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Net neutrality’s phony opposition

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Last month, when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski won approval of his “net neutrality” rules on a party-line 3-2 vote — supposedly to protect the free-wheeling Internet from corporate predators intent on running it their way — it got slammed from all sides.

Republicans, including FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, blasted the rules as Democratic overreach.

Democrats, including Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, called the rules woefully inadequate to protect the public from Internet service providers giving stripped-down performance to the masses and premium broadband to the wealthy.

Franken’s response is what the Pew Charitable Trusts calls “raging incrementalism”: Get what you can now and scream loud enough to come back and get more later.

John Fund of the Wall Street Journal called net neutrality “a non-problem” pumped up by left-leaning foundations (including Chicago’s MacArthur Foundation) and way-left activists (including the radical Free Press) pushing for government regulation of the Internet — to the detriment of innovation and investment.

Oddly, the only ones not screaming were the big ISP telecommunications companies, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon — because they negotiated a compromise with Genachowski.

But Fund had a point: The noisy campaign pushing net neutrality was a manufactured constituency — a few leading groups orchestrating many followers into concerted action to give the illusion of a mass movement.

Funding a few zealots is easy. Getting followers is hard — even big for-profit companies like Expedia and Hotels.com spend millions getting followers.

So, who manufactured the constituency for net neutrality? And who mobilized it?

Turn the calendar back to Feb. 10, 2007. Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential announcement speech said of the digital age: “Let’s lay down broadband lines through the heart of innercities and rural towns all across America.” He was making the Internet a vital part of his campaign, and his equal-access mantra recruited an early net neutrality constituency.

Now jump to June 21, 2007: John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, released a report co-authored by Free Press that complained about conservative radio talk shows outnumbering progressive radio talk shows. Free Press got all the attention for demanding the FCC make them equal, but the report helped one of CAP’s co-authors, senior fellow Mark Lloyd, into a job as Obama’s FCC Diversity Czar.

Now zip forward to November, 2007: Julius Genachowski released the report of Obama’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Policy Working Group, which he had been leading for months. It showed him using the Internet as an Obama constituency manufacturer and mobilizer. His report bragged: “More than 280,000 people have created accounts on barackobama.com. These users have organically created over 6,500 grassroots volunteer groups and have organized more than 13,000 off-line events using the site.”

When Obama won on Election Day in 2008, the constituency list had grown enormously, and they didn’t throw it away. John Podesta, co-leader of the Obama transition team, might want it to help fill positions in the new administration. Same with Julius Genachowski, enlisting brain power for the transition’s Technology, Innovation and Government Reform Group.

After Inauguration Day, both men knew what was in the constituency list and both had the expertise to mobilize it. Podesta went back to running CAP and Genachowski became chairman of the FCC — where he created a new position for Podesta’s colleague.

It’s only a guess, but when they were ready to mobilize the foundations and activists into a phony net neutrality mass movement, it probably didn’t take more than a few phone calls.

By the way, Julius Genachowski isn’t just Barack Obama’s old law school buddy. He’s a digital multimillionaire who once served on the Board of Directors of Expedia, Hotels.com and Ticketmaster.

Examiner contributor Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.