The Obama-appointed chief of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has signaled that he will not likely back the president's recent stand on the issue of net neutrality, telling a group of Internet executives that, despite Obama's call to reclassify the Internet as a public utility, he is an "independent agency."
The Washington Post reported late Tuesday that the former telecom lobbyist and now chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, met with officials from a number of major Web companies, including Google, Yahoo, and Etsy on Monday—hours after the president announced his support for tougher Internet protections, including reclassification as a public utility.
"What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business," Wheeler reportedly told the group, according to several unnamed officials who spoke to the Post.
"What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby," he added. According to the sources, Wheeler was "visibly frustrated" during the meeting and repeatedly reiterated, "I am an independent agency."
In March 2013, numerous media advocacy groups including Free Press and the Center for Media Justice sent a letter to Obama voicing concern that as the former "head of not one but two major industry lobbying groups," Wheeler would favor industry interests over the public if appointed to lead the FCC. Regardless, he was appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in November 2013.
After the Post published their account of Wheeler's meeting, observers responded with muted surprise. As investigative journalist and Nation contributor Lee Fang remarked on Twitter: "How much of Obama's domestic legacy is shaped by his bizarre trust of Dem lobbyists."
In an FCC statement released Monday, Wheeler said that the president's announcement "is an important and welcome addition to the record of the Open Internet proceeding," however, he added that reclassifying Internet service raises "substantive legal questions" and said that the agency has "more work to do."
Last week the Wall Street Journal reported, citing agency officials, that the FCC may delay releasing the new rules until after 2015.
In his statement, Wheeler added that he looks forward to receiving input "from all stakeholders."
Wheeler has most recently promoted a regulation "hybrid," an approach that neutrality supporters say is "flawed" and, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "would effectively bless the creation of Internet 'slow lanes'" for websites not favored by Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.
Republican leaders of the House and Senate's commerce committees reportedly sent a letter to Wheeler on Wednesday arguing that reclassifying broadband Internet as a public utility—as Open Internet advocates have pressed for and Obama recently backed—would "threaten the jobs and investment made possible by the broadband industry."
However, a new poll released Tuesday by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance found that 83 percent of voters who identify as "very conservative" said they are for net neutrality and that they do not want ISPs to "influence content" online.