Forget the CIA. The Federal Communications Commission is like the fourth branch of American government, and its officials are not elected.

President Obama is reported to want venture capitalist, telecommunications executive and former Obama campaign volunteer Tom Wheeler to chair the commission. So why should you care?

Think about it this way: The Bill of Rights has a lot of pull in this country and the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but that doesn’t stop the FCC from fining anyone who uses speech it deems inappropriate. The commission can not only fine, it can revoke licenses. CBS? Here today, gone tomorrow. Broadcasters are so intimidated by the FCC’s power to censor, even those that are exempt from traditional rules police themselves and mind their manners.

Think about it another way: The telecommunications industry controls the pipes and airwaves over which all of our communications — whether TV shows or emails — are sent, and it bows to whom? The FCC commissioners.

George W. Bush’s chairman, Michael Powell (son of Gen. Colin Powell), was a big fan of mergers, and under his leadership major corporations were allowed to consolidate without any concern for competition or privacy.

Obama’s outgoing chairman, Julius Genachowski, oversaw a rethink of telecommunications in the broadband age. His FCC prevented AT&T and T-Mobile from merging, probably saving us from a cellphone duopoly. He also presided over a controversial compromise position on Net neutrality.

Who is Tom Wheeler? He’s the managing director of Core Capital Partners, a former lobbyist for various telecommunications organizations and an executive with experience in the cable industry. The Washington Post reports that his varied resume could be an asset:

“He can’t be pigeon-holed,” said Gigi Sohn, president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. “He’s had a wide variety of experiences and has worked with competitive companies as well as incumbents. I truly believe he will be independent and thoughtful.”

Some people will be disappointed if Obama does not choose a woman to head the commission. As Politico reports:

Liberal groups and Sen. Jay Rockefeller pushed for a woman, with the West Virginia Democrat urging the White House to pick his former aide, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. Rockefeller and 36 other senators penned a letter to the president March 22. The lawmakers emphasized that Rosenworcel’s selection would help the White House “avoid possible delays created by other nominees and keep the agency moving forward.”

That letter was followed by one from the tech policy corner and included many Obama supporters. They threw their support behind Wheeler.

— Posted by Peter Z. Scheer.

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