How appropriate that the Federal Communications Commission has picked the darkest day of the year to vote on its new Net Neutrality rules. Unless they are dramatically improved at the 11th hour, the FCC's proposal will go down as one of the bleakest moments in the history of the Internet.
We will look back years from now on Tuesday's vote as a squandered opportunity, where old-fashioned D.C. politics, weak-kneed FCC leadership, and jaw-dropping short-sightedness sacrificed the most remarkable engine for economic innovation, democratic participation and free speech ever invented.
I'm not saying this is the end of the fight or that new and amazing things won't happen online, but the FCC's epic failure to get this right will make things unquestionably worse. Somehow, an FCC chairman cheered on by millions of Americans and backed by a presidential endorsement ended up making rules designed to win over AT&T, rather than you and me.
Net Neutrality's supporters are being asked to compromise and cave so that the biggest phone and cable companies don't make things uncomfortable for Julius Genachowski in the next Congress. So in the waning days before the vote, the chairman and his proxies have been spending their time slandering the principled members of the commission and cajoling tech-company CEOs to remain uncritical unless they want their other priorities to be deep-sixed in the future.
Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the sorry state of things at the FCC than the pitiful PR campaign mounted by the Genachowski's office to demonstrate support for his disappointing proposal. It turns out that most of the folks willing to stand behind the chairman are those who've been trying to kill Net Neutrality from the start.
The Enemy of My Policy Is My Friend?
Someone forwarded me a copy of the e-mail that Josh Gottheimer, the chairman's chief spin doctor, has been sending around to reporters and congressional staffers touting all the "support" for the Net Neutrality proposal.
The cherry-picked quotes in this document fall into three categories: Net Neutrality haters who seem way too pleased with what the FCC is doing, critics being wrongly claimed as supporters, and a few actual supporters.
Let's start with the long list of Net Neutrality opponents backing Genachowski's proposal. These include corporations that have spent millions of dollars to prevent the FCC from protecting Internet users. (Texas Republican Joe Barton was so surprised to see the biggest companies praising Genachowski that he accused the FCC of distorting their views.)
That they're now applauding the FCC chairman should give everyone pause. Indeed, it should suggest that the rule will best protect the interests of Net Neutrality haters, rather than the interests of the American public. Here's just a sampling of how some of Genachowski's newest fans have described Net Neutrality in the past:
- AT&T: "There is no potential upside to Net Neutrality regulation."
- National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA): "Net neutrality is nothing more than a scheme by the multi-billion dollar silicon valley tech companies to get you, the consumer, to pay more for their services."
- Time Warner Cable: "Any 'net neutrality' mandates would lead to a variety of adverse unintended consequences."
- CTIA-The Wireless Association: "Imposition of net neutrality obligations on mobile wireless broadband providers would harm consumers and undermine wireless networks."
- Alliance for Digital Equality: "We are concerned that these extreme proposals, backed by groups outside of the mainstream carry potentially long-term negative effects that could seriously hinder the ability of minority and low-income communities to thrive in the 21st century."
- Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP): "We believe that no compelling reason currently exists to establish new regulations."
Of course, such preposterous claims have been debunked countless times; the companies' real motives have been exposed; and the questionable motives of civil rights groups have been criticized. Yet we still find ourselves at a moment where the FCC is not only trying to please these companies and their well-financed front groups, they're seemingly thrilled to have their support.
How Low Will the FCC Go?
Moreover, at least four of the chairman's supposed supporters were outspoken critics of the proposed rules. Gottheimer plucked the rote platitudes praising the process from their statements but excluded the inconvenient critiques. It's impossible to read Rep. Mike Doyle's statement as an endorsement ("As with all laws and regulations, the details make all the difference between a success and a sell-out."); the Open Internet Coalition took out ads questioning the deal; DISH Network lobbied against it; and the Future of Music Coalition joined 80 other groups on a letter detailing everything wrong with the chairman's approach.
To be fair, there is some wan support: at least one endorser of the chairman's plan (craigslist founder Craig Newmark) has been an outspoken Net Neutrality champion; two consumer groups that had already endorsed weak rules are standing by the chairman; three Democratic senators sent a letter; a small handful of venture capitalists cheered (though there were plenty of critics of the FCC in the VC community); and one academic rousingly considered it "the realistic way forward."
The rest of the support came from companies that tried to stay out of the debate (Microsoft, IBM) or seemed to like the proposal because it was good for the big phone and cable companies (Citigroup). Oh, and the White House was so enthused they offered the chairman their support via a two-paragraph blog post -- not exactly a trip to the Rose Garden.
But when the vast majority of your so-called supporters either strongly oppose your basic policy goals or don't actually support you, you can be pretty sure that your approach is coming up short.
That, in a nutshell, is how you end up with fake Net Neutrality.