Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler delivered an impassioned defense of US net neutrality protections on Friday, one week before Republicans who have vowed to roll back the policy are set to take control of the agency.
In his final public speech as the nation's top telecom regulator, Wheeler warned that Republican efforts to weaken FCC rules ensuring that all internet content is treated equally will harm consumers, stifle online innovation, and threaten broadband industry competition.
"The open internet is the law of the land," Wheeler declared during a speech at the DC offices of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "Tampering with the rules means taking away protections consumers and the online world enjoy today."
Open internet advocates say strong net neutrality safeguards are needed to prevent internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from creating online fast lanes for their own content or discriminating against rival services. The telecom giants, and their Republican allies in Congress, accuse the FCC of overstepping its authority and shackling their business models.
Wheeler's departure from the FCC on January 20, President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration day, will leave the agency in the hands of Republican officials who have made no secret of their intention to dismantle the FCC's policy. That would be a grave mistake, Wheeler said.
"To take those protections away at the request of a handful of ISPs threatens any innovation that requires connectedness and with it the productivity gains, job creation, and international competitiveness required for America's economic growth," Wheeler said. "It is time to keep moving forward. This is not the time to retreat and take things away."
"Vigilance to protect that which Americans now enjoy must be our watchword."
The FCC's policy safeguarding net neutrality is the centerpiece of an ambitious pro-consumer agenda advanced by Wheeler over the last three years. Open internet advocates say that without net neutrality, hugely popular online video and communications services like Netflix and Skype could have been snuffed out by ISPs in favor of their own rival offerings.
"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 said. "Access to the network is what the new economy is built on, and it must not be taken away."
Unfortunately for open internet advocates, the prospects for the FCC's net neutrality policy are bleak under Trump's administration. The president-elect's FCC transition team is led by right-wing ideologues who are expected to recommend a new anti-net neutrality chairman to replace Wheeler. And Trump himself has taken to Twitter to disparage the FCC's policy.
In his speech, Wheeler warned Republicans soon to be in control of the FCC that reversing the agency's net neutrality policy is "not a slam dunk" because of the "high hurdle, imposed by the Administrative Procedure Act, of a fact-based showing that so much has changed in just two short years that a reversal is justified."
Meanwhile, in Congress, Republicans are already scheming to kneecap the FCC's policy. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who was recently tapped by the GOP to be the new chairman of the House telecom subcommittee, has described net neutrality as a "socialistic" Obama plot to take over the internet.
Blackburn, who has received mountains of campaign cash from the telecom industry since first being elected in 2002, has been trying to kill net neutrality for years. In the coming months, she will finally get her chance, possibly by working with other lawmakers to pass new legislation that claims to protect net neutrality, while actually gutting the FCC's policy.
Outgoing FCC Chairman Wheeler, who has written books about the Civil War, concluded his remarks by quoting from Abraham Lincoln's famous first inaugural address: "While the people retain their virtue, and vigilance, no administration … can very seriously injure the government, in the short space of four years."
"The vigilance Lincoln spoke of means we must be alert to name-only, so-called net neutrality policies that actually retreat from the protections that exist today," Wheeler said. "Vigilance to protect that which Americans now enjoy must be our watchword."