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FCC head may reject Obama's plan for net neutrality

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Tom Wheeler was 'visibly frustrated' with the President's plan

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Yesterday, President Obama took a strong position on net neutrality by supporting calls to regulate the internet more like a utility. Less than 24 hours later, FCC head Tom Wheeler is said to have indicated that he will break from the president's proposed plan, moving in a new direction intended to pacify huge internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon.

The Washington Post reports that Wheeler told a group of internet companies — including Google, Yahoo, and Etsy — that he favored a more "nuanced" solution than that laid out by Obama. Wheeler's plan would acquiesce to some of the president's demands, but it would also kowtow to the demands of huge internet providers.

While that statement doesn't sound unlike the direction that Wheeler has already expressed interest in, the FCC has taken issue with the Post's article and stated that Wheeler has not yet decided on a solution for net neutrality. Gigi Sohn, of the FCC's special counsel for external affairs, tweeted out that all options remain on the table, saying that Wheeler's remarks were taken out of context. There is still no reason to believe that the commission will follow or diverge from the president, she says.

Wheeler was a lobbyist for wireless companies like Verizon

Even if he remains undecided, The Washington Post says that Wheeler now thinks Obama's plan — something of a Hail Mary attempt to get young and tech-savvy voters energized to vote for the Democrats — is too simplistic. According to its sources, Wheeler was "visibly frustrated" during the meeting, telling attendees that "what you want is what everyone wants: an open internet that doesn't affect your business." Wheeler, a Democrat, said he had to work out how to "split the baby" to keep both sides happy, but he also repeatedly stated that he did not answer directly to the US government. "I am an independent agency," Wheeler is reported to have said multiple times during the meeting.

There have been worries about Wheeler's corporate focus since he was appointed FCC head in 2013. Wheeler spent many years as a lobbyist for large telecom companies — while working in Washington for The Wireless Association, America's main wireless lobbying group, Wheeler supported limiting net neutrality policies and argued that the FCC should leave big businesses to do what they wanted in the space. President Obama originally stated that he would not hire lobbyists to his administration but quickly broke that promise.

The FCC head repeatedly said "I am an independent agency"

If Wheeler does split with Obama on the issue of net neutrality, then he could take two of the five members on the FCC commission with him, restricting the Democratic government's ability to force a policy change through. An open rift would be a significant shift in the relationship between the two men. Wheeler campaigned for Obama during his election campaign and was selected to his transition team in 2009, helping to update government agencies during the president's first term. At the time, Wheeler said he did not want to work for the Obama administration "in any way."

Update November 12th, 3:50PM ET: this story has been updated to note that the FCC says that Wheeler's comments were taken out of context and that a decision has not yet been made.