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Outgoing FCC chief Tom Wheeler offers final defense of net neutrality

The outgoing head of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, used his final public speech to make a closing argument for maintaining net neutrality, the signature achievement of his time at the agency.

“The overarching goal of the new policies was to promote a thriving broadband ecosystem, and that’s exactly what has happened,” Wheeler said.

Under Trump, Republicans will regain a majority at the FCC and have already made clear their intention to begin pushing back on, if not completely rewriting or wiping out, the Open Internet Order that established net neutrality.

This would be an irresponsible and bad idea, Wheeler seems to say. “What some describe as ‘free market economics’ cannot mean simply freeing incumbents of their responsibilities,” he says. “A hands-off approach to network oversight is more than a shift in direction, it is a decision to remove rights and move backward.”

Wheeler’s general argument in favor of net neutrality is twofold. For one, consumer privacy needs to be protected from self-interested corporations. And two, he says the rules have managed to boost investment in broadband and internet services, which is the exact thing that Republicans’ claim the rules prevent.

“If you really need proof the Open Internet rule is working, look at how it is being used by its opponents when they operate as edge providers,” he says. As evidence, he cites DirecTV Now, a streaming TV service that AT&T is able to serve over networks owned by major competitors like Comcast and Charter. “One only has to remember the interconnection and porting debates that hindered the access of over-the-top video providers pre-Open Internet rule to appreciate the importance of an open Internet to everyone — even its opponents.”

Wheeler’s argument, at its core, is pretty simple. He says Republicans should actually take a look at what’s going on and see if the Open Internet Order has really been that bad — or whether it has, in fact, done some good.

“Where’s the fire? What has happened since the Open Internet rules were adopted to justify uprooting the policy?” Wheeler asks. “As I said a moment ago, network investment is up, investment in innovative services is up, and ISPs revenues — and stock prices — are at record levels. So, where’s the fire?”

As for why net neutrality is necessary in the first place, Wheeler points out what should be pretty obvious: companies can be kind of evil, and regulators are needed to stop that from happening. “Those who build and operate networks have both the incentive and the ability to use the power of the network to benefit themselves even if doing so harms their own customers and the greater public interest,” Wheeler says. “This is not casting aspersions at network operators, it is simply stating an historical fact that reflects basic human nature.”

There’s also some reason to be hopeful that Republicans can’t just tear up the net neutrality rules that Wheeler — and the many American citizens who filed comments in support — worked so hard to get.

Wheeler says efforts to undo the rules will face a “high hurdle” because the commission is required to go through a public comment period and ultimately provide evidence showing that “so much has changed in just two short years that a reversal is justified.” Were the commission to push through a rule change anyway, Wheeler believes it would still have another “high hurdle to vault” in court, to again prove that very recently made decisions were wrong.

Republicans could also use Congress to overturn net neutrality. Wheeler fears that a law will be proposed offering a semblance of net neutrality, but not the protections that are actually supposed to come with it.

In a part of his speech, which Wheeler seems to be hoping will become a guide for years to come, the FCC chairman outlines three things he believes a net neutrality proposal must be in order to truly be called net neutrality. “It must be comprehensive, continuing, and consistent,” Wheeler says.

He explains these as meaning that a proposal must offer comprehensive authority to protect consumers, continuing rules that can be applied to emerging networks and devices, and consistent guidelines against which to measure whether conduct is appropriate. “Passing legislation or adopting regulations without these key provisions and calling it net neutrality would be false advertising,” he says.

The road to net neutrality was not an easy one, and Wheeler may know that better than anyone, having been in the middle of a flurry of attacks over regulation. It is a certainty that the commission will be able to push back at least some of the achievements that happened under his watch — not just on net neutrality, but also around privacy protections for all internet users — under Republican control.

Wheeler’s arguments aren’t likely to sway them much. But they provide fodder for those who hope to defend the established rules. “It is time to keep moving forward,” Wheeler said. “This is not the time to retreat and take things away.”


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