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Meet the FCC’s Network Neutrality Cop

Tough Bureau Chief IS Set to investigate Complaints 3/02/2015 8:00 AM Eastern

WASHINGTON — Remember the name Travis LeBlanc. The Enforcement Bureau chief will likely be one of the most powerful non-commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission now that the agency, under chairman Tom Wheeler, is ramping up its complaint process under the new Title II-based Open Internet order.

 

The order has three bright-line rules against unreasonable blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. But other practices that fall outside of those provisions, such as complaints about interconnection, usage-based pricing and other matters the FCC hasn’t anticipated, will be addressed under either a Title II “just and reasonable” standard (interconnection) or a general conduct standard catch-all with the Enforcement Bureau tasked with investigating and taking action.

 

‘USE THESE PROTECTIONS’

 

“Rules are only as good as their enforcement, and so we hope and expect that the agency will use these protections if and when carriers attempt unreasonable practices,” said Matt Wood, policy director at advocacy group Free Press, which has pushed for tough new rules.

 

LeBlanc is chief of that Enforcement Bureau. He has shown a bulldog’s tenacity for hauling Internet-service providers and others on the carpet in the name of protecting consumers, and he will be getting some new muscle under the Title II-based regulations.

 

On the day before Wheeler circulated the rules, the chairman sent a letter to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), informing the lawmaker that he did not think it was necessary to follow the Goverment Accountability Office’s recommendation that the FCC work with ISPs to develop a voluntary code of conduct on data use and pricing. Wheeler said the agency’s enhanced transparency rule, backed by enforcement, plus its streamlined complaint process, should be sufficient.

 

In a warning to ISPs last July about what the FCC billed as “hundreds” of Open Internet complaints, the Enforcement Bureau threatened million- dollar fines and LeBlanc promised to hold ISPs to account for any failures to deliver on their promises.

 

And during an FCC roundtable back in September, LeBlanc made it clear that Title II was very much on the table.

 

Although he reminded the audience that the session was on enforcement issues, not underlying legal authority, LeBlanc said he wanted to remind panelists and “and those who are listening near and far” that Title II was in play.

 

LeBlanc even gave Title II top billing and Section 706 something of a supporting role, at least rhetorically. He said he wanted to highlight the differences “if the commission ultimately decides to rely on Title II, or some other legal authority, such as Section 706.”

 

LeBlanc, who has degrees from Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Cambridge (yes, all four), oversees 24 field offices (the Enforcement Bureau is the FCC’s largest “organizational unit”).

 

Prior to the FCC, as California special assistant attorney general, he established the state’s first high-tech crime and privacy enforcement units. Before that, he worked in the Obama administration, advising the president and Attorney General Eric Holder on constitutional and legal matters.

 

“The Enforcement Bureau under Le Blanc has not tried to settle things just to settle them,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Washington- based public-interest group Public Knowledge. “They’ve imposed real fines for violations, and required parties to put meaningful procedures in place to ensure that violations won’t happen again. We are going to need to see very early that the commission is serious about following up on complaints and violations.”

 

ALL ABOUT ENFORCEMENT

 

In advance of the FCC vote, the House Communications Subcommittee held a hearing on net neutrality where most witnesses warned the proposed regime would lead to regulatory uncertainty, as well as dire consequences for innovation and investment.

 

That was a sign they are worried about enforcement, Feld said: 90% of the noise Republicans are making isn’t about stopping the vote, as GOP lawmakers know that won’t happen. “The noise today and hearings [last week] is about discouraging the FCC from actually enforcing the rules once they are adopted,” he said.

 

Feld said he doesn’t see LeBlanc being dissuaded from his appointed rounds. “I think LeBlanc is the kind of Enforcement Bureau chief who has what it takes to do his job and enforce the rules,” he said, and “not let powerful companies off with a slap on the wrist or settle something just to claim a win and make it go away. That’s good, because we need someone willing to be the cop on the beat for the open Internet in the face of what will be serious Republican political resistance.”

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