Tom Wheeler

Tom Wheeler on the FCC, Net Neutrality, and Platform Regulation

February 27, 2018—Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the FCC from 2013 to 2017 under President Obama and Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow, discussed technological change, President Trump’s FCC, regulation of social platforms, and more during a talk at the Shorenstein Center. Below are some highlights from his conversation with Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele, as well as the full audio. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunesGoogle PlayiHeartRadio, and Stitcher.

 The transformative power of technology

“There’s two things that are happening simultaneously. One is that digital technology is redefining both commerce and culture. Two, it is coming at us faster than we ever saw any other technology evolve. For instance, it was 45 years after Alexander Graham Bell’s discovery of the telephone that the telephone finally got into 25 percent of American households. It was seven years for the smartphone to reach that. We’re living in a period where the buffer that adoption used to allow us to acclimate to the changes driven by new technology is disappearing.”

On the current rollback of previous FCC policy and net neutrality

It’s not just that the Trump FCC has rolled back our open internet rules, it’s the fact that they went one step beyond that and said, this agency will have nothing to do with the continuing oversight of the most important network of the 21st century.

“It’s not just that the Trump FCC has rolled back our open internet rules, it’s the fact that they went one step beyond that and said, this agency will have nothing to do with the continuing oversight of the most important network of the 21st century. It’s bad enough that they reversed our rules. It’s breathtaking, bordering on outrageous, that they then went the next step and said we’ll wash our hands, and everything having to do with the internet now will be handled by the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC. Which, A. does not have regulatory authority…B. has no network expertise, and C. has to worry about every other aspect of the economy…this is exactly what the ISPs, the internet service providers, the cable companies, the telephone companies set out to accomplish.”

“The whole push of the Trump administration, the Trump FCC, and the Republican Congress has been to focus on how the technology works, rather than what the technology delivers. So the sales pitch that the ISPs have been making is, oh well we’re digital now. Those old rules when we were monopolists were in an analog environment, and today it’s digital. We’re more like Google and Facebook, and you don’t regulate them, so you shouldn’t regulate us, despite the fact they continue to typically be monopolies in their communities.”

The digital divide

“In urban areas you’ve got fairly good coverage, but the problem is you’ve got a price issue. How do low income households get access to the most important network of the 21st century? [We expanded] a  program, called lifeline, that the Reagan administration had put in [place] to subsidize low income access to telephone service…so that you could provide subsidies for low income Americans to have access to broadband. Seventy percent of schoolchildren get homework that requires some kind of online connectivity. The majority of students in America’s public schools are below the poverty level. Those two do not mix well…unfortunately the Trump FCC moved immediately to roll back some of the things we put in place, all the while, announcing that their principal goal was to solve the digital divide—while they increased the digital divide.”

Regulating digital platforms

“The networks are acting more and more like platforms, for instance, what they do with your personal information, and the kind of services that they offer—AT&T’s effort to buy Time Warner, for instance. And the platforms are looking more and more like networks. If a network is something that connects two parties, then I submit to you that WhatsApp is a network, Facebook is a network…I think we need to have a broad look at the policies that should cover both networks and those who operate on those networks.”

“We don’t know how the algorithms of Facebook and other platforms work, therefore, we don’t know the information that’s coming out. I know the decisions of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe make because I can see it on the front page of the newspaper, I can read it. Facebook is making similar editorial decisions about what information I get, but it’s hidden in a black box of an algorithm.”

“My argument is that we don’t need to know what that algorithm is, that’s their proprietary information, but we should be able to see what its output is, and we should be able to have open APIs (application programming interfaces), so that just as media watchdogs compile scorecards of what’s happening in traditional media…we can develop algorithms that do the same thing to understand what editorial decisions are being made by the social networks.”

The future of net neutrality

“Senator Markey from Massachusetts is leading an effort on the Congressional Review Act to disapprove what the FCC has done. He has 50 votes in the Senate, he needs 51 votes—he needs one more Republican to do it.”

“There are about a half a dozen lawsuits that have now been filed, challenging the FCC’s decision. There’s one, for instance, that was filed by almost two dozen state attorneys general, who in essence say, excuse me, we’re law enforcers, we understand what needs to be done, and this agency is walking away from its law enforcement responsibilities. I’m hopeful that the court will see the wisdom of those arguments.”

“The challenge for all of us is to make sure our voices are heard so that our representatives will come up to speed and act on these kinds of issues. Because we’re at a point where somebody has to stand up and say, who make the rules? Right now, particularly as a result of the Trump FCC, the Trump administration, and the Republican Congress, those who control the networks and the platforms are making the rules in their own images. I know most of these people, they are not bad people. But nobody has repealed the law of self-interest and economic incentive, and they’re dealing with that reality because nobody has had the guts to stand up and say, let me posit for you another reality in which the rules are made by the representatives of the people, and that’s what you have to operate under. It is not a one-month crusade, it is not a one-issue crusade, it is not something that will be resolved quickly, but it is the challenge of the 21st century.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Allie Henske.