Sometimes the conventional wisdom gets it right. After much speculation, it now seems increasingly likely that Obama’s Harvard Law classmate Julius Genachowski will be nominated to take over as FCC Chair.
From my perspective, this looks like very good news. Genachowski is no stranger either to the FCC or to the private sector, a distinct advantage given the twin difficulties of managing the agency and dealing with all manner of incumbent dog-and-pony shows. Heck, Genachowski is no stranger to the DTV transition, having been involved in the initial standard setting work back in the day. Genachowski’s close relationship with Obama, heavy involvement in the Obama campaign from the beginning, and general tech background provide fairly strong early assurance that — contrary to the hopes of some and fears of others — Obama does not appear to be backing away from his campaign commitment to open networks and media diversity.
All that said, let nobody think the fun is over and we all get to go home. Now more than ever, progressives need to build on our movement momentum and press our case open networks, real spectrum reform, a more diverse media, adequate consumer protection, and regulation that creates real competition by opening bottleneck facilities and limit market power. We have an opportunity, not a victory, and we must act to seize it.
More below . . . .
As I say, I am quite happy with the prospect of Jules Genachowski taking over the FCC. That said, consider for a moment the challenges that any incoming FCC chair will face in trying to create and act on an agenda that advances the interest of open networks, enhancing diversity in the media, and promoting competition.
As most pundits have observed, the transition to digital television will absorb a great deal of attention for whoever runs the agency over the next several months. Also expect the question of FCC reform to occupy a good deal of attention. This has become a hot topic, and we can expect that Genachowski no doubt formed his own ideas during his earlier tenure at the FCC on what he would like to see changed. Between these two major issues, as well as pending major litigation on both media ownership and network neutrality, we should not expect major rulemaking initiatives out of the FCC in the first few months.
Further, the overall composition of the will remain murky for some time even if Obama nominates Genachowski and he is confirmed on January 20. As I noted earlier, it remains to be seen whether Obama will renominate Adelstein and whether Martin will resign from the Commission after Obama is sworn in. As every Chairman discovers, it takes three votes to get anything done, and even members of the same political party with the same overall philosophy and concerns can have substantive disagreements that require negotiation and discussion. Given that FCC may change nearly half of its membership over the next few months, this process of discussion, deliberation, and negotiation will no doubt begin slower than many of us might like.
Most importantly, it is the duty of every FCC Commissioner to listen to everyone. Genachowski is not being installed as FCC Chairman for the purpose of representing the interests of the tech industry or to crush the incumbents. While I certainly hope and expect that Genachowski’s background and experience will shape his agenda, I equally expect that I and others in the progressive movement will continue to need to prove our case as vigorously and as thoroughly as we ever have. We do not have here a champion to relieve us of our burden, but a (hopefully) receptive decision maker familiar with the issues and willing to give us the opportunity to make our case. But it is we who must make the case, and rebut the arguments and respond to the evidence that the incumbents will present in support of their policies.
As I continue to preach, the creation and advancement of a progressive policy agenda does not end with getting the right people in office. The policy process can only produce positive results if citizens remain engaged at every step. More than ever, we must press out advantage by building the strongest possible legal, economic and technical case for network neutrality and media diversity with both lawmakers and with the public. Further, we must continue to remind the FCC and lawmakers that real people actually care about this stuff. For this to work, we must be a movement — capable of persuading members of Congress and folks at the FCC that they need to pay attention because a heck of a lot of people are watching and plan to hold them accountable if they start rolling over for the usual suspects.
If we fail to do our part, I don’t want to hear any bitching about how we got sold down the river to incumbents because the FCC is all corrupt blah blah blah. We have a singular moment when the dergulatory mantra of the worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace has failed visibly and dismally at every level. We have what is shaping up to be the most tech-savvy FCC ever, with a commitment by every member of the majority to the principles of open networks, media diversity, and real competition. If we squander this opportunity by failing to engage and fight for our agenda as diligently and as vigorously as we did during the Bush years, then we will deserve whatever policy we get.
Stay tuned . . . .