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FCC Chairman Denies Taking Orders from Obama on Net Neutrality

House Republicans grill Tom Wheeler on transparency of Federal Communications Commission vote to classify the Internet as a utility

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Tuesday used a House hearing to repeatedly deny Republican accusations that the FCC reversed course on its plan for implementing net neutrality only at the insistence of the White House and President Obama.

“You have asked whether there were secret instructions from the White House. The answer is, ‘No,’” Wheeler told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Instead he said the FCC made its decision based on the public record.

Wheeler didn’t deny that Obama’s Nov. 10 comments had an effect on the FCC. “Of course it did,” he said, but he described the effect as fueling further attention to the proceedings, not changing either the FCC’s direction or its final result.

Wheeler’s comments came as committee chairman Rep. Jason Cheffetz, R-Utah, and other Republicans accused him of classifying Internet connections as utilities at the White House’s behest after a series of meetings between Wheeler and White House officials whose details haven’t been fully disclosed.

Chaffetz raised questions about process and transparency stemming from Wheeler’s willingness to talk with White House officials while subsequently refusing to disclose details of those meetings, to testify or to provide documents to the committee.

“You meet with the White House multiple times during the open comment period and after the comment period closes and we are supposed to believe that one of the most important things the FCC has ever done, that this didn’t come up and you didn’t have any discussion? Is that what we are supposed to believe,” asked Chaffetz.

He accused Wheeler of engaging in a “double standard” of providing information to the White House and not Congress.

Wheeler rejected the criticism.

He called the procedure by which the FCC weighed net neutrality “one of the most open and expansive processes the FCC has ever run,” noting that the nearly four million comments generated temporarily broke the FCC’s comment site.

While saying that President Obama’s support for net neutrality and a utility-like regulatory approach had an effect, Wheeler said it raised the issue’s profile.

“The President’s focus put wind in the sails of everyone looking for strong opening Internet protections. It also encouraged those who have been opposing legislation to, for the first time, support legislation with bright line rules,” said Wheeler.

He also said that the market’s failure to react to Obama’s statement and the FCC’s subsequent sale of advanced wireless spectrum at unexpectedly high prices acted to mitigate worries that tough net neutrality rules would hurt investment.

Wheeler said the FCC had been exploring using a combination of utility-like regulation and newer forms of regulation for net neutrality before the president spoke, and continued to do so afterwards.

The Oversight Committee’s hearing is the first of three the FCC faces this week. Two more congressional hearings are set for Wednesday and Thursday.

At Tuesday’s hearing Republicans repeatedly questioned why Wheeler, who last April proposed a version of net neutrality that didn’t include utility regulation and didn’t include regulation of mobile Internet connections, changed course.

“It boils down to, people are trying to understand how you could be against the President’s policy on net neutrality before you were for it,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.