Tom Wheeler, the recently departed chairman of the FCC, took aim at an idea to streamline the agency, saying that it was a “fraud” to say that it was “modernizing” the agency and suggested that it is really a way for major internet service providers to escape substantive oversight.
Speaking on Tuesday at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, Wheeler was referring to reports that the Trump transition team was looking to restructure the FCC and move functions like competition and consumer protection to other federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission.
“It makes no sense,” Wheeler said at the event, moderated by Susan Crawford. “We are talking about 1/6 of the economy, but more importantly, we are talking about the networks that connect 6/6 of the economy.”
Wheeler pointed to a 2013 Washington Post story in which lobbyists for cable and telecom firms were quoted as saying that they supported the idea of transferring key FCC functions to the FTC.
“It is not surprising why they would want to transfer there. The FTC doesn’t have rule-making authority. They have enforcement authority,” he said.
Instead of establishing rules of the road for broadband, he said, the FTC would instead be limited to adjudicating whether a practice is “unfair and deceptive.”
“The FTC has to worry about everything from computer chips to bleach labeling,” Wheeler said. “Of course you would want to be lost in the morass.”
On Monday, President Trump named Ajit Pai, a commissioner since 2012, as the next FCC chair. Pai has been a supporter of deregulation and has been highly critical of one of Wheeler’s signature achievements, net neutrality. In 2015, the FCC ruled 3-2 to adopt rules that banned internet providers from blocking or degrading content, or from selling speedier access to the consumer. To establish solid legal footing, the FCC reclassified internet service as a common carrier, and their action has so far held up in court.
It’s still unclear if Pai will move to repeal the net neutrality rules. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said that he would pursue net neutrality legislation, but public interest groups have their doubts that any new bill would have the teeth of the current FCC regulations now in place.
Wheeler made light of arguments that the current FCC rules will discourage investment. He noted that he made the same argument when he led industry groups. He served as president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association from 1976 to 1984, and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association from 1992 to 2004.
“It is kind of the first line of defense for everybody, and it is balderdash,” he