When it's time to stand up and be counted, FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler pulls up a chair and sits down.
In a bold decision May 15, the FCC voted 3-2 along partisan lines to go ahead and think about maybe passing its proposed net neutrality rules. The rules are a masterpiece of befuddlement, saying carriers can and can't give companies preferential Internet access. Wheeler tried to reassure net neutrality proponents that the FCC won't allow a two-tier Internet to develop, prioritizing traffic for big companies that pay for it while putting everything else in the slow lane. And yet that's precisely what the FCC's rules do -- allow carriers to charge companies for higher-speed Internet access. (See FCC Split on Net Neutrality Plans .)
Wheeler approaches decision-making with the enthusiasm of a child facing going to school on a sunny June day. And yet Wheeler is bold and decisive compared with fellow commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai, who wanted to delay the vote. Rosenworcel warned about "rushing headlong" into a decision, as if 12 years isn't enough talk. That's how long ago Columbia University law processor Tim Wu articulated the principles of net neutrality. Maybe Rosenworcel thinks we should talk about the issue for another 12 years?
Or maybe 12 years isn't long enough? Net Neutrality is based on regulations governing telegraphs dating back to 1860. Is 154 years long enough to talk about an issue?
Prior to the May 15 vote, Wheeler set out to reassure net neutrality advocates that the FCC would abide by a US Court of Appeals decision that Internet fast lanes could not be "commercially unreasonable." And yet this is no protection at all -- neither companies nor consumers have any way of knowing what's reasonable or unreasonable. Developing guidelines for what's commercially reasonable will require still more time. Yay! More meetings!
Wheeler's motivation is clear. He wants to avoid a decision. He wants to not handle net neutrality at all, run out his term as chairman of the FCC, and let the whole thing be somebody else's problem. He's following a political strategy made popular by the governor in the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: "Dance a Little Sidestep:"
Wheeler can, of course, point out that three previous FCC chairs also tried to kick this can down the road -- two succeeded and the third, immediate predecessor Julius Genachowski, passed rules that were immediately overturned on appeal. But Wheeler, in his role as advocate for first, the largest wireless industry lobby, and then, the largest cable lobby group, already lived through those debates -- shouldn't he know where he stands by now?
In his prevaricating, Wheeler has managed to tick off both sides. Democrats and net neutrality defenders are angry that Wheeler's FCC doesn't go far enough, while Republican free-marketers denounce any attempt to regulate the Internet. It takes a rare talent to tick off both sides of a polarizing issue. I'm reminded of the clueless journalist in the Carl Hiaasen novel Tourist Season who proposed opinion columns with headlines like, "Vietnam: Time to Try Again?" and "Abortion: What's the Big Deal?"
Carriers need a decision on net neutrality. The decision needs to be one that permits investment in infrastructure and innovation, while preserving people's rights to free expression and startup innovation. But even a bad decision is better than the current climate of uncertainty, which has existed as well under three previous FCC chairs.
One-hundred fifty-four years is long enough to spend making up your mind.