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Tom Wheeler's plan for fighting net neutrality lawsuits: 'not to lose'

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Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler thinks his agency is on firm ground with its new net neutrality rules — and that Comcast was right to drop its attempts at buying competitor Time Warner Cable. During an interview at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Wheeler discussed what have arguably been the two biggest issues facing the FCC this year, and its two biggest victories.

Wheeler has already said that letting Comcast merge with Time Warner Cable would have posed an "unacceptable risk" to competition, and at Disrupt, he made it even clearer that the companies wouldn't have had an easy time getting past regulators. "I think it was a pretty responsible decision by [Comcast CEO] Brian Roberts" to drop the plan, says Wheeler. "When he said 'it’s time to move on,' I think [that] perfectly encapsulates the reality. Why go and fight this through the courts?" He added that "it would be a long drawn-out process to challenge our decision," especially because the Federal Trade Commission had its own concerns about the deal.

"You're talking about something very personal to people."The Comcast debate might be over, but the FCC's fight to protect its net neutrality rules is still going. Wheeler calls his policies, which were approved earlier this year, "the most stringent and expansive open internet rules in history." (For reference, open internet rules have been around for roughly 10 years.) It's also, based on the record 3.7 million public comments, the most heavily scrutinized decision in history. "That’s why this decision was so damn important," he says, whether those comments were for or against the net neutrality rules. "I think that the bulk of the comments indicated how when you’re talking about the internet, you’re talking about something very personal to people. And they then used that personal medium of theirs to express themselves. That was what was significant."

Like many people, he's unsurprised by the lawsuits that broadband trade groups and companies like AT&T have filed. Wheeler noted that the FCC is facing two distinct battles. First, opponents will ask the court to delay the rules while their lawsuits are considered; right now, they're set to take effect June 12th. "I’m confident that we’ll do well in that situation for a multitude of reasons," says Wheeler; among other things, companies will have to argue that the rules would cause harm and be unlikely to stand up in court. "I think we’ll be good there."

As for the merits of the case itself, Wheeler says that the FCC has solved the classification problem that sunk its last rules. "That issue’s gone. That was the big issue last time," he says. "So I feel pretty confident on the outcome of the court cases."

Does Wheeler have a strategy if the rules don't stand up?

"Not to lose. That’s the short-term plan."