FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Tells Silicon Valley He's Open To Obama Net Neutrality Plan

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WASHINGTON -- On Monday, President Barack Obama went public with his support of an aggressive approach to protecting net neutrality. Shortly after that, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler told a gathering of business representatives and public interest groups that he was taking the president's comments under advisement and that he would need the groups' support in the coming fight over net neutrality, according to multiple sources in the meeting.

The sources said that Wheeler did not, as had been reported earlier, say that he had decided to go in a different direction from what the White House wanted.

Obama said on Monday that the Internet ought to be regulated as if it were a utility similar to water, sewer and power, and that there should be only one network that everyone has access to. Cable companies and other Internet providers want to create a second network that companies would pay to use in order to get faster service.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday night that Wheeler's comments put the chairman "at odds" with Obama. The report said Wheeler was "moving in a different direction" than the one the president was calling for, and quoted the chairman as saying he would need to "split the baby" between competing plans.

But people who were at the meeting told The Huffington Post that Wheeler was driving at a different message with the "baby" metaphor. Rather, they said, Wheeler was saying that he was the man at the center of what is becoming an increasingly tense fight, and that he needed political support to fend off the expected attacks.

HuffPost spoke with six people who were at the meeting, five of whom agreed to be quoted on the record. All of them had the same impression of Wheeler's comments.

Julie Samuels, executive director and board president of Engine, an organization that advocates on issues relevant to startups, was at the meeting. She told HuffPost that she wouldn't describe Wheeler's comments as being defiant towards the president. Instead, her impression was that Wheeler was taking Obama's plan under consideration.

Coming out of the meeting, she said, it was clear that Wheeler had initially been leaning -- before the president's statement -- towards the so-called “hybrid” or compromise approach. But after the statement, “it’s not clear anymore.”

She added, “I think he hasn't made up his mind yet.”

Samuels said that Wheeler called on those at the meeting to back up the FCC in the net neutrality battle. Other meeting attendees agreed. "What I took from the meeting is it's important for the corporations that we know support net neutrality, like Google and Facebook, to get really loud about it," said David Segal of Demand Progress, an online tech advocacy group.

Nick Berning, an official with MoveOn.org who was at the meeting, also did not think that Wheeler said he was going to break with the White House. "I didn't read his line about splitting the baby as he'd end up in a place other than what the White House wanted. I read it as, he has a difficult task," he said.

"He certainly did not commit in the meeting that he would do what the White House wants. But he also didn't indicate in any way that he is planning to buck the White House and go rogue," Berning added.

One meeting attendee, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the discussions, said the Washington Post story was “fairly accurate” but that the “framing was a little too aggressive.”

"My impression was not that the Chairman expressed a strong point of view that he would depart from the president’s recommendations," the attendee said. Rather, the source suggested that the quotes could be attributable to the fact that Wheeler “was under a lot of pressure and it had been a long day, and him being a human being, rather than him making a firm decision to break with the president or not.”

Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, noted that Wheeler indicated he was certainly taking the president’s views under consideration and that he “didn't indicate he had made up his mind on exactly how he would proceed."

One attendee said on background that he thought Wheeler would ultimately go along with Obama. "Personally, my sense coming out of the meeting was it was more likely than not that he would end up doing what the president asked," the attendee said.

Those at the meeting said Wheeler made it clear that he wanted to slow down the process. Marvin Ammori, a lawyer for the tech industry who supports net neutrality, said that while it was wrong to say that Wheeler indicated he'd be going in a different direction from the White House, the chairman did call for delaying the process. Ammori said he worries that delaying would undermine the possibility of strong regulations.

"At no point did Wheeler make it clear that he was going to buck the White House," Ammori said. "He definitely tried to justify a delay and I think that delay is certainly not what the White House had in mind."

On Monday, Wheeler said in a statement that more time is needed. "The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do," the statement said. "The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. ... We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online."

Johanna Shelton, a lobbyist for Google, was also at the meeting. A Google spokesperson pointed HuffPost to a statement put out Tuesday by the Internet Association, of which Google is a member, that praised regulating the Internet as a public utility, or so-called Title II reclassification. “The Internet Association applauds President Obama’s proposal for the adoption of meaningful net neutrality rules that apply to both mobile and fixed broadband," the statement reads. "As we have previously said, the FCC must adopt strong, legally sustainable rules that prevent paid prioritization and protect an open Internet for users. Using Title II authority, along with the right set of enforceable rules, the President’s plan would establish the strong net neutrality protections Internet users require."

"We welcome the President’s leadership, and encourage the FCC to stand with the Internet’s vast community of users and move quickly to adopt strong net neutrality protections that ensure a free and open Internet," the statement added.

In addition to those mentioned, the meeting included Leigh Freund of AOL (which owns The Huffington Post), Jeffrey Blum of DISH, Althea Erickson of Etsy, Brian Rice of Facebook, Paula Boyd of Microsoft, Michael Beckerman of the IA, Tumblr's Ari Shahdadi, and Margaret Nagle of Yahoo. At least five FCC staff also attended.

The groups and companies who were present are all broadly supportive of net neutrality, but some of the major companies have been less than vocal. This is partly because, as wealthy, entrenched incumbents, these companies could benefit from rules that made it more difficult for small companies, even as they themselves were forced to pony up to the Internet providers to assure faster speeds. The smaller companies, the thinking goes, wouldn't be able to afford the fees.

Whatever Wheeler decides, he will still need the support of his two fellow Democratic FCC commissioners, who, like Wheeler, now hold enormous power following the president's announcement.

The FCC said in a statement Wednesday, “Reports that Chairman Wheeler has decided on the best approach for implementing legally sustainable open Internet rules are inaccurate. No decision has been made. All options remain on the table, including Title II reclassification.”

UPDATE: 6:40 p.m. -- Brian Dietz, an official with the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, tells HuffPost that "there has been no talk by any ISP of creating a second network for providing some parties a faster service. In fact, NCTA and others have said ISPs will abide by the FCC’s 2010 rules even though they were dismissed by the court."

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