It just got easier for Republicans to roll back the laws keeping the internet open

The Federal Communications Commission chairman, Tom Wheeler, announced on Thursday that he would leave the agency when President-elect Donald Trump takes office on January 20, a move that could result in a swifter rollback of the net-neutrality rules Wheeler helped create in 2015.

The departure of Wheeler, a Democrat, will leave Republicans with an immediate 2-1 majority in the FCC once Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate take over.

While it is customary for an FCC chairman to step down as a new administration takes office, speculation had mounted in recent days that Wheeler might stay on as a commissioner. Wheeler’s term was scheduled to end in 2018.

Last week, the Senate completed its business for the year without reconfirming Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, which would have left the FCC with two Democratic commissioners and two Republican ones until Trump selected a new permanent chairman.

Wheeler said last week that he would be willing to step down in exchange for the Senate approving another five-year term for Rosenworcel – who had received minor pushback from Senate Democrats for not supporting Wheeler’s proposals to overhaul the cable-box market earlier this year – but the offer appears to have come too late.

A 2-2 deadlock could have temporarily prolonged some of the policies Wheeler and the mostly Democratic commission had issued over the past few years, most notably the Open Internet Order that classifies broadband and mobile internet providers as public utilities (or “dumb pipes”) and prevents them from providing so-called fast lanes to certain approved content, among other rules. The idea is to regulate internet-service providers so they cannot play favorites with some sites and services – potentially ones they own or ones that pay them – over others.

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Wheeler and commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel at the FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington.
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Thomson Reuters

Now, however, those rules appear to be in serious doubt. While Trump has not said much about net-neutrality – other than a 2014 tweet that called it a “top down power grab” – he has declared a strong opposition to federal regulations in general.

Perhaps more significantly, the three members of Trump’s transition team whom he has appointed to advise him on FCC- and telecom-related issues – Jeffrey Eisenach, Mark Jamison, and Roslyn Layton – have all deemed the net-neutrality rules overreaching and unnecessary in various papers and comments in recent years. Eisenach has consulted for telecom firms in the past, while Jamison once served as a lobbyist for Sprint.

What’s more, Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who may be named interim chairman while Trump determines Wheeler’s replacement, said in a speech last week that he thought the net-neutrality order’s “days are numbered.”

Now, Pai and fellow Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly will effectively assume control of the three-person agency in January, while commissioner Mignon Clyburn will be the only Democrat. Trump and the Senate will have to confirm a new member from both parties to the agency, but Republicans will eventually gain a 3-2 majority for at least the next four years.

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Wheeler testifying before a House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing on oversight of the FCC on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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Thomson Reuters

The move will most likely mean a shutdown of Democrats’ last-ditch efforts to warn the likes of AT&T and Verizon over their zero-rating policies as well, which net-neutrality proponents have called a way of skirting the open-internet rules.

Wheeler’s decision doesn’t mean today’s net-neutrality order will disappear immediately, as it’s not yet clear how its opponents will try to approach a change. But it does pave the way for any rollback efforts to begin in earnest on day one of the Trump presidency.

Here’s Wheeler’s statement in full: “Serving as FCC chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life. I am deeply grateful to the president for giving me this opportunity. I am especially thankful to the talented commission staff for their service and sacrifice during my tenure. Their achievements have contributed to a thriving communications sector, where robust investment and world-leading innovation continue to drive our economy and meaningful improvements in the lives of the American people. It has been a privilege to work with my fellow commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and cybersecurity, and ensure fast, fair, and open networks for all Americans.”