Congress punishes FCC for standing up to ISPs with pointless hearings
In the year since the FCC passed net neutrality rules, ISP allies in Congress have run the agency through an endless gauntlet of show-pony hearings. While most of these hearings profess to be focused on agency transparency and accountability, they’re really geared toward one single purpose: to publicly shame the agency for standing up to deep-pocketed telecom campaign contributors. Given the fact the only real way to overturn the rules is for ISPs to prevail in court or via Presidential election, this showmanship has been little more than a stunning display of wasted taxpayer dollars and stunted intellectual discourse.
Undaunted, the Senate held yet another “FCC accountability” (read: pointless tongue-lashing) hearing last week, during which Senators pummeled FCC boss Tom Wheeler with many of the same, repeatedly-debunked claims net neutrality opponents have been making since the rules were approved. Among them was the claim that the rules somehow hampered broadband investment, despite the fact that objective data (including quarterly ISP earnings reports) repeatedly shows that simply isn’t the case.
For somebody that’s had his time repeatedly wasted simply for upsetting the telecom status quo, Wheeler remains impressively cool under fire. For example, when fellow FCC Commissioner (and former Verizon regulatory lawyer) Ajit Pai took to the hearing to again trot out the industry-backed think tank claim that broadband investment had suffered under net neutrality, Wheeler casually highlighted that repetition does not magically forge reality:
“With all due respect to my colleague, what he has just portrayed as facts are not,” Wheeler responded. He said that investment in broadband increased, along with a 13% jump in fiber investment, as well as Internet usage and increased revenue per subscriber.
But Pai insisted that is not the case. “The FCC’s policies have failed. The administration’s policies on broadband has failed,” he said.
“We are not seeing a decline in broadband infrastructure investment. You can say it and say it and say it, but that does not make it a fact,” Wheeler responded.
Pai said he would offer up sworn declarations from Internet providers showing how the new rules had caused them to slow their investment. But Wheeler, too, offered to submit corporate statements on Internet investment, which would face Securities and Exchange Commission penalties if they were misleading.
When the rules were approved you might recall that net neutrality opponents also tried to claim that the White House “improperly influenced” the creation of the rules, since the White House vocally supported the Title II approach in November of 2014, and Wheeler voiced his support for Title II in February of 2015. This, net neutrality opponents argued, was clear evidence of an unholy cabal.
Net neutrality opponents can’t point out what law was broken (because none was) and FCC history is filled with examples of the White House publicly voicing its policy preference ahead of an FCC announcement (George W. Bush urging Michael Powell to deregulate media ownership, or Bill Clinton writing a public letter urging Chairman Reed Hundt to ban hard liquor ads on TV). Still, neutrality opponents dragged this tired dog out of the cupboard at the hearing as well, accompanied by a thirty page report (pdf) designed to pretend the discredited claim has gravitas. Wheeler again remained relatively unfazed:
“Here, I would like to be really clear: There were no secret instructions from the White House. I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president’s recommendation.”
There’s two things that net neutrality opponents in DC simply refuse to acknowledge. One, the net neutrality rules were crafted after unprecedented, genuine public outcry. Two, while it’s framed as a partisan fight to try and sow partisan division, net neutrality actually has broad, bipartisan support. And while accountability for laughing at the will of the people and wasting everybody’s time may not be forthcoming, the reality remains that these hearings are simply a taxpayer-funded display of just how high some politicians are willing to jump for their telecom-industry campaign contributions. The political and media pretense that they’re anything else is laughable.