Redacted White House Emails on Net Neutrality

The internet is not broken, what is there to fix?

In part from Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, will chair a hearing Wednesday about whether the White House improperly influenced the independent agency and pressured its chairman, Tom Wheeler, to develop a net neutrality plan that mirrored recommendations President Barack Obama made last November. Obama had called on the FCC to classify broadband as a public utility and adopt open internet rules that would ensure that “neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online.”

The congressional hearing was initiated after Chaffetz reviewed heavily redacted emails and other documents VICE News obtained from the FCC two weeks ago in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request; the emails show White House officials and Wheeler communicating about net neutrality. VICE News sought comment from Chaffetz’s office about the email exchanges and shared the documents with him.

In a letter dated February 9 included with the batch of White House emails, Kirk Burgee, the chief of staff for the Wireline Competition Bureau, one of seven FCC bureaus that advises the commission on policy related to wireline telecommunications, said the emails were redacted at the behest of the White House.

Although we have not completed the consultation process with the Department of State, we have completed the consultation process with NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] and the White House. As a result of that consultation, we are releasing an email exchange among Larry Strickling (Associate Administrator of NTIA), Tom Power (Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), White House), Ross David Edelman (OSTP), and Chairman Wheeler. These records have been redacted pursuant to FOIA exemptions 5 and 6 which are consistent with those recommended by NTIA and the White House. We are also releasing an email exchange between Tom Power and Chairman Wheeler (which includes an email exchange among FCC staff and Chairman Wheeler) and an email exchange between John Podesta and Chairman Wheeler (which includes an email exchange among Jeffrey Zients (Executive Office of the President (EOP), White House), Jason Furman (EOP, White House), and Tom Power). These documents also include redactions under Exemptions 5 and 6 consistent with those recommended by the White House.

Burgee’s letter footnoted two documents to justify the redactions: a January 29 email sent by associate White House counsel Nicholas McQuaid to Joanne Wall at the FCC’s office of general counsel; and a December 31, 2014 letter from Kathy D. Smith, chief counsel, NTIA, US Department of Commerce, to Elizabeth Lyle, the FCC’s assistant general counsel.

*** Going deeper and more that the Congressman is stressing:

In a letter to Wheeler Monday (Feb. 23), who last week declined to testify at a Feb. 25 hearing in the committee on the relationship between the White House and the FCC’s Title II based draft order, chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked him to reconsider the invitation to testify. Chaffetz also said he was still looking for copies of e-mails the committee had asked for by Feb. 6 as part of its investigation into that relationship.

An FCC spokesperson confirmed it had received the letter and was reviewing it, but a source speaking on background said that the document request was a very large one and that the FCC had asked for more time to produce the documents and was in the process of negotiating wiht the committee for that extra time.

Chaffetz echoed calls earlier in the day by FCC Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly for the chairman to delay the planned Feb. 26 vote on the new rules and publish the language of the draft to give the public more time to weigh in (Wheeler had countered that call by the minority commissioners in a tweet, saying that with 4 million-plus comments on new network neutrality rules, it was time to act).

Chaffetz pointed out that back in 2007, Senator Obama had asked Republican FCC chairman Kevin Martin to hold off on a vote on proposed media ownership rule changes until he had put out any changes in a public notice. Chaffetz noted that in a letter to Martin, Sen. Obama had said that “the commission has the responsibility to defend any new proposal in public discourse and debate.” Chaffetz also pointed out that the senator co-sponsored a bill to block a commission vote on the rulemaking “pursuant to a 90-day comment period.”

Martin responded by releasing the changes and opened a four-week comment period, the congressman pointed out, but only after it had conducted many public hearings and published the changes and provided for comment, he said.

What is sauce for the senator is sauce for the President, Chaffetz suggested. “The current drafting and scheduled vote on net neutrality rules has afforded none of these opportunities for public airing and only raised concerns regarding the process,” Chaffetz said

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Denise Simon