It's time to fire FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
President Obama told us in 2006, 2007, and 2008 that he was committed to keeping the Internet a "neutral platform" uncontrolled by "some corporate media middleman" like Verizon, Time Warner, or Comcast. He said he'd fight for an open and equal Internet not run by special interests and where consumers, not gatekeepers, would have unfettered control over the content they could access.
But under former industry lobbyist Wheeler's direction, the FCC has voted to potentially allow Internet fast lanes which would essentially leave the question of paid prioritization to the FCC's nebulous "commercially reasonable" standard — one that wasn't clearly defined and would leave the Internet at the mercy of his successors. The loss of net neutrality, the principle that ISPs shouldn't be allowed to interfere with the data crossing their networks, will have an immense impact on virtually every aspect of American life. Wheeler has turned what should have been a major policy priority of the Obama administration into a flaming disaster.
While Obama doesn't have the authority to fire Wheeler from the FCC, he does technically have the power to remove him as chairman. The White House could designate one of the two other Democrats on the five-seat panel as chairman, allowing for a brisk turnaround after the end of the four-month commenting period before the FCC's paid-prioritization goes into effect.
As POLITICO's Zephyr Teachout writes, there's ample reason to get rid of Wheeler, who has lost the confidence of virtually the entire Internet establishment:
More than 150 companies, 100 investors, dozens of nonprofit groups, dozens of congressmen and senators and hundreds of thousands of citizens have written or called the FCC urging it to stop the proposal — well before the proposal was officially released on Thursday. What's more, Wheeler's rhetoric on what he insists is a "network neutrality" rule that does not authorize paid fast or slow lanes directly contradicts the substance of the proposal itself: Paragraph 97 plainly permits "individualized arrangements for priority treatment." That kind of doublespeak will make it difficult for anyone to believe Wheeler's claims over the next months.
Wheeler's attempt to guide net neutrality down the middle by allowing corporations to strike content deals in violation of open Internet principles while assuring everyone that neutrality would remain intact has been a complete failure. Basically, he's enraged the entire Internet in a way not seen since the 2012 protests against SOPA and PIPA. And his confused backpeddling and doublespeak shows that Wheeler has terribly misjudged public opinion and doesn't quite know how to escape the fury intact. At times, it's verged on contempt for the public's understanding.
While most Americans don't know what net neutrality is, most who do support it.
Consumers should be worried about the direction that Wheeler's FCC is heading down. In an age where major ISPs are consolidating and even buying content producers and television services directly, there's more incentive than ever for them to pressure potential competitors into paying for access to consumers. And the industry has been quite clear that this is where they're headed. AT&T's Jim Cicconi calls neutrality proponent Netflix's position "arrogant," essentially arguing that content producers are leeching off of ISPs. (These are the same ISPs, by the way, that are raking in record profits while delivering some of the worst Internet service in the developed world.) And while the industry as a whole is trying to raise the spectre of a strong regulatory framework as some kind of industry-destroying behemoth that will kill jobs and innovation, Comcast exec VP David L. Cohen is busy arguing that "Whatever it is, we are allowed to do it."
The choice couldn't be more clear. Either we have an Internet guarded by strong neutrality rules designed to fight against monopolization of consumers' freedom of access to content, or one with weak or no neutrality rules where ISPs are able to bottleneck their competition. Wheeler doesn't get it. If the president is committed to net neutrality, he should relieve Wheeler of his chairmanship.