FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is the Michelangelo of lobbyists, and the proposal for net neutrality voted upon by the Federal Communications Commission this week is his Sistine Chapel.
Wheeler has managed to forward his proposal to kill net neutrality in a country where almost everybody wants net neutrality. He's doing it by exploiting the ignorance, gullibility and passivity of the public, the anti-regulation platform of the political right and truckloads of money from the industry he serves at the expense of the public.
Let me tell you about the best lobbyist in America.
Wheeler, the lobbyist in charge
Right out of college in the mid 1970s, Wheeler began his long career representing companies that would come to oppose net neutrality. He started at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, working there for more than a decade and rising in the ranks to become its president.
After working some years at a startup, then as a venture capitalist, Wheeler returned to industry advocacy in 1992 to head the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association for 12 years.
Wheeler is the only person ever to be inducted into both the Wireless Hall of Fame and the Cable Television Hall of Fame for his tireless efforts on behalf of the industries. (Note that in the U.S., companies that provide Internet service and wireless tend to be the same companies.)
Both of the associations where Wheeler worked promote the interests of member companies. The main interest of these companies is making as much money as possible, and net neutrality is a barrier to that goal.
In order to get himself nominated for the FCC chairmanship, Wheeler raised more than $700,000 for President Obama's presidential campaigns. As a super-lobbyist, his nomination was controversial, but the industries he championed all strongly endorsed him, pressuring both Obama and Congress to nominate and approve him, respectively.
A former FCC chairman, by the way, Michael Powell, who held the job from 2001 to 2005, currently has Wheeler's old job as president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. See how that works? It's the old revolving door between making scads of money lobbying for the industry and then for a short while pretending to "regulate" it while instead continuing to advocate for it.
Understanding net neutrality
Before we talk about what happened this week, let's first clarify the whole issue of net neutrality.
Net neutrality means that Internet service providers, or ISPs -- Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Cox, AT&T, Charter, Frontier, Suddenlink, CenturyLink and so on -- deliver all traffic without playing favorites between sources of content. For example, Google can't pay Comcast to give priority to YouTube traffic streaming to your home.
Note that net neutrality is about the connection between your ISP and your home -- the so-called "last mile." It has nothing to do with the connection between the source of data and the ISP.
ISPs aren't going to offer net neutrality voluntarily, so government regulation is necessary to make it happen. The question is: How much regulation? How neutral should the Net be?
At one end of the spectrum, there is true net neutrality through maximum regulation. The ISPs would be re-designated as "public utilities" or "common carriers" like the phone system. That would give the federal government the legal right to dictate service levels, prices -- everything. This is the option favored by many Silicon Valley companies, by entrepreneurs and by the general public, for the most part.
At the other end of the spectrum is zero net neutrality and zero regulation. The ISPs can sell priority to the highest bidder and even provide exclusivity to sources of data -- for example, without regulation, Netflix could pay Comcast to stop delivering HBO Go programming over the "last mile." If HBO doesn't like it, they can pay up. This is the option favored by the companies Wheeler has spent his career working for.
Because the idea of total regulation -- the "public utility" option -- is so unacceptable to the powerful ISP industry and also to many conservative Republicans, the FCC has avoided proposals that would institute this status or label for ISPs. Instead, we have a de facto net neutrality situation without that designation.