Tech

Congress Questions FCC Chief About ‘Secret Meetings’ With White House Over Net Neutrality

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor

Federal Communications Commission chief Tom Wheeler appeared before the House Oversight Committee Tuesday insisting he did not receive “secret instructions” from the White House while drafting the agency’s new net neutrality rules.

“There were no secret instructions from the White House,” Wheeler said during a committee hearing Tuesday morning. “I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president’s recommendation.”

Wheeler repeated the statement amid a slew of questions from House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, many of which cited subpoenaed emails between Wheeler, his staff at the FCC and officials at the White House discussing the agency’s drafting of new net neutrality Internet regulations last year. (RELATED: House Oversight Committee Demands FCC Turn Over Unredacted Net Neutrality Emails With White House)

“The lack of transparency surrounding the open Internet rule-making process raises a lot of questions,” Chaffetz said, referencing emails and meetings with White House staff, including National Economic Council Director Jeffrey Zients.

“You meet with the White House multiple times … and we’re supposed to believe that one of the most important things the FCC has ever done, that this doesn’t come up?” Chaffetz asked.

According to Chaffetz, it was ultimately those meetings and the resulting pressure from the White House that pushed the FCC to adopt more aggressive regulations than Wheeler had previously and publicly stated he intended to implement.

Wheeler testified he met with Zients one time over net neutrality last year, during which Zients explained President Obama’s position on the issue.

“Nine times you went to the White House,” Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said, pointing out that Wheeler did not report those meetings. “On Nov. 6, Jeff Zients comes to you… My contention is, Jeff Zients came to you and said, ‘Hey, things have changed.'”

Wheeler said he met with White House officials over a range of topics last year including trade, FCC spectrum auctions and cybersecurity.

Wheeler repeated he received comments from the president in the appropriate legal fashion under agency policy, and beyond that, insisted that the Title II-style regulation Obama called for was “always on the table,” and that Wheeler chose to pursue that course of action himself.

Democrats on the panel asserted there was no evidence to suggest the White House inappropriately influenced the FCC over the net neutrality rules adopted last month. (RELATED: FCC Votes In Favor Of Net Neutrality)

“Instead, the evidence before the committee indicates that the process was thorough, followed the appropriate guidelines and benefitted from a record number of public comments,” Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings said.

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