Lawmakers question White House influence on FCC's net neutrality turnaround

The House oversight committee asks whether Obama improperly steered Wheeler toward a tougher stance

A U.S. congressional committee has asked FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler whether the White House improperly influenced his decision to seek tighter regulation of Internet service providers.

Wheeler proposed a set of rules last May that would have taken a light touch on net neutrality, allowing practices like paid prioritization of traffic in some cases. In November, President Barack Obama took a tougher stance, saying he favors regulating Internet companies as if they were utilities. The draft Open Internet Order that Wheeler circulated at the FCC this week takes an approach close to the one Obama advocated.

Obama appointed Wheeler to his post, but the FCC is an independent agency. Wheeler's original net neutrality plan drew strong criticism from activists, and some analysts said Obama's statements gave Wheeler the political cover to call for tighter rules.

Wheeler's shift raises questions about whether Obama had undue influence over the FCC's rulemaking process, according to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In a letter sent Friday, he asked Wheeler to disclose all communications with the White House concerning the net neutrality plan.

Among other things, the committee wants calendar appointments, visitor logs and minutes regarding meetings between FCC officials and representatives from the White House and other agencies that are involved with net neutrality. The letter requests those documents by Feb. 20.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the Open Internet Order on Feb. 26. Critics have said the plan would not be legal, and if passed it is expected to face challenges in court.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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Tags governmentregulationinternetlegislationBarack ObamaU.S. Federal Communications CommissionU.S. White HouseTom Wheeler

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