Wheeler Confident Net Neutrality will Stand

With a swagger and optimism that was sorely missing a few years ago, Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler told a technology conference this week he’s got a simple plan for fighting the handful of lawsuits already filed against the net neutrality regulations the FCC adopted earlier this year: Don’t lose.

Addressing Tech Crunch Disrupt in New York Monday, Wheeler explained to writer Alex Wilhelm that the four million comments submitted on the proposed net neutrality regulations “proved the power of an open Internet to free expression.”

While the large number of comments – three-quarters of which were in support of the strict regulations prohibiting the establishment of “fast lanes” for those companies and services that could afford to pay for faster speeds—caught the FCC’s attention, it didn’t necessarily sway the decision. However, it did underscore “why the decision was so damn important,” he said. “This is not something where you make a decision based on bulk. You could, but I’m not sure that’s what the statute [from Congress] had in mind,” instead of making a decision based on what best served the public interest. But “when you’re talking about the Internet, you’re talking about something very personal to people. They then used that personal medium of theirs to express themselves. That was what was significant” about the volume of comments, he said.

Still, members of Congress and at least five major Internet providers filed lawsuits against the FCC as soon as the members voted to enact what’s often been referred to as the strongest open Internet regulations in history. Congress has the ability, and the right, to change the laws under which FCC operates, but “What Congress does is, Congress enacts broad principles, then delegates authority to an expert agency,” which is what the FCC is, Wheeler explained. But when a lawsuit is filed against a regulation enacted by such an agency, courts should defer to the agency’s expertise.

If Congress wants to change the FCC’s operational paradigm, they have that right, he added. “My job is to take the statutes that Congress has passed, to look at the facts presented in the context of those statutes and make decisions… They are the people’s elected representatives.”

Unless the FCC’s new regulations are stayed in court as a result of the legal challenges, they will go into effect in about a month, on June 12. Wheeler has said all along that lawsuits were imminent, and he’s feeling confident his agency is on strong legal ground to win any and all challenges. The last time the FCC tried to enact open Internet regulations, in 2010, a court sided with Verizon and remanded FCC’s actions because “the agency had imposed Title II common-carrier-kind of requirements without stepping up and saying you are a Title II common carrier. But we solved that,” he said. “I feel pretty confident on the court case.”

But what if the FCC loses again and the regulations are found to be overstepping FCC’s legal authority? What’s Wheeler’s plan in the interim?

“Not to lose,” he said with a smirk. “That’s the short term plan.”

He also took a moment to discuss the recently abandoned discussed merger between Comcast and Time Warner, which the FCC had warned would require a legal review before being approved. He praised Comcast’s decision to walk away from the deal. Wheeler agreed with the statement given by Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, when he announced he was walking away from the pending merger.

“It’s time to move on,” Wheeler said.

For more net neutrality coverage, start here.

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