A core Republican talking point during the net neutrality battle was that, in 2015, President Obama led a government takeover of the internet, and Obama illegally bullied the independent Federal Communications Commission into adopting the rules. In this version of the story, Ajit Pai’s rollback of those rules Thursday is a return to the good old days, before the FCC was forced to adopt rules it never wanted in the first place.
“On express orders from the previous White House, the FCC scrapped the tried-and-true, light touch regulation of the Internet and replaced it with heavy-handed micromanagement,” Pai said Thursday prior to voting to repeal the regulations.
But internal FCC documents obtained by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information Act request show that the independent, nonpartisan FCC Office of Inspector General—acting on orders from Congressional Republicans—investigated the claim that Obama interfered with the FCC’s net neutrality process and found it was nonsense. This Republican narrative of net neutrality as an Obama-led takeover of the internet, then, was wholly refuted by an independent investigation and its findings were not made public prior to Thursday’s vote.
First, some background: The FCC is an independent regulatory agency that is supposed to remain “free from undue influence” by the executive branch—it is not beholden to the White House, only the laws that Congress makes and tells it to regulate. This means the president cannot direct it to implement policies. In November 2014, President Obama released a statement saying that he believed the FCC should create rules protecting net neutrality, but noted that “ultimately this decision is theirs alone.”
"We found no evidence of secret deals, promises, or threats from anyone outside the Commission, nor any evidence of any other improper use of power to influence the FCC decision-making process"
This statement kicked the Obama-is-taking-over-the-internet talking point into overdrive (fringe conservative groups had already been calling net neutrality “Marxist” in emails to Republican mailing lists).
In early December 2014, the FCC, then led by Tom Wheeler, announced it would delay tackling net neutrality until 2015. Conservatives attributed this delay to Obama’s meddling, and pointed to a Wall Street Journal article noting that there were “unusual, secretive efforts inside the White House, led by two aides,” that led to the FCC adopting the regulations.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee called in Wheeler to discuss the FCC’s relationship with the White House. Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz said Obama’s statement caused Wheeler to “radically alter course,” asked Wheeler if the FCC had secret meetings with the White House, and demanded that the FCC’s Inspector General investigate: “I think there’s enough smoke here that it’s really worth looking at,” he said.
Using a Freedom of Information Act request, Motherboard obtained a summary of the Inspector General’s report, which has not been released publicly and is marked “Official Use Only, Law Enforcement Sensitive Information." After reviewing more than 600,000 emails, the independent office found that there was no collusion between the White House and the FCC: “We found no evidence of secret deals, promises, or threats from anyone outside the Commission, nor any evidence of any other improper use of power to influence the FCC decision-making process.” This document is embedded below.
The summary was sent by Jay Keithley, an assistant inspector general, to David Hunt, who has been the FCC’s acting inspector general since 2009 (Hunt remains the IG today). The memo is dated August 22, 2016. The FCC OIG did not immediately respond to a question from Motherboard about why the memo had not been previously released to the public, but Wendy Hadfield, a paralegal at FCC OIG who processed the FOIA request in just one day (an extraordinarily fast turnaround time for a FOIA request) told me in an email that the agency “appreciate[s] the newsworthiness of this information” and attempted to process the document “in a useful timeframe.”
The FCC and Chairman Pai's office did not respond to a request for comment sent Monday morning. This story will be updated if I hear back.
The report also found that the regulations were delayed in 2014 not because of Obama-administration meddling but because they simply weren’t ready yet: “While our teams have been working around the clock to try to be ready, there are significant obstacles to preparing a legally sustainable order in the time remaining,” Julie Veach, then-Chief of the FCC’s Wireline Bureau (which was working on the regulations), said in an email sent November 6, 2014 to Wheeler and other high-level FCC employees.
Republicans sold the public a narrative that wasn’t true, then used that narrative to repeal the regulations that protect the internet
The Inspector General’s report also notes that the record it reviewed did not support the analysis in a separate Senate probe titled: “Regulating the Internet: How the White House Bowled Over FCC Independence.”
“Nothing we found refuted the factual findings in the Senate Staff Report,” the IG wrote (bolding by agency). “More importantly, nothing we found in the complete, unredacted record evidenced any undue influence that would have militated in favor of a more comprehensive investigation.”
What the Inspector General found, then, were career public servants doing their job: “Nothing in these, or in any other emails appeared to indicate there was pressure to delay the Order from the December meeting from any source other than concerned FCC staffers,” the report found, adding that there was “no indication” that a draft of the net neutrality regulations had been circulated improperly.
Wheeler maintained through the whole process that Obama’s public statement had been entered into the public comment alongside comments by telecom companies, nonprofits, and millions of concerned citizens: “We will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding,” Wheeler said. The IG report noted that “while one could reasonably challenge the Chairman’s claim … our investigation has found no evidence to refute it.”
Since 2014, Republicans have pointed to net neutrality as an idea primarily promoted by President Obama, and have made it another in a long line of regulations and laws that they have sought to repeal now that Donald Trump is president. Prior to this false narrative, though, net neutrality was a bipartisan issue; the first net neutrality rules were put in place under President George W. Bush, and many Republicans worked on the 2015 rules that were just dismantled.
What happened, then, is that Republicans sold the public a narrative that wasn’t true, then used that narrative to repeal the regulations that protect the internet.