Staffers at the Federal Communications Commission with ties to the commission's chairman, Julius Genachowski, coordinated media and strategy planning with senior Free Press and MoveOn.org officials in the run up to Genachowski's announcement that he would be seeking an FCC vote on imposing so-called "net neutrality" rules on broadband and the Internet, and doing so when Congress is out of session during the Thanksgiving and Christmas recesses.
"Net neutrality" is a policy proposal that would essentially strip the control and traffic management of broadband networks from those companies that deployed them and make them run properly, and transfer much of that oversight to the federal government. Under the proposal rumored to be under consideration by the FCC, network operators such as AT&T and Comcast would not be allowed to offer consumers prioritized service or quality of service guarantees for such things as movie downloads and video streaming.
"It essentially turns the networks into dumb pipes, so you have billions of people going online and no one is really managing the traffic in a way so that consumers have a good experience," says an FCC staffer for a Republican commission member. "People don't realize how much video and communications comes over their broadband lines. This is the left's attempt to rein in things like Fox News, Pajamas Media, Internet radio broadcasts for Limbaugh and Levin -- anything that is data-related or video-related that requires some high-tech network management would be degraded or limited by the imposition of net neutrality."
Congressional Republicans (and even some Democrats) have stated that they do not believe the FCC has the statutory standing to impose such rules -- which would reclassify broadband and Internet services as "telecommunications services" and bring them under rules that were developed for the rotary phone back in the 1930s -- without guidance from Congress. More than 100 members from both parties formally requested that the FCC take no action until the House and Senate had had a chance to weigh in on the matter.
But with the Obama Administration quickly losing its own standing with its radical base as it prepares to surrender to Republicans on the Bush tax cut renewals and possible budget cuts, "We need to give our people a win, and right now, [net neutrality] is the only win we will probably be able to give them for at least the next six to eight months," says a White House official.
About a week ago it appeared that nothing would be done at the FCC, and Free Press, the leftist group founded by Marxist Robert McChesney and financed by George Soros, was due to host a media call to demand FCC action. But that call was canceled without explanation and rescheduled for Monday, November 22, at which point Free Press was able to tout news to its membership that the FCC appeared prepared to act on the neutrality policy.
"We were told [last week] to hold our fire and reschedule our call," says a Free Press media aide, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. "We have friends inside the FCC and they told us that if we just waited a few days, there would be good news for us to announce to our membership. More senior people knew what was happening over there and even had the dates for the ruling circulation and the FCC meeting schedule so we could plan events to support Genachowski and the Democratic commissioners."
Speaking with outside public interest groups or industry officials is not forbidden at the FCC, though in the case of an issue like "net neutrality," FCC staff involved at any level with the decision making process are required to publicly file an ex parte notice about any discussions related to the policy issue they have with outside groups. To date, no ex parte filings have been filed related to any contact a senior FCC official might have had with senior officials at Free Press. A number of current FCC officials have ties to Free Press, including Jen Howard, currently spokesperson for Genachowski, who formerly was a spokesperson for Free Press.
In the past year, Free Press has been caught in several ethics missteps related to its claims of not lobbying Democrats on Capitol Hill or at the FCC. In one instance, the group was caught drafting letters to be published under the names of liberal Democrats addressed to the FCC and intended to influence that decision-making body. Republicans on Capitol Hill have already made it clear that oversight of the FCC will be a priority for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
As it stands, the FCC will release the planned rulemaking for net neutrality while Congress is out of town on Thanksgiving recess, and would vote on the rules on December 21, when Congress is on Christmas recess. "In short, they are doing this in such a way that it is rubbing our noses in it," says a Republican staffer on House Energy and Commerce. "Unless folks just rise up and make noise about this, there isn't much we can do until after the new year when we get back and have control of the committee."