Damn the Internet, Let’s Fire Up the Base

I don’t generally write about politics on this blog because it has a technology focus, but a couple of things have happened in the political sphere recently that are too outrageous to ignore. They’re smoking guns which, in my opinion, undermine the credibility of the Internet agenda of some of the most vocal advocacy groups in Washington.

Smoking Gun Number One comes from Harold Feld, the Legal Director of inside-the-beltway pubic interest group Public Knowledge. Feld has some advice for FCC Chairman Genachowski:

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.

(Emphasis added) Feld is talking about discussions that started Thursday at the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) among a broad cross-section of the IT industry on Internet regulation. According to the Wall St. Journal, the talks include players on all sides of the Internet regulation/net neutrality/open Internet issue: Microsoft, Cisco, AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (Google is apparently not involved.) Other reports have Skype in the room as well. (In the interests of disclosure, let the record show that my day job is at ITIF, an organization that shares offices with ITIC, and that this blog is not a statement from either organization; I’m also not attending the talks.) I’m told by people who are, however, that they’re at a very preliminary stage and there’s no guarantee that any consensus will be reached. Certainly there isn’t one so far.

So here’s your smoking gun: There is no consensus. There is no statement regarding one, either by ITIC or any of the companies involved. Talks are just getting started and may not go anywhere. The ITIC membership is so diverse that any consensus they might reach would, I think, bear some careful consideration, just as the “Two State Solution” proposed by Google and Verizon deserves consideration.

So how is it that Mr. Harold Feld can peer into his crystal ball, pound his fists and demand that Chairman Genachowski must reject this non-existent consensus sight unseen? This is very near to the pinnacle of hubris and an indictment of the net neutrality cause, exceeded only by the other smoking gun.

Smoking Gun Number Two is an on-line petition delivered by Free Press and Moveon.org to Google earlier this week allegedly signed by 300,000 people (only some named “Mickey Mouse” and “Saddam Hussein”). What’s interesting about the petition is that it was issued, circulated, and signed five days before Google and Verizon announced their proposal. The proposal was unveiled on August 9th, but the petition was circulated on August 4th. So if the signers were reacting to anything it all, it wasn’t the Google-Verizon proposal, it was rumors about it.

So the Free Press-Moveon.org petition was anything but a genuine reaction to the actual Two State Solution framework the firms released on August 9th, it was outrage over the very idea that a proposal was in the works (as it had been for ten months.) But who needs to see the proposal before denouncing it? Google and Verizon are both big companies, big companies are all evil, anything they agree on must be the end of the Internet as we know it, QED.

That’s exactly what FCC Commissioner Copps said Friday:

“These very big, very powerful, very wealthy companies pronounced to Capitol Hill, the FCC and the public that they have now agreed upon a policy framework that will work for the benefit of the American people,” Copps said. “Of course, it wasn’t developed with input from the American people, but it is, they assure us, for the American people. It’s ‘trust us,’ one more time.”

Copps denounces the Two State Solution on the basis of who created it, not for what it says. This sounds an awful lot like a violation of the proposed net neutrality anti-discrimination rule, actually, that data can’t be degraded or blocked on account of its origin:

If a broadband network provider prioritizes or offers enhanced quality of service to data of a particular type, it must prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of that type (regardless of the origin or ownership of such data) …

Sauce for the gander, this is not.

Feld gives away the game toward the end of his post, however. What’s going on here isn’t policy, it’s politics. As Feld says, the point is finding an issue, any issue, “That would fire up the base in time for election [sic].”

So this is what’s going on with the Internet these days: the IT industry is trying to find a consensus that might, just might, put the bitter rancor of the net neutrality wars behind us, at least for a while. While they deliberate, apparently in an attempt to suggest a framework to the FCC or to Congress that would have no force unless ratified by an actual, legal authority with standing to enforce rules, we have demonstrations, petitions, and denunciations taking place that are baldly and explicitly tailored to achieve a political effect. “Damn the Internet,” the advocates are saying, “let’s fire up the base.”

Personally, I kind of like the Internet. I like the Web, I like Skype, I like my mobile phone, my iPad, and all the things I can do thanks to all of the robust networks that make the Internet sing. I like politics much less, even though I built one of the world’s first political blogs in 1997. But I seriously don’t like the idea that the Internet and all of its future potential has to be sacrificed on the altar of politics just so some advocacy groups can “fire up the base” for the November elections.

This tactic has all the charm of radical students shouting down unpopular speakers on a university campus. It’s unseemly, it’s a disastrous approach to public policy, and it’s not even sound politics. The Democratic Party base does not consider net neutrality the burning public policy issue of our time: the economy, the environment, education, and health care are way ahead in the minds of the outside-the-beltway people who vote. The 300,000 people who signed a bogus on-line petition based on a nothing but smoke and mirrors aren’t going to turn the election one way or another; each Congressional district is twice as large as that, and there are 435 of them.

I’ve always suspected that an element of the net neutrality movement was seeking to punish the Internet for departing from the telephone network model that was so well understood by career regulators, but I never took them for being venal enough to sell the Internet down the river in order to advance the supposed interests of one of the political parties. But here it is in their own actions and their own words, so what else can it be?