America is losing one of its greatest champions of the free internet. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced that he plans to step down on January 20--the exact same day that Donald Trump is expected to be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States.
Wheeler's resignation comes as no surprise. Republicans pressured the FCC into delaying votes on new rules because "it would be counterproductive for the FCC to consider complex and controversial items that the new Congress and new Administration will have an interest in reviewing." The agency heeded that warning by putting off votes on measures to expand audio descriptions, kill the cable box, and expand mobile networks, among others.
Not long after, Republican members of the FCC's leadership said they want Trump's administration to reverse many of the rules introduced under President Obama. The message was clear: Now that Republicans have taken control of Congress, the Presidency, and potentially the Supreme Court, they want to undo many of the pro-consumer regulations that Wheeler and the rest of the Obama administration introduced over the last eight years.
Key among those regulations is the FCC's Open Internet rules defending net neutrality, which went into effect in June 2015. They were put in place to stop internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking access to legal content, throttling data speeds from certain services, or charging other companies for access to a "fast lane" that would deliver their bits and bytes to consumers faster. All of these concepts are at the core of a free and open internet.
Now that free internet is in danger, here's what former FCC commissioner and Common Cause special adviser Michael Copps said in a statement:
Tom Wheeler built a truly historic record of achievement as Chairman of the FCC. At the pinnacle of his achievement is net neutrality. All those who understand the critical importance of this will best honor Tom now by joining together to preserve what his FCC did from the onslaughts of those who would reverse the rules, reverse the power of an open internet, and reverse history itself.
Trump is widely expected to replace Wheeler with a man named Jeffrey Eisenach. He's a former commissioner-turned-analyst who has spoken out against net neutrality multiple times over the years. This fits with Trump's positions, and together they could put an end to net neutrality in the United States. Everything the FCC--and Wheeler specifically--tried to protect over almost a decade could be undone when Trump enters the White House.
Here's Copps again:
On so many other fronts, Tom has led the FCC with vision, dedication to the public interest, and a fierce determination to get things done. Lifeline, E-Rate, consumer privacy, broadband deployment, spectrum policy have each been advanced thanks to his leadership and the majorities he put together in behalf of those issues. [...] We will need Tom's voice and leadership after January 20 as much as before, not just to preserve one individual's achievements but to build a telecom and media environment of, by, and for the American people.
There's a chance that Wheeler set his resignation for January 20 with the hope that the Electoral College will prevent Trump from becoming president. This would make it easier for Wheeler to resist a Republican Congress, at least, and he wouldn't be marked for removal by the end of January. That probably won't happen. Instead, shortly after the New Year has been rung in, the free and open internet may once again be put in jeopardy.