Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Tom Wheeler on Thursday announced his intention to step down at the end of President Barack Obama's term, leaving behind a legacy of victories for digital rights—and paving the way for a Republican-led attack on net neutrality.
Wheeler was appointed to FCC chair by Obama in 2013. Critics were initially skeptical that the former cable industry lobbyist would adequately protect consumers and open internet principles. But, as Free Press president Craig Aaron said Thursday, "he proved us wrong."
"We haven't agreed with him on every decision, but time and again Wheeler showed a willingness to stand up to industry pressure, listen to voices outside the Beltway and—perhaps most importantly—to change his mind," Aaron said.
That included a long and tumultuous legislative journey to secure some of the strongest possible protections for net neutrality by reclassifying the internet as a pubic utility under Title II of the Communications Act. Despite his ties to business groups that opposed those regulations, Wheeler eventually approved a progressive, consumer-friendly set of rules, which activists praised as a win for free speech and civil rights.
"During his tenure, despite industry roots, Wheeler proved to be a leader who heeded democracy's call," said Malkia Cyril, executive director at the Center for Media Justice. "Wheeler was a chairman willing to act in defense of the public interest, and in defiance of industry pressure and partisan politics."
Cyril and other advocates also praised Wheeler for supporting the leadership of women like commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, who were instrumental in the passage of net neutrality rules and other progressive regulations.
At a press conference announcing his resignation, Wheeler said being a lobbyist had been easy—being FCC chair was hard. He said of his eventual turnaround on policy, "I needed to define the public interest as the common good. At a time when everyone is wrapping their self-interest in their definition of public interest, the question has to be what is the best way to serve the common interests of the most [people]."
Under his leadership, the FCC also passed sweeping privacy measures that blocked broadband providers from selling user data to third parties; launched an effort to break up the cable industry's monopoly on set-top boxes; made information on political ads more readily available; and proposed rules to subsidize the internet for low-income consumers under the Lifeline program.
Gene Kimmelman, president of the digital rights group Public Knowledge, said in response to the announcement, "Chairman Wheeler has done more to promote competition and consumer protection than any chairman in recent memory. Consumers owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his steadfast commitment to making our digital future fair and accessible for all. Though Americans are losing a great consumer protection champion, we will all benefit from his legacy and the policies he's leaving behind."
However, with Wheeler's resignation, the FCC will kick off the Trump administration with a 2-1 Republican majority, with Clyburn as the only remaining Democrat—giving conservatives a path to reversing or weakening some of those advances. Republicans and telecommunications giants resisted the commission's net neutrality proposal to the end.
"Industry lobbyists are dusting off their worst proposals. And the team leading the agency's transition has even called for abolishing the FCC," Aaron said. "We thank Tom Wheeler for his public service. And we promise to fight any attempts to attack the best policies advanced during his tenure."
Public Knowledge vice president Harold Field added, "In the days ahead, the public must be prepared to fight vigorously to keep the consumer protections he created."
Cyril concluded, "While we did not always agree on every issue, and always believe more can be done to close the digital divide and protect the most vulnerable communities, no one can dispute that chairman Wheeler is leaving a remarkable legacy."