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FCC Democrats caved to Obama on net neutrality rules, Senate Republican probe finds

President Obama "unduly influenced" federal regulators to adopt tough net neutrality regulations for online traffic last year, according to an investigation by a Republican senator.

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and his staff were finishing work on a less heavy-handed approach in November 2014 when Obama publicly called for the agency to take a more aggressive and controversial direction, said a report released Tuesday from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Obama urged the independent FCC to put broadband providers in the same legal category as more highly regulated conventional telephone companies.

Public interest groups and many top Democrats were urging such a move, which was strongly opposed by Internet service providers and Republicans.

After Obama's statement, an internal email from FCC staffer Paula Blizzard to other agency employees said "not sure how this will affect the current draft and schedule -- but I suspect substantially."

Plans to finish work on the rules was delayed, and several weeks later, Wheeler released a proposal that mirrored Obama's suggestions, the report said.

"This investigation has convinced me that the White House overrode the FCC's decision-making apparatus," Johnson said.

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“It is concerning that an independent agency like the FCC could be so unduly influenced by the White House, particularly on an issue that touches the lives of so many Americans and has such a significant impact on a critical sector of the United States economy,” he said.

Obama is allowed to publicly express his views to an independent agency but is not supposed to direct its actions.

Wheeler has said there were "no secret instructions" from the White House and that his views on net neutrality regulations evolved from his original proposal in early 2014.

Responding to the Senate report, FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart said the agency "ran a transparent and robust rule-making process."

“It’s no secret that 4 million Americans, including the president, urged the FCC to protect a free and open Internet," she said, referring to a flood of public comments during the agency's rule-making process.

Obama appointed Wheeler, a Democrat, as FCC chairman. The agency's Democratic majority pushed through the net neutrality regulations by a 3-2 vote in February 2015.

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The rules prohibit Internet service providers from discriminating against legal content flowing through their wired or wireless networks, such as by charging websites for faster delivery of video and other data to consumers.

To enforce those rules, the FCC reclassified broadband as a more highly regulated telecommunications service under Title 2 of the Telecommunications Act.

Internet service providers opposed the reclassification and have a suit pending in federal court challenging it.

Republicans on the FCC and in Congress criticized the agency's action as unnecessary and warned that heavy-handed regulations could stifle investment in expanding broadband networks.

Ajit Pai, one of the FCC's two Republican commissioners, said Johnson's report showed that FCC Democrats "succumbed to White House pressure" and forfeited the agency's independence.

"Whether you support or oppose Internet regulation, this has been a sad chapter in the history of the FCC," Pai said. 

The report, titled "Regulating the Internet: How the White House Bowled Over FCC Independence" acknowledged that Obama and other White House officials were allowed to advocate for actions by the FCC.

But a 1991 Justice Department opinion said that “White House staff members should avoid even the mere appearance of interest or influence -- and the easiest way to do so is to avoid discussing matters pending before the independent regulatory agencies," the report said.

Johnson said his investigation was triggered by a Wall Street Journal article last year that said two White House aides were involved in "unusual, secretive efforts" to build support for tougher net neutrality regulations.

Congressional Republicans have been pushing legislation to reverse the FCC's net neutrality rules.

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

Follow @JimPuzzanghera on Twitter.

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