A Few Ominous Signs Regarding Obama and Net Neutrality

by: Matt Stoller

Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 11:53

There's a very early trial balloon being floated around Obama's tech policy that, while I don't want to admit it, is a somewhat worrisome sign.  While Obama has been a stalwart rhetorical supporter of net neutrality in his campaign, it's going to be the detailed implementation of the rule that will matter over the next four years.  Even the telecoms acknowledge that an open internet is an optimal outcome, and AT&T is apparently running a net neutral company because of its merger agreement, though they of course will undercut this position the moment they can through litigation or outright flouting of the law.  A strong FCC is going to be necessary to fight and enforce agreements across media policy, broadband, and spectrum, and telecoms, broadcasters and cable companies will fight this every step of the way.  So in looking at Obama's FCC transition, I'm worried.  Here's Olga Kharif reporting in Business Week.

Rivera, who is not interested in the position, has drawn up a short list of candidates that includes two African American women, according to a person familiar with Rivera's thinking. One is Julia Johnson, a Florida consultant who chairs Video Access Alliance, an advocacy and advisory group for independent, emerging, and minority networks and Internet content providers. Johnson is also on the board of MasTec (MTZ), a contractor that designs and builds telephone, broadband, electric, and other networks. She didn't return a call or an e-mail. Rivera was not available for an interview.

Another possibility: Mignon Clyburn, who has been a commissioner for the Public Service Commission of South Carolina since 1998. After earning a bachelor's degree in banking finance and economics from the University of South Carolina, she worked as a newspaper editor and was general manager and publisher for the local Coastal Times. Clyburn is a daughter of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's most prominent black politician. Clyburn declined to comment for this story.

Julia Johnson's Video Access Alliance is a telecom funded astroturf group, and Mignon Clyburn's main qualification seems to be that she is the daughter of Jim Clyburn, a powerful House Democrat who voted against net neutrality.  That these names are being floated is a very bad sign, because it means the progressive interest groups and businesses working on the FCC transition are being cut out the process in favor of traditional DC norms of nepotism and open pay-to-play corruption.

The philosophy of the President matters a great deal, but so d the details and the personnel.  Obama's been so great on tech and telecom policy that it's hard to imagine this is anything but a brief detour, but I wanted to flag it in case it turns out to be the rumblings of something more problematic.

Matt Stoller :: A Few Ominous Signs Regarding Obama and Net Neutrality

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Grrr (4.00 / 2)
I liked it better before the election when every day brought new polls that were all good news, and we didn't have to think too much about this damn policy crap. Why can't Obama just give us a happy and tell us "Lawrence Lessig is going to be in charge of this."


Conduct your own interview of Sarah Palin!

The way the article is framed (0.00 / 0)
It suggests that black and female are key requirements.  Does anyone buy that, or is it just something like the NFL's Rooney Rule, requiring minority candidates to be considered for every job opening, or just a coincidence that the reporter falsely interpreted as a pattern, or some sort of insidious media conspiracy to paint Obama as an anti-white racist?

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

What can we do? (0.00 / 0)
Is there anything we can do to nip this in the bud. Having anyone involved who works for a telecom-funded astroturf group will not end well. This is a no-brainer. This sucks. My understanding is that the telecom industry has been courting the CBC with gusto for decades. I have spent a couple frustrating hours on the phone arguing with John Lewis' tech policy staffer. The phone company has been really effective at lobbying these guys. If Obama is going to pick people for the FCC based on their cozy relationships with the phone company, that is a really bad sign. Is Lessig in the loop on this? What can we do?


not panic at every rumor? (4.00 / 3)
Look, we really have no idea who is on what short list. The article mentions at least 7 possible names for FCC commissioner, and at least 4 names of people advising Obama on the FCC transition. Really, as far as I can tell, the only concrete fact reported in this article is that Henry Rivera is heading the FCC chairperson selection process. And even that is not an official announcement, just a anonymously sourced rumor.

I think it is worth linking to the Obama transition's response to reports that Warren Christopher and Sam Nunn were heading parts of the transition, which turns out not to be true.

Yes, there is nothing else to write about other than unsourced anonymous rumors, but that doesn't mean we should really believe any of these things are true.  

[ Parent ]
What's the alternative? (0.00 / 0)
Wait until it's a done deal and then say "Bummer!"?


[ Parent ]
you completely miss the point (4.00 / 4)
oh boo hoo, Obama might have to clarify a rumor - oh the burden. we should just ignore the rumors and entrust in Obama until he's made his decision.

You put yourself in a position of weakness by believing we must know who Obama is going to appoint before we can question him about who he is going to appoint. the whole point of circulating these stories and demanding the incoming administration verify or deny them is to make sure the progressive interest group gets the best possible government out of Obama before its too late to have an influence. You don't wait to KNOW the nightmare before you deal with it, that would be insane.

Michael Bloomberg, prince of corporate welfare

[ Parent ]
I do see your point, but... (4.00 / 2)
I just don't think that third-hand rumors about who might be on Obama's short list for various administration positions have any informational content. Of course I don't think that progressives should be silent about appointments until they happen -- we should be floating names of our own. Do you really think that the Obama camp is going to bother to confirm or deny whether names floated in various rumors are on short lists? There probably isn't even a short list for many of these positions, there is only media speculation. Rather than endlessly react to this speculation, which strikes me as usually rather pointless, shouldn't progressives be floating names of our own?

I would certainly be interested in Matt's opinion of who would be a strong progressive FCC chair; I'm not so interested in Matt's opinion of two of the people idly speculated on in a BusinessWeek article.

[ Parent ]
You are correct, sir (0.00 / 0)
I am guilty of some panic myself, but as Valerie Jarrett sez:

"There isn't a single name on that list that you've heard from President-elect Obama," Jarrett told the Trotter Group in an hour-long interview session in Washington. "There's not a single name on that list that you've heard from me, or from John Podesta or from Pete Rouse," referring to the three co-chairs of Obama's transition.

"Or, now from Rahm Emanuel. So the five people who actually do know the names on the list, you haven't spoken to," Jarratt said. "So what I think you see in the newspaper is what everybody speculates. ... My guess is they're speculating on the people who are most commonly thought of."

Granted, this is from a few days ago and isn't specifically addressing the FCC issue, but it's still a lot more credible than any of the rumors swirling right now.

The Obama team is being as deliberate as possible when it comes to this stuff. That leaves a media vacuum, which gets filled with rumors and speculation.

Maybe there are some trial balloons going out. I'm betting most of them are coming not from the incredibly disciplined Obama team, but from other interested parties trying to get some attention for their favorite names. But even if the Obama camp is floating some balloons, they're just balloons. The point of floating them would be to have the bad ones get shot down and to smoke out potential problems before any decisions are made.

Conduct your own interview of Sarah Palin!

[ Parent ]
So they could be trial balloons? (4.00 / 3)
And if so we should be shooting them down?

If we have no idea whether they are trial balloons or not, isn't the prudent course of action to try and shoot them down? Better safe than sorry.


[ Parent ]
Sure (0.00 / 0)
Go ahead and do the usual action items. Write letters to the editor and call your Democratic congressmen to let them know why particular names are bad. Better still, give some good alternative names.

But let's not assume that Obama is going in a particular direction just because we heard a name mentioned somewhere, because we're probably weeks away from hearing many actual appointments.

Conduct your own interview of Sarah Palin!

[ Parent ]
One "race" issue that will need to be faced early (4.00 / 3)
is the African-American leadership's ties to the corporate establishment at the local, state and national leadership levels.

It makes sense because that's where the jobs are and the VC and entrepreneurial communities are overwhelmingly white and suburban.

But it's an issue and it has both race and class overtones.  Kucinich's governing ability tanked when he was Mayor of Cleveland because the "establishment" he attacked was an African-American political leadership joined at the hip with a white business community.  Many of his votes and support came from the white ethnic working class and he faced a very serious backlash from the African-American community and the business community.

If you look outside the civil rights leaders and beyond the younger community organizers and policy leaders, many of the most prominent African-American leaders are media and financial service executives and CEOs.

[ Parent ]
From the linked article: (4.00 / 1)
Whoever makes the final cut may have to pass muster with Tom Wheeler, who according to one person familiar with the matter is expected to have a big say in selections for technology-related appointments in the Administration. Wheeler is currently managing director at private equity firm Core Capital Partners. Previously, he was CEO of the powerful CTIA - The Wireless Industry Assn., which represents carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Prior to that, from 1979 to 1984, he was president of the National Cable Television Assn., which represents service providers like Comcast (CMCSA) and Cablevision (CVC).

Ummm.....  Why? Sounds like corrupt bullshit to me.


Or, (4.00 / 1)
this could be the telecos trying to outmanuver Eric Schmidt and the west coast technology elite and retain releveance.  

[ Parent ]
But why (0.00 / 0)
would Obama give veto power to some lobbyist of the telcos?


[ Parent ]
Would he? (4.00 / 1)
"One person familiar with the matter" -- a name you can trust! I think I met him on a plane once. That fucker's got fingers in every pie in Washington.

Seriously - this is just some insider trying to influence who has influence. I'd give even money that "one person familiar with the matter" is either Tom Wheeler or Tom Wheeler's brother-in-law.

Conduct your own interview of Sarah Palin!

[ Parent ]
It could be a positioning statement (4.00 / 1)
"one person familiar with the matter" could be anyone.  A former Hill or Clinton staffer now working for, or lobbying for a telco who talks twice a week with a friend involved in the transition.

The whole article could be a strategic plant by the teleco/media industry.

Lots of power plays going on right now and the two biggest involve traditional teleco/media companies trying to maintain relevance against Silicon Valley/Seattle and financial services companies trying to maintain their dominance as the primary American economic sector.  

[ Parent ]
Exactly exactly. (0.00 / 0)
That's what I get from reading it. I don't think any of this is coming from the Obama team. Note that the article doesn't even source Henry Rivera; the first source is "a person familiar with Rivera's thinking".

Conduct your own interview of Sarah Palin!

[ Parent ]
Obama's been so great on privacy policy that it's hard to imagine (4.00 / 2)

Matt, your imagination might need a cup of coffee.

Michael Bloomberg, prince of corporate welfare

Contact Mike Lux! (4.00 / 2)
I'm sure you and/or Chris already have done so; but, since he's working on the transition team, surely he can at least get these concerns to the right ears.

or he can (4.00 / 5)
at least fill out some web form they've pointed him to.

Michael Bloomberg, prince of corporate welfare

[ Parent ]
Ha! (4.00 / 1)
It's refreshing to get some old-timey, dry-humor cynicism to counteract all the optimism that's been invading my brain recently!

[ Parent ]
I think that indications so far, (4.00 / 2)
based on Obama's transition team and the pick of Emanuel for COS, are very ominous.  It looks like all the talk about the pragmatic interest Obama has in competence and about his disinterest in ideology was code;  Obama looks to be an insider's insider, creating a hermetically sealed bubble of insders.  I think that the sooner progressives realize that the fight must go on, and that they do NOT have an ally in the White House, the better.

Torpedoes away! (4.00 / 1)
Can we at least wait until president Obama actually does something bad before we try to sink his battleship?

Conduct your own interview of Sarah Palin!

[ Parent ]
or rather than that... (0.00 / 0)
why not float our own list of potential progressives for these positions, like the list David S. has linked to a few times?  instead of simply being reactive, we could then wait to see if any are actually selected, and if not, have a firmer ground for criticism.

[ Parent ]
"a firmer ground for criticism" (4.00 / 1)
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Criticizing a done deal is not very effective.


[ Parent ]
Torpedoes away, indeed. (0.00 / 0)
Certainly it is too early to indict Obama as beltway-insider-business-as-usual, but I don't see the downside to assuming that to be the case and acting accordingly. If it is an accurate assessment than pressure from the left is necessary. If it is not accurate, it still benefits our side by allowing Obama to play good cop to our bad cop and move the ball further down field.


[ Parent ]
Good to keep abreast of this (4.00 / 1)
but I think we shouldn't put too much on the Business Week article.  Given how he's run his own campaign, I'd be surprised if Obama would pick an FCC chair just because she's an African American woman, regardless of history and views, as would be the case with Johnson.  And its hard to believe that Wheeler would have anything close to veto power, though getting his views on any nominee would be a useful reference point regarding what might be expected in terms of incumbent views and reactions.

Good to see you interview Harold Feld the other day, Matt.  He really knows his stuff, both big picture and in the regulatory trenches.

Someone I know in the industry said he heard Ben Scott of Free Press is somehow involved in advising Obama's telecom transition team.  I don't know if its true, but if it is, its a good sign.  I don't have a problem if someone like Wheeler has a seat at the table, as long as folks like Ben and Harold do as well.  We can win the arguments if we get a fair hearing. My inclination is to trust but also verify whether that's happening.

As you noted in your earlier post, the recent white space decision represents an opening door, though the details won't be clear at least until the full order is released.  The initial rules won't be ideal, but its important that they provide enough opportunity to start things rolling and enough flexibility for expansion as the technologies prove themselves to work without harmful interference.  Broadcasters are likely to continue fighting and putting up roadblocks every step of the way, so this one ain't over yet.

Muni-fiber is one of my own favorite "solutions" to our telecom/broadband/media problems, and I'm hoping that Congress and Obama pass legislation preempting state restrictions on muni-fiber in more than a dozen states. Bills along these lines have already been proposed.  It would also be great if open-access fiber (and wireless) nets were part of a federal infrastructure investment program.  There's a very ambitious project planned in VT that may have trouble getting funding because credit markets are so screwed up now.  My sense is that the Feds could and should take action that could free up financing for well-planned and managed muni-fiber projects, which have shown themselves to be good investments, though critics always point to the ones that have failed for various reasons.  (For more on the pro-muni-fiber case, see: http://www.pti.org/index.php/p...


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