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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, After Announcing Departure, Warns of ‘Laissez-Faire’ Lack of Oversight

Variety logo Variety 12/15/2016 Ted Johnson
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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who announced on Thursday that he would step down from his post on Jan. 20, warned of the consequences of the agency retreating from oversight of the marketplace.

Speaking to reporters after the agency’s open commission meeting, Wheeler declined to comment on what direction he thinks the incoming Republican majority would bring to the FCC, or on his conversations with President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.

But he said that “the cry for a laissez-faire government that walks away from market oversight is also highly dangerous to consumers and those that operate in the market. And this is especially true in our interconnected world, because eliminating regulation does not mean that there will be no oversight. It only means that the regulation will be provided by other rule makers and other countries who might be incented to make rules that benefit their companies and traditions.”

There has been speculation that the Republican majority on the FCC will move to try to roll back some of Wheeler’s accomplishments, first and foremost being net neutrality rules that were put in place in 2015.

Wheeler declined to comment on whether that would happen, but he noted that any such effort would have to follow administrative procedure. He suggested that the burden will be to “demonstrate what has changed so drastically” in the period since the new rules were adopted.

Last week, Wheeler told Senate leaders that he would step down immediately if Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was reconfirmed for another term. The Senate never took action before their recess, and her tenure will expire at the end of the month. But Wheeler pushed back at the suggestion that he could have made his commitment to resign earlier, noting that in March he committed to assist in the transition to the next administration and that he would “adhere to tradition.” That has been for FCC chairmen to resign when a new president occupies the White House.

“I am keeping my commitment,” he said.

Wheeler also put his tenure in the context of the changing media landscape.

“As much as we would like to retreat to simpler times and simple solutions, the realities of today just don’t give us that luxury,” Wheeler said. “In the 21st Century, the common good is often defined by how we connect, and that is why the FCC is so darned important. Ignoring that reality is bad for consumers and for those who provide services to them.”

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