Outgoing FCC chair warns against overturning net neutrality

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 20, 2017 11:36 AM

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Outgoing U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler warned Republicans against dismantling the Obama administration's landmark "net neutrality" protections that bar internet service providers from slowing consumer access to web content.

Wheeler, in an interview this week, repeatedly questioned why Republicans would institute new policies that he said would benefit major internet service providers such as Comcast Corp, AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and CenturyLink Inc at the expense of thousands of other companies and consumers.

The FCC rules set in early 2015 prohibit broadband providers from giving or selling access to speedy internet, essentially a "fast lane" on the web's information superhighway, to certain internet services over others.

"These are serious things," said Wheeler, who steps down Friday as Republican Donald Trump replaces Democrat Barack Obama as president. "People have made business decisions based on the expectation of an open internet and to take that away in order to favor half a dozen companies just seems to be a shocking decision.

"There are a half a dozen ISPs (internet service providers) and tens of thousands of companies and millions of consumers who would be affected."

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who is expected to be named acting chairman by Trump as early as Friday, said in December he thought net neutrality's days were numbered. He said the commission should take a "weed whacker" to unneeded rules.

Wheeler, a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist, questioned why Republicans would abandon conservative economic principles "to favor a half dozen companies."

"I can certainly understand why the ISPs for their own corporate interests would want to have no oversight at all and they certainly are advocating that position right now," he said.

Wheeler said companies already are flaunting the rules by offering free or sponsored data services for some products. He said in a letter earlier this month that AT&T and Verizon's programs "present significant risks to consumers and competition." The companies both defended the programs.

Under Wheeler, the FCC in October decided to impose stricter privacy rules on ISPs than those imposed on websites like Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc's Google or Twitter Inc. The Republican-controlled FCC is also likely to overturn those rules.

Internet providers fear net neutrality rules make it harder to manage internet traffic and make investment in additional capacity less likely. The Republican-controlled Congress is also considering rewriting the net neutrality rules.

Some critics and companies suggested Wheeler favored Google and other tech companies during his tenure. [nL1N1DI15Q] Wheeler disputed that and said the FCC did not have jurisdiction over websites.

Wheeler suffered some setbacks late in his term. The FCC did not approve his proposal to open the $20 billion market for rented pay-TV set-top boxes. That measure would have dealt a big blow to cable companies and created an opening for firms such as Google and Apple Inc.

Wheeler tweeted a farewell Friday morning: "Upon my FCC departure, I would like to sign off with 3 words of wisdom that guided me well: competition, competition, competition."

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Trott)