I am neither surprised nor outraged at the recent news that members of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) are picking up where the FCC "secret meetings" left off and trying to come up with a net neutrality consensus framework. To me, it seems rather sad and funny. My only surprise is that even in Washington, the notion of an industry trade association working with its members is anything unusual or significant. I mean, that's what industry trade associations do after all.
The sad thing is that, given the utter genius the Obama Administration has shown for pissing off the Democratic base through constant waivering, there is every reason to believe that the FCC might be tempted to view what comes out of this "industry consensus process" as something it can embrace to its bosom. This would be a disaster not merely for Genachowski and what remains of his reputation, but for Congressional Democrats as well. If there is one unequivocal lesson that came out of the Goog-VZ debacle last week, it is that the Netroots care deeply about this issue. While I get that the DC establishment considers the Netroots something of an embarrassment (or, as Rahm Emmanuel famously opined, "bleeping retarded"), Congressional Democrats understand that unless the Netroots (a) keep giving money, and (b) turn out and vote, they are toast -- as evidenced by Alan Grayson's abrupt about face from his previous "let Congress handle it in our own sweet time" to "Congress and the FCC must step up now."
Alas, the scuttlebutt around town has it that various folks from the Chairman's office are encouraging the industry talks in the hopes of creating a "consensus" that will go over with the public and Congress much better than the Goog-VZ "consensus proposal" did. They will then take this proposal, flanked by a handful of VCs, unions, and public interest groups that have traditionally opposed any form of Network Neutrality and cry out "Behold! We have a consensus document! Fie upon ye, oh religious Zealots of the Left, who think federal agencies are actually supposed to make decisions. For in your arrogance, you have lost your opportunity to negotiate with industry and be part of the process." Then the Heavens will open, flowers will descend, everyone who was pissed off about the Google Verizon deal will suddenly understand how this consensus deal is totally different, the "centrists" will finally greet them as liberators, and Glenn Beck will at last love them and shower them with praise. (Hey, Alan Grayson got a hug from Andrew Breitbart when he sold out on NN, so why not?)
To which I can only respond "what do you guys smoke in the Chairman's Office and do you pretend to have glaucoma to get it?" Guys, the public flipped out over a deal between Google and Verizon cutting a deal -- and with good reason. You think it gets more acceptable when you add AT&T and Microsoft to the bottom line? This line of speculation conjures visions of a discussion among the Chairman's advisers wearing various sun glasses and other stereotypical Hollywood gear, like studio moguls discussing their plans for the next box office megaflop . . . .
"Hey, our effort to do a negotiated deal on net neutrality principles bombed with the public. What do we do now?"
"I know! Let's do a remake -- but with an all new ensemble cast."
"What? But the public _hated_ the version we put out two weeks ago. It totally bombed!"
"Sure, because it was a star vehicle for Google and Verizon. This needs an ensemble. The public doesn't like romances this summer. They want blockbusters, huge casts, 3D special effects. We need to go BIG."
"So you think the public will love the idea better when it's AT&T/Microsoft/Cisco/Verizon/Skype and a bunch of cable cos like Comcast better than they loved the deal when it was just VZ-Goog?"
"Absolutely! This one will be a hit for sure!"
I note that Google declined an invitation to participate. Ostensibly, they declined because they are not in ITIC. My personal guess, they declined because -- unlike some others, apparently -- they have a non-flat learning curve. The Google folks noticed that the negative splashback drenched them and did nothing to Verizon. While I don't expect Goog to back away from their joint proposal, and will no doubt defend it if pressed, my feeling is the Goog-VZ NN agreement is the Google WAVE of policy. Goog would like nothing better than to learn its lessons and quietly move on since Google, unlike the Democrats, understands that you really don't want to piss off your fan base in the hopes of kissing up to your rivals.
So while normally this would deserve nothing more than an eye-roll and a chuckle, it does create an election year danger for the Dems, and a possible road for Genachowski to still come out looking like a hero -- or a major goat. (Cue Peanuts theme for us oldsters.)
Why Dems Need To Care
If last week's Goog-VZ NN debacle proved one thing, it's that the Netroots base, i.e., the people who give them money and who they desperately need to get motivated to turn out and vote in November, care deeply about this one and are now following it closely. Don't take my word for it. Take a look at this study from PEW's Project for Excellence In Journalism (PEJ). PEJ does weekly analysis of what stories get the most play in conventional media, and separately what news links get the most play in the blogosphere and in social media. It's kinda like the Neilsen ratings for news stories, but with better analysis and more explanation.
According to PEW, the #1 story in the blogosphere last week was the Goog-VZ deal and how upset people were that Goog was selling out NN. It even beat out the "Ground Zero Mosque" (which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero) as the most discussed news story. Lets repeat that for those not paying attention. More people in the blogosphere talked about the Google-Verizon Net Neutrality Deal (and hated it) than talked about the "Ground Zero Mosque" story. Despite the fact that the issues around 51 Park St (formerly "Cordoba House") have saturated the mainstream news and the cable networks and that this arouses strong emotion across the political spectrum, more people cared about Google selling out Net Neutrality and the prospect of companies like them controlling distribution on the Internet -- and the blogs and comments were overwhelmingly negative against the deal and in support of government action.
Nor was this a fluke. As the PEW analysis shows, every week of a major network neutrality story, it dominates the blogosphere and social media:
Social media users -- most of whom operate outside of corporate media -- have closely followed the net neutrality debate. The issue first ranked among the most-linked-to news stories in blogs (5th at 6% of the links) the week of April 5-9, 2010, following a federal court ruling that threatened net neutrality. And it heated up on Twitter the week of May 3-7, 2010 (4th at 8%) as users shared news of the FCC's response -- a revised regulation proposal.
Also important for Democrats is who got energized by Google-Verizon. Moveon.org, ACTBlue, and other Netroots organizations immediately launched "Google don't be evil campaigns" and began calling for immediate FCC action to impose "real net neutrality rules." Not only do Democrats need the members of these organizations to turn out in large numbers in November, they increasingly rely on these orgs for campaign contributions. With businesses taking advantage of the Citizens United ruling to give squinjillion dollars to "pro-business" Republicans (slogan "deregulation is always good for business -- ask any community bank or Gulf Coast fisherman"), aggregated small contributions from Progressives becomes increasingly important for panicked Dems being out fundraised despite being the party in power.
By contrast, the "stop the evil socialist Democrats from socialist taking over the Internet and socialisting it by doing all sorts of evil socialist stuff" campaign run by Americans For Prosperity and others generated a collective "wha?" from the public. Mind you, it played well with a number of anti-"big government" groups and Tea Party folks. But these guys were already uber-pumped to vote against Ds, so taking a "moderate" position on Net Neutrality doesn't help Ds much with this crowd either.
So to review: (a) People Dems need to vote care about this issue and are following it closely, (b) People/Orgs that fund Democratic Representatives want the FCC to act right now to protect real network neutrality, and (c) these people/orgs are extremely displeased with trying to resolve this by an "industry consensus." By contrast, the fear that the public at large will regard this as a "big government takeover of the internet so it can gay marry it and make your children download Muslim propaganda" does not appear born out, despite millions of dollars invested by the opposition in PR campaigns.
Genachowski: Time To Be a Hero, Or A Goat
Like Charlie Brown of old, Genachowski now stands on the pitcher's mound of this little sandlot with the chance to be "a hero or a goat" -- and getting a huge stomachache from the pressure. Being a goat (and a political liability for Congressional Dems) is easy. If he embraces the "industry consensus," or even welcomes it as a "useful step forward" that he can dress up with one or two additions, he becomes a goat to the Netroots when the Dems need them most. The meme that will travel through the Progressive blogosphere is that Obama and the Dems caved on the one thing Obama still stood strong for, and something the Netroots care passionately about. I don't know if the "enthusiasm gap" for Progressives can get any worse, but if it can, failing to stand up on Net Neutrality will do it.
To be a hero, Genachowski needs to reject the forthcoming "industry consensus" from ITI as wholly inadequate and announce he will call for a vote on his "Third Way" Proposal in September as the only way to protect consumers. "I tried," he can tell skeptics. "I did everything I could to build a consensus. But the industry remains unwilling to abide by anything that would genuinely protect an open Internet." That would fire up the base in time for election. It would prove that Democrats actually will stand up for their principles in the face of mammoth industry pressure and fight for a clear win. That would provide a much needed bump for a constituency tired of stalled measures like climate change and partial, ambiguous wins like health insurance and financial services reform.
I'd like to imagine the FCC production staff having a story conference for that kind of blockbuster ending. It would sure beat the heck out of another lame remake "Lets Make A Deal."