Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler spoke Tuesday afternoon at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University on a number of topics, including the importance of privacy, the future of the agency, and his relationship with newly appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Wheeler said privacy is a civil rights issue in the 21st century and one citizens must deal with under President Donald Trump.
He discussed the complicated nature of privacy in the digital age. The more traditional telephone companies, for example, cannot sell any information shared during a phone call, but that concept doesn't apply to internet use on a smartphone.
"You have this strange situation where your smartphone, if you used it to make a voice call, your privacy was protected. If you used that same device in the same network to go on the web and go to the Air France website, that information was for sale. It was not your information anymore. The very fact that you have used the network meant you are giving that information away," said Wheeler. "We said no, this is the consumer's' information, so we put a rule in place that said that the consumer gets to make the choice as to how the network is going to use the information."
Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford, who sat down with Wheeler for the conversation, asked the former FCC chairman about industry's idea of "taking apart" the agency.
Wheeler quickly called the idea "a fraud," and cited a September 2013 article in The Washington Post that discussed how former regulators, lawmakers and telecom giants were planning to "defang" the FCC. The article had quotes from cable and telephone company heads located in Washington, which said the consumer protection and competition work of the FCC should be transferred to the Federal Trade Commission.
Wheeler said the cable and telephone companies wanted the power to be shifted to the FTC because the agency does not have rule-making authority. With the FTC covering more industries than the FCC, Wheeler said it was an attempt by industry to get "lost in the morass."
"We are talking about one-sixth of the economy, but more importantly, we are dealing with the network that connects six-sixths of the economy." - Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler
"What doesn't surprise me is that the Trump transition team, which is basically folks from the American Enterprise Institute who were long-term supporters of this concept, come in and say we ought to do away with this," said Wheeler. "It makes no sense to get rid of an expert agency and throw it over here with an agency that has no rule making [authority], that has to compete with everything else that's going on in the economy, and can only deal with unfair and deceptive [trade practices]. We are talking about one-sixth of the economy, but more importantly, we are dealing with the network that connects six-sixths of the economy."
He also discussed new FCC Chairman Pai. Wheeler said when he first came into the position, he would set up meetings every other week with each commissioner to discuss the issues and concerns of the day and best tactics to work through serious problems.
Wheeler said he met with Pai frequently at the onset of his term, but within the last 18 to 24 months, Pai had cancelled every single one of the meetings.
"It's hard to work for a consensus when you won't sit down with each other," said Wheeler.
Crawford asked Wheeler about his time as FCC chairman as he heads into private life.
"You walk away with this incredible gratitude for the fact that, at a time of such incredible change in how Americans communicate, that you got to be the guy who sat there and dealt with how Americans relate to those changes," said Wheeler. "The people who say that the problem is government are so wrong. The government is the people. It's where we come together to solve our common problems, and boy is it a messy and painful process, but if we can't work things out there, we are in a whole hell of a lot of trouble."
"The fact that I got to sit at the head of that agency in these incredibly changing times, and to say, how do you look at these changes in technology, economics, how people connect and make sure the public interest is represented, was a terrific privilege," said Wheeler. "I walk away from there proud, and that I could do it with the people that I did it with, how fortunate can you be?"
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