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After months of pressure from grassroots groups, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is likely to introduce strong net neutrality protections. (Photo: ALA Washington Office/flickr/cc)

Did Grassroots Power Push FCC in Right Direction on Net Neutrality?

Wheeler likely to support strict net neutrality protections after backing off from pro-industry initiatives

Nadia Prupis

Following a months-long campaign by consumer advocacy groups that pushed for strict protection of the internet, Federal Communications Commissioner Tom Wheeler appears to be ready to introduce some of the strongest regulations possible on Thursday ahead of the FCC's final net neutrality vote on February 26, according to reports.

Those regulations include redefining broadband as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act, a policy change that has been touted by internet watchdog groups as one of the most important net neutrality protections available.

Once a lobbyist for the cable and telecommunications industries, Wheeler initially supported lax regulations that critics said would open the door to controversial paid-prioritization policies, known as "fast lanes," allowing internet service providers to charge higher fees for speedier website loading times. 

According to reporting by Politico on Monday, "interviews with FCC officials, industry executives and representatives of public interest groups reveal the origins of his dramatic pivot on this issue: an intense and relatively brief grass-roots lobbying campaign that targeted two people — him and President Barack Obama."

Pressure from digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Free Press, which galvanized support from consumers and progressive media figures, saw Wheeler steadily backpedaling on his initiatives last year. His shift appeared near-complete after President Barack Obama spoke out in favor of strict net neutrality regulations on November 10.

Wheeler proposed in April new rules that would allow ISPs to create fast lane deals with internet companies as long as they were "commercially reasonable."

In response, a coalition of internet watchdogs and consumer advocacy groups launched a months-long series of campaigns against the chairman's proposals, while protesters camped out in front of FCC headquarters. On June 1, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver ridiculed Wheeler and his proposed rules in a segment that quickly went viral, sending hundreds of thousands of consumers to the FCC website to comment in favor of stronger net neutrality regulations. Within months, four million emails and comments had come in, breaking FCC records.

Wheeler then moved towards a hybrid proposal that would impose Title II rules on parts of the internet, but not all of it. That, too, was met with disapproval by watchdogs and tech companies alike.

Meanwhile, Obama had also been under pressure from internet advocacy groups, who urged him to speak out in favor of stricter regulations. On November 10, he did just that, issuing a statement that called for using a Title II reclassification to safeguard the internet, "one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known."

Earlier this month, Wheeler indicated support for reclassification of the internet as a public utility under Title II, bringing praise from Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron who said, "Chairman Wheeler appears to have heard the demands of the millions of Internet users who have called for real net neutrality protections."


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