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Net neutrality and corporate power: the mixed legacy of the FCC's outgoing chief

Net neutrality and corporate power: the mixed legacy of the FCC's outgoing chief


Julius Genachowski led the FCC to crucial victories, but left many problems untouched

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FCC Julius Genachowski Vox Media
FCC Julius Genachowski Vox Media

It's hard to root for the FCC. Even by the standards of government agencies, it's slow, bureaucratic, and frequently pro-corporate. Its cousin agency, the FTC, will occasionally take on corporate greed or rail against privacy violations — but the FCC's job seems to consist of giving large companies what they want, and arbitrating disputes between them. In an industry full of dynamic personalities and radical change, it's a slow-moving, passive blob.

"All they had to do was rattle his cage and they would probably get what they wanted."

By the same token, there are plenty of things to dislike about Julius Genachowski's FCC tenure, and after his resignation this morning, we’ve heard a lot of them. Already, the public interest group Public Knowledge group described his term as "one of missed opportunities." Looking at the last four years, they see a consolidation of corporate power. In Captive Audience, her book on the sector, Susan Crawford says the wireless carriers considered Genachowski "thin-skinned, someone who could not abide the politics of personal destruction that prevail in the telecommunications and media sector. [...] All they had to do was rattle his cage and they would probably get what they wanted." In other words, a pushover. Looking at the Commission's record — particularly its relative powerlessness during the Comcast-NBC Universal merger — it's hard to disagree. Genachowski did block AT&T’s bid to take over T-Mobile with an assist from the Justice Department, scoring a major victory against the threat of a wireless duopoly (he later helped out T-Mobile by green-lighting its merger with MetroPCS). But after the Comcast-NBC merger, that can begin to look like the exception to the rule.

He represented a forward-thinking view of the web

Still, it's hard to believe the next FCC head will be better, or even different. Politico dangles a few names, with former NCTA and CTIA head Tom Wheeler tagged as the leading candidate; last November, the Washington Post had its own slate, but none of them would change the basic political math. The FCC is penned in for structural reasons: the Commission has been uniquely prone to regulatory capture because of its commerce-enabling mission, under constant threat of overhaul from the Republican Congress, and always wary of exposing the president to charges of anti-business sentiment.

But in spite of the spectacular pressures at work on the FCC, Genachowski managed to accomplish a great deal. It wasn’t the corporate overhaul many reformers had in mind, but time after time, he managed to represent a forward-thinking view of the web, working to enable emergent tech, often at the expense of powerful legacy industries. As his term ends, we're left with a consumer-facing FCC that advocates for citizens interests, a subtle but important shift in the way the agency goes about its business.

These aren't satisfying victories, but they're important ones

The most important of the FCC’s victories under Genachowski is net neutrality. Like everything else in government, this was a compromise. The FCC’s net neutrality rules omitted wireless service (leaving us with the awkward legacy of mobile data plans), but firmly rejected the dystopia of a locked-down corporate web. The rules have since been challenged countless times in courts and Congress, but they've survived, and any future efforts will be working from that status quo. Winning the fight for net neutrality was the reason Genachowski was appointed and, for the most part, he came through. When the plan was unveiled, neutrality guru Lawrence Lessig called it "perfect"; less than a year earlier, he'd been calling for the FCC to be abolished.

Genachowski did this invisible, thankless work better than most

Genachowski also reframed the debate on connectivity in a way that will have important and long-lasting effects. The current National Broadband Plan isn't perfect, but it represents a federal commitment to wiring rural areas for broadband, along the lines of electrification. The FCC could easily have ignored national broadband; instead it became Genachowski’s policy centerpiece, hammered home with virtually every one of the boilerplate speeches he delivered during his term. His plan to expand the Wi-Fi spectrum is another smart and politically difficult move, choosing emergent tech over legacy broadcast interests. Without FCC action, broadcasters would have held onto their share of spectrum indefinitely, but Genachowski was able to step in. It’s not perfect — the spectrum auction is still a mess, and it continues to be a drag on innovation in wireless tech — but where there was a chance to make things better, Genachowski did. For all his faults, he understood how important wireless tech was for the new generation of mobile devices, and how the FCC could help that technology along. And in a few years’ time, we’ll have a new chunk of Wi-Fi spectrum because of it.

There are still enormous problems left overlooked

These aren't satisfying victories, but they're important ones, and they can only come from federal agencies like the FCC. It’s an organization that deals not with breakthroughs but with standards. National broadband can't come from an Elon Musk figure; it has to come through the slow slog of federal bureaucracy. And occasionally, it works. Genachowski did this invisible, thankless work better than most.

But for all of Genachowski's slow, plodding successes, there are enormous problems left completely overlooked: the TV industry is saddled with the weight of pre-internet regulations that make disruption impossible, the carriers have spent billions building incompatible LTE networks and restricting handset choices, and the media industry is growing ever more consolidated and vertically integrated than ever before — not to mention managing the death of the landline. His successor will have plenty to keep them busy.