheeler’s position, given his past as an industry lobbyist, “is the equivalent of needing a baby sitter and hiring a dingo.”
In calling for his viewers to contact the FCC, he told them “to get out there and, for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction.”
It worked. Comments poured in. The day after Oliver’s show aired, the FCC’s commenting system crashed.
“I think everybody was just shocked that people cared as much as it became apparent they did,” said David Segal, executive director of the activist group Demand Progress.
“It’s an agency that’s not used to seeing so much public pressure,” he added. “Nobody at the FCC had seen it coming.”
In the end, people filed more than 4 million comments into the FCC, easily eclipsing its record.
Wheeler could feel the heat.
During a self-deprecating keynote speech during a swanky industry dinner in December, Wheeler proudly announced that he was the owner of a cell phone case that read “I am not a dingo.”
In the summer, he traveled to Silicon Valley and New York to meet with venture capitalists and heads of companies like Etsy and Kickstarter, who pressed the need for tough regulations.
Those meetings may have had special resonance for Wheeler, who likes to harken back to his own days as a venture capitalist and startup leader in the years surrounding his time in government and as a lobbyist.
Meanwhile, legal experts were making the argument for why a Title II approach could withstand the inevitable court challenge from cable or wireless companies.
According to one senior FCC official, Wheeler had decided to change course in August.
At first, the chairman floated a “hybrid” plan that would have reclassified only part of the Internet, but that all changed the Monday after the midterm elections.
It was never going to be a good day for Wheeler, who woke up to find protesters camped out in front of his Georgetown home, blocking his Mini Cooper from getting out of the driveway.
Then, shortly after 9 a.m. President Obama released a bombshell of a video calling for the “strongest possible” rules out of the FCC
“In plain English, I’m asking them to recognize that for most Americans the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life,” Obama said.
Critics instantly jumped on the move as a politically motivated stunt to rally Obama’s base after a disastrous election and interfere with the workings of an independent agency. They called it an unprecedented display of White House bullying.
FCC officials insist Wheeler had already set on his plan before the president’s video, though they admit that lack of market panic after Obama’s call made it clear that the industry would not revolt at the prospect of reclassification.
They only got more support in the weeks after, when executives at Sprint and Verizon claimed that the prospect of Title II rules would not meaningfully alter the way it invested. Verizon has since walked back the claim.
This week, Wheeler unveiled his plan to the public, though the final rules won’t be issued until after the five-member FCC votes on Feb. 26.
Commission officials have downplayed his change in approach.
“I find the fascination with the chairman’s evolution interesting,” Wheeler aide Gigi Sohn said in an interview on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators,” comparing the issue to Obama’s stance on gay marriage.
“It’s not important where he was,” she added. “It’s important where he is."