The FCC Chairman’s D.C. Reputation: Or the Wimpy Kid Who Could Preserve an Open Internet

Because the Federal Communications Commission may (finally) adopt a network neutrality rule in December, the future of an open Internet rests largely on the shoulders of its Chairman.

“Who’s that?” you may wonder.

His name is Julius Genachowski and his reputation in DC is widely known, but is likely less known to the general public. I began writing this post because there are two stories about his reputation that I can’t link to, because they’re not available online. They come from expensive inside-the-beltway publications, the kind that follow executive agency chairmen well enough to provide telling details for lobbyists. The kind of publications few Americans would have access to.

So I figured I would share them here with the general public, and discuss some other news stories about the Chairman as well.

For better or worse, accurate or not, the FCC Chairman’s reputation in DC, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street is this: he is a wimp who doesn’t like to do actual work. He’s more “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” than Harry Potter.

This would be less worrisome if the future of the Internet didn’t rest on his fragile shoulders.

Thin-Skinned: Susceptible to Industry Criticism

Last year, in October, the FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski buckled to AT&T and proposed a loophole-ridden net neutrality rule, despite months of strong promises and stronger rhetoric, including in the Obama campaign’s technology agenda.

In the weeks before this buckling, a publication called Communications Daily explained the significance of the confrontation between Julius and AT&T on net neutrality–Julius’s supposedly signature issue. This confrontation was Julius’s first political test; it setting the tone of all future political tests. (In all of them, Julius’s reputation is to have shown almost astonishing cowardice, coupled with incompetently bad political strategy.)

I reproduce this short Communications Daily quote here, because it signifies that, even before this first test, Julius’s corporate opponents believed Julius very thin-skinned and likely to abandon “competition, innovation, and consumers” (his usual talking point) if the corporations pressured him.

According to Comm. Daily in October 2009:

The regulatory battle is the first major political test for Genachowski, who assumed the chairmanship in late June after a long stint in the private sector. A government source, describing him as “very thin-skinned,” said congressional Republicans have calculated that their best strategy is a campaign of relentless pressure and criticism.

Soon afterwards, Julius buckled to AT&T’s pressure.

Julius Likes Glamorous Trappings, Doesn’t Like Actually Working

Julius has been criticized for having no major accomplishments. He has done so little that his team tries to claim “accomplishments” that are not even rules–they’re reports and documents merely opening inquiries or rule-making proceedings. This has resulted in the reputation of liking “being” Chairman, but not liking “doing” what a Chairman does.

This is David Hatch, in the National Journal, explaining (and grading) Julius’s reputation in July of 2010.

Reputation (C). Genachowski’s reputation (deserved or not) is that he relishes the glamorous trappings of his job — the international business trips, hobnobbing with Silicon Valley heavyweights and face time with President Obama and other luminaries — but disdains the roll-up-your-sleeves work of policymaking and slogging through hours of dry testimony. Even more worrisome for him is that watchdog groups such as Free Press that were initially in his corner have morphed into his harshest critics.

So, thanks to Comm. Daily and National Journal for saying in print what many say in meetings, in board rooms, and at conferences.

And Tepid… While  Claiming He is “Seeking Consensus” or Delivering for Consumers

Reporters and observers commonly call the Chairman or his actions “tepid” (see herehere,herehereherehere).

Tepid means lacking in force or conviction. Reporters use this word to be polite.

While Julius is tepid, he talks about needing “consensus” to act–and then, like many politicians, he will pretend he has attained victory. Imagine bank regulators seeking industry “consensus” to regulate derivatives, or environmental regulators seeking “consensus” with BP over the safety of offshore drilling. This approach has failed in the past, and is not even designed to reach the right result (just one acceptable to industry). It usually reflects a lack of principle or unwillingness to do the right thing in the face of industry pressure. Label it “consensus,” but many would consider it unprincipled and tepid.

Finally, all tepid politicians have an incentive to claim they’re delivering for consumers, even if they’re not. So don’t expect the FCC Chairman to announce that he has buckled to pressure by the largest political forces of AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, while abandoning competition, innovation, and consumers. You’ll have to read between the lines to know if you can trust him on this one.

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