In 2013, when President Barack Obama appointed Tom Wheeler to helm the Federal Communications Commission, consumer advocates expressed reservations about whether the longtime industry lobbyist would preserve the open Internet.
“The Federal Communications Commission needs a strong leader -- someone who will use this powerful position to stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest. On paper, Tom Wheeler does not appear to be that person,” Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron stated at the time.
Wheeler, who announced today that he is leaving the agency, long since put those doubts to rest. “His legacy will be as one of the most effective chairs ever to hold the post," Aaron acknowledged today in a statement. "Wheeler didn’t come into this job as a Net Neutrality champion, but he will be remembered first and foremost for his leadership on that crucial issue."
Since taking over at the FCC, Wheeler spearheaded a host of initiatives that drew praise by consumer advocates -- as well as criticism by the telecom and cable industry.
Last year, he persuaded the other two Democrats on the FCC to pass open Internet rules that prohibit broadband carriers from blocking or degrading traffic and from charging content companies higher fees for prioritized delivery.
The FCC under Wheeler also passed tough privacy rules that restrict broadband carriers' ability to engage in behavioral advertising techniques. Those rules prohibit carriers from drawing on data about subscribers' Web-browsing activity for ad targeting without their explicit permission.
Wheeler opposed Comcast's failed attempt to purchase Time Warner Cable for $45 billion -- a deal that consumer advocates decried as potentially catastrophic. After the deal was called off, Wheeler said it would have "posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation, including to the ability of online video providers to reach and serve consumers."
Most recently, Wheeler's FCC said it agreed with consumer advocates that companies could violate open Internet rules by excluding their own video streams from data caps. Earlier this month, the agency told AT&T that it appears to be violating net neutrality principles by exempting DirecTV video streams from customers' monthly data allotments.
Wheeler was widely expected to step down as Chairman next month, but some observers had speculated that he would stay with the agency until his term expires in 2018. Had he done so, the FCC would have been deadlocked at two Democrats and two Republicans -- at least until a fifth member was appointed.
Instead, the FCC will only have three commissioners -- two Republicans and one Democrat -- at least for a brief time in January. The Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, have already made clear that they expect to repeal the net neutrality and privacy rules at the first opportunity.