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Net Neutrality's New Enemy: The Mythical Mushy Middle

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The fight over net neutrality is red hot right now. Since news broke that Google and Verizon were hatching a plan to carve up the Internet, millions have woken up to the fact that the Internet is in jeopardy and the would-be watchdogs at the Federal Communications Commission aren't doing much about it.

Those of us who've been in the trenches the past few years defending the free and open Internet from a corporate takeover understand that -- like in any high-stakes political debate -- things can get a little ugly. When you're challenging the interests of giant corporations like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, you have to expect they're going to spread misinformation, call you names, hire astroturf front groups to attack you, and spend gobs and gobs of money to co-opt Congress and confuse the public. That's politics.

You can't outspend these corporate behemoths; they've got hundreds of high-priced lobbyists roaming Capitol Hill. But there are two ways to fight back: with facts and with fire. The first means debunking myths and rebutting industry claims with hard data and substantive analysis. The second means coming up with compelling arguments and creative tactics to draw the attention of the 99.9% of Americans who aren't paid to read thousands of pages of detailed, technical comments filed in the FCC docket.

Now the fire is starting to spread. In just the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have blasted Google-Verizon for getting in bed together. A bunch even showed up outside Google headquarters one Friday holding signs and chanting "don't be evil." On the blogs (if not the nightly news, alas) net neutrality was a bigger story than the "ground zero mosque."

This is a big moment. If we're ever going to safeguard the open Internet, the time is now. But all of this noise and attention is making certain people very uncomfortable.

You know the type: I call them the guardians of the mythical mushy middle. And I'm starting to think these self-righteous, can't-we-all-just-get-along zealots of moderation are more dangerous to the prospects of net neutrality than the greedy industry CEOs, their hired guns, or even Glenn Beck.

To the Extreme!

These sentinels of the sacred center aren't that concerned about the substance of any given debate, as long as the debaters don't offend their delicate sensibilities. They specialize in a brand of lazy conventional wisdom that's long been a staple of inside-the-Beltway political pontificating (see Broder, David). They are the school librarians of our political discourse: No matter the stakes or the truth, they're just more comfortable if everyone -- especially you riff-raff out there called the public -- would just keep it down.

Now they're turning their attention to net neutrality. Like the coverage of any hot-button political issue, their formula is simple and doesn't require much research: The answer to just about any policy question can be found by simply striking a balance between two "extremes." The middle is inherently good and always right. If you disagree, then you're probably an extremist. And then who cares what you think.

Take the example of Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein. When he weighed in on the net neutrality hullabaloo two weeks ago, he did criticize the industry. But he reserved his most biting disdain for net neutrality supporters, dismissing them as "ayatollahs" and "crusaders" engaged in "religious warfare." After all, they were thwarting the FCC chairman's effort to "broker a consensus" -- a consensus being the Holy Grail for mushy middlers, even better than a compromise.

Since then, "extreme" has become the pejorative of choice for critics of the net neutrality debate, though it's almost always reserved for public interest advocates and not the big corporations that actually are trying to defang the FCC and trash the foundations of U.S. communications policy.

Shhh ... Moderates at Work

Especially worrisome to the mushy middle is that the "extreme rhetoric" around net neutrality could "run amok."

That's another hallmark of the middlers: being far more concerned with the tone of the debate than its outcome.

For example, Lauren Weinstein, who moderates a listserv about net neutrality and fashions himself a moderate in the debate, got much more worked up about the "rude" and "over the top" reactions to the Google-Verizon pact (especially that protest in Mountain View) than the ramifications of the disingenuous deal. "I am disappointed," he wrote on his blog, "no, that's not a strong enough word -- I'm mortified -- by the level of vitriol, obnoxiousness, obscenity, and emotionally-laden, hyperbole-saturated rhetoric that is characterizing many of the negative responses to the proposal."

Weinstein, of course, ignores that the overwhelming public outcry against the Google-Verizon pact is what put net neutrality back on the front pages and - perhaps more importantly - The Daily Show for the first time since the late Ted Stevens started ranting back in the day about "a series of tubes." People are paying attention, and it's not because of an outbreak of civility.

I love parsing the nuances of "paid prioritization" more than the next guy. But we'd have lost the open Internet long ago if activists hadn't sounded the alarm and taken to the streets. Without them, there would be no public debate about Net Neutrality. And if you want to get things done in Washington, you have to come ready for a bare-knuckle brawl -- not a pillow fight.

Weinstein did get up off his fainting couch long enough to praise Google and Verizon for the "willingness of both firms to put forth their public proposal," as if they were just spit-balling some ideas for the public to ponder rather than lobbing a grenade in a heated political battle. But pretending you're above politics is yet another staple of the mushy middle.

The FCC Muddles Toward the Middle

Unfortunately, the mushy middle is also a staple of politics, as embodied by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. A year ago, Genachowski promised to fulfill President Obama's pledge to take "a back seat to no one" on net neutrality. But instead of getting in the driver's seat, it's more like he's been trying to hide in the trunk. Most notably, he's failed to move to restore his agency's authority over broadband, which was thrown into question after a federal court decision last spring and is a prerequisite to making any new rules.

He did launch a net neutrality rulemaking process, in which he's solicited public comment again and again and again -- but taken no action. He's asked a lot of questions but provided no answers. And he's had trouble finding a steady perch in the center. When industry lobbyists swarm his office, he starts leaning their way. When the public protests, he retreats. The irony is that that swing vote he needs for a majority is his own.

Instead, he continues to wander on an elusive search for consensus. Genachowski promised an open process, then tried to cut a closed-door deal with the biggest companies. That ended when Google and Verizon went public. Now after being silent for weeks, he finally responded to the Google-Verizon pact with - you guessed it - more questions and another comment cycle that could push a final decision until December ... maybe.

The fundamental problem with the mythical middle ground is that it doesn't exist; the search is futile. But that doesn't mean you can't go on searching for it forever.

Unfortunately, Internet users don't have forever; they're left unprotected right now. And the more deals the big companies can lock in now, the harder it will be to hold on to the free and open Internet as we know it.

Net Neutrality: Yes or No

You see, when it comes to net neutrality -- there's yes or no, right or wrong. It's like binary code, ones and zeros. You're either for net neutrality, or you're against it. (Or, in the case of Google, you're for it before you were against it.)

Either you think Net Neutrality should apply no matter how you access the Internet, or you're Googizon and say wireless networks don't count. You either expand the open Internet for everyone and continue building an amazing resource for free speech and innovation, or you invest in private toll lanes for the select few. You either believe the FCC should have the power to protect Internet users, or you want a toothless watchdog. You have to choose.

What's missing at the FCC seems to be guiding set of values through which they make the difficult choices base on what the best policy is - not how much political cover they can get. Then they need to go out into the world and speak plainly about what the government needs to do and why they are doing it.

What the public wants and the Internet desperately needs isn't another compromise but a leader willing to make tough decisions. We need someone less concerned about which way the political winds are blowing today and more concerned about his legacy.

If you always try to split the baby, you end up with a lot of dead babies.

OK, maybe that was a little too extreme. But you know what I mean.

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