You could be forgiven for thinking that the Federal Communications Commission was a rubber stamp machine for the telecommunications industry. Until this year that is.
Despite the Obama administration’s promise to crack down on monopolies and mega-mergers, the FCC approved Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal in 2011. Four months later Meredith Attwell Baker, the FCC commissioner who handled the case for the US government, landed a job at Comcast as the senior vice president of government affairs. That same year former FCC chairman Michael Powell became a cable industry lobbyist.
The FCC’s revolving door policy made it hard to take seriously. Then a curious thing happened. The FCC grew a spine.
Then, in 2013, President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist himself, to the position of FCC chairman. This revolving door policy made it hard to take the FCC seriously. So when Wheeler and company proposed new rules that would have allowed Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon to give preferential treatment to certain traffic as long as it was “commercially reasonable,” few people were surprised and most of us expected network neutrality to be toast. Then a curious thing happened. The FCC grew a spine.
Net Neutrality for Real
The FCC took its first stab at enforcing network neutrality in 2010, back before Wheeler took the chair. But an appeals court struck the rules down in January 2014, arguing that because Internet service providers were legally classified as “information services” instead of so-called Title II common carriers, like traditional voice telephone services, the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce those rules.
That led to a spineless proposal in March of 2014 that would have allowed “commercial reasonable” prioritization. Wheeler insisted that the rules meant commercially reasonable for consumers, not for Internet providers. But to outsiders it looked as if Wheeler, the former lobbyist, was content to let network neutrality die now that he was in charge. There was an explosion of opposition to the proposal, including protests outside the FCC’s office, massive Internet petitions and, perhaps most importantly, a 14-minute rant by Last Week Tonight host John Oliver.
Suddenly, what was once an arcane telecommunications police debate was international news.