FCC chief under fire for media outreach involving net neutrality

By Josh Peterson | Watchdog.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Free-market advocates are questioning the objectivity of the Federal Communications Commission after news the chairman’s press office coordinated with pro-net neutrality activists on media outreach. That outreach involves online protests in early September.

THEY’RE NOT HAPPY WITH YOU: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is under fire from free market advocates who suspect the commission is biased towards progressive net neutrality activists.

The chairman’s office and a prominent net neutrality activist at the center of the debate insist frustrations the agency has been politicized are unfounded, telling Watchdog.org the coordination was unbiased and meant to keep the peace between all parties involved that day.

Fearing the commission’s outdated comment system would crash under another a massive volume of submissions, as it did in July, pro-net neutrality advocates planning to protest Sept. 10 reached out to the FCC to see how they could “help keep the system afloat,” according to a story Sept. 26 in the Washington Post.

After the New Yorker reported — the day after the protest — an unofficial FCC tally that the commission received more than 100,000 pro-net neutrality comments from the public, the Post revealed advocates asked Wheeler’s press office to “correct the record” and refer media inquiries to them.

They were “dismayed” that such a low number was made public after the FCC advised them to withhold submissions to keep the system from crashing, according to the Post.

Rather than post what amounted to a rolling tally of submissions, the FCC decided to wait until several days later — after the close of the comment period — to post the final number of public comments filed.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s spokeswoman Kim Hart told Watchdog.org in a media statement the “FCC IT team worked with multiple parties to ensure everyone was able to successfully submit comments to the agency on the Open Internet proceeding.”

“After receiving a surge of comments leading up to the reply comment deadline, the IT team created a third option for filing bulk comments. This option was made available to all interested parties at the same time via a blog post on our website,” said Hart, referring to Watchdog.org to the blog post.

The Washington Post’s revelations troubled free-market groups, including TechFreedom, American Commitment and FreedomWorks, which withheld their own campaigns that day to protest net neutrality. Stating in a letter they sent to Wheeler on Oct. 2, while FCC staff were “even-handed and helpful” with regard to filing comments, they didn’t get the same kind of help from the agency with media relations as their opponents, nor did they think it was appropriate for the agency to do so for anyone unless done objectively.

The decade-long net neutrality debate is tense, multifaceted, nuanced and complex. Major broadband providers and applications companies are locked in legal and political combat alongside their ideological allies over whether the FCC or the private sector has the final say over the pricing, speed and flow of Internet traffic.

In the letter, the free-market groups accused the FCC of “engaging in the worst aspects of partisan politics” whose efforts resulted in a “lopsided media narrative” about popular support being in favor of regulating broadband services like public utilities under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. While pro-net neutrality activists said they got more than 700,000 comments that day in favor of Title II, the free-market groups told the chairman they received more than 900,000 comments opposing the move.

The commission reported getting more than 3.7 million comments from the public after the close of the comment period. When net neutrality advocate Marvin Ammori alerted Hart via Twitter on the protest day that he had privately messaged her, for example, free-market activists saw a sign of possible improper contact with the agency.

Ammori heads the Ammori Group, a D.C. and Silicon Valley-based public policy law firm whose clients, according to the firm’s site, “include or have included Google, Dropbox, Automattic, Tumblr, and others.” After a presentation is made to the commission, a record of the communication, or ex parte, must be filed to ensure off-the-record communications don’t influence policies pending before the commission.

On his website, Ammori says he’s not a lobbyist and he “almost never” does anything “that could be considered lobbying.” He’s careful to distance his personal views from his clients, it says. Ammori sits on the boards of Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Engine Advocacy, and he’s former general counsel for the progressive advocacy group Free Press.

In an interview with Watchdog.org, Ammori likened his message to Hart to coordinating meeting times with a government official, saying the message was neither “nefarious,” as the free-market groups suggested, nor in “bad faith.”

“If an ex parte were required, I’d be happy to put it in, but it sort of like belabors the point,” said Ammori, “and the FCC felt like we were following their process.”

Ammori had been trying to keep the peace between the net neutrality activists and the agency who were working to make sure the site did not crash, a point highlighted in the Post’s report.

“I think that the FCC would have done that for either side to make sure that the site didn’t go down and make sure that things got in,” said Ammori.

But for free-market advocates, the Post’s story only confirmed suspicions the FCC’s efforts were the latest in an authoritarian “pattern” exhibited by Wheeler and his office. Wheeler’s staff members have held previous positions at the FCC, and the State Department, CTIA-The Wireless Association, various legal firms and Google.

Diane Cornell, Wheeler’s special counsel, for example, was a vice president at CTIA, a trade group for the wireless industry. Sagar Doshi, Wheeler’s special assistant, previously worked at Google.

But as Watchdog.org reported, Wheeler’s office’s ties to pro-net neutrality groups through his special counsel for external affairs, Gigi Sohn, have not alleviated their concerns he’s working toward a preconceived progressive agenda championed by the Obama administration.

Ammori disagreed with their singling out of Sohn, telling Watchdog.org Sohn had been a member of the public interest community that got along well with industry and was unlikely to be compromised by her work in government.

Contact Josh Peterson at jpeterson@watchdog.org. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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