By Kevin Bogardus and Kim Hart - 11/12/09 01:09 AM EST
Lobbyists and corporate executives are targeting the newest members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the high-stakes fight over regulating the Internet.
Meredith Attwell Baker, the newest Republican commissioner, or her aides have held at least seven meetings with officials representing both sides of the debate since the FCC voted three weeks ago to move forward with a rulemaking effort on network neutrality, according to a review of close to 100 records at the FCC.
Meetings with those two commissioners on net neutrality make up more than half of 18 held at the FCC on the issue since the rulemaking was announced on Oct. 22.
Clyburn has also been the target of a grassroots lobbying blitz to sway her vote. Hundreds of letters from minority groups and organizations with ties to her home state of South Carolina have been filed with the FCC.
Tech companies that develop online applications, such as Skype, Google and Amazon.com, back net neutrality rules. They worry that in the absence of government regulation, Internet providers will block websites, services and applications that compete with their own offerings. The FCC’s proposed rules would prohibit Internet providers from giving preferential treatment to certain types of Web traffic.
But the telecom industry — AT&T, Verizon and Comcast — is fighting hard against the rulemaking effort. These companies say they need to be able to manage traffic on their networks.
As a Republican, Baker is thought to oppose net neutrality rules. But she does not have much of a record on the issue, having just been sworn in to the FCC in July. She and fellow Republican commissioner Robert McDowell joined the commission’s three Democrats to vote to advance the rulemaking effort at the Oct. 22 FCC meeting. But both Baker and McDowell warned against intrusive government intervention.
The thinking on K Street is that Baker’s views on net neutrality may not be set. Lobbyists and corporate executives have sought out Baker before the FCC votes on a final rule sometime next year.
“They are trying to get in there and remind her where she comes from to shore up her vote for the anti-net neutrality camp,” said one lobbyist working on the issue.
Ben Verwaayen, the CEO of Alcatel-Lucent, has met with several commissioners, including Baker. They discussed whether the new net neutrality rule would “inhibit or promote” broadband networks, according to FCC records. Alcatel-Lucent manufactures many of the physical components used in the Internet. It opposes the network neutrality rulemaking.
Free Press, a media advocacy group that is in favor of net neutrality, met with Charles Mathias, FCC legal adviser to Baker, last week.
Clyburn or her aides have met with representatives for Pac-West Telecomm and Myxer, a company that makes ringtones for cell phones.
Clyburn is considered by some lobbyists to be a wildcard on the final net neutrality vote. Like Baker, Clyburn just joined the commission this summer, so her record on the issue is scant. And her powerful father, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), is perceived as being close to telecom companies that oppose the rules.
Nonetheless, the lobbyist felt the administration would have made certain that Clyburn would support enforcing net neutrality while at the FCC, considering it is a high-level priority for President Barack Obama.
“I can’t imagine that conversation didn’t occur before her nomination took place,” the lobbyist said.
Although Baker and Clyburn have hinted their positions will fall along party lines, companies and lobbyists are still hoping to sway them.
“It would be very foolish, and unfair, to write either new commissioner off,” said Maura Corbett, partner with public-relations firm Qorvis, which does work on the net neutrality issue. “They are both seasoned, practical policymakers who work with a chairman clearly determined to run a commission that makes sound policy decisions based on good data.”
The new FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, has been the primary driver behind the rulemaking process for net neutrality, which is designed to prevent discriminatory practices by Internet providers that may limit Web traffic to online applications or websites.
Genachowski was the author of Obama’s tech policy during his campaign. The policy won plaudits from Silicon Valley for its strong support of net neutrality. An Internet start-up entrepreneur before he joined the FCC, the new chairman was also a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama’s.
Genachowski and Democratic commissioner Michael Copps have repeatedly voiced their support for net neutrality. Clyburn has also indicated her initial backing by voting for the rulemaking process to move forward. In order to build a majority to oppose the rule, lobbyists for telecom companies will have to shore up GOP backing on the commission and then secure a Democratic vote.
Baker also supported moving forward on the net neutrality rule in the 5-0 commission vote last month. But Baker expressed skepticism in a joint statement with McDowell released after a Genachowski speech announcing the rulemaking in September.
“We do not believe that the commission should adopt regulations based merely on anecdotes, or in an effort to alleviate the political pressures of the day, if the facts do not clearly demonstrate that a problem needs to be remedied,” Baker and McDowell said.
Since the rulemaking was announced last month, a wide range of interests have weighed in with the FCC.
Letters from several local business organizations, such as the Stamford, Conn., Chamber of Commerce, the Central California Hispanic Chamber of
The Open Internet Coalition, an alliance of think tanks and companies like Google that favor net neutrality, has met with commissioners to urge support for the net neutrality rule.
Wireless firms do not want net neutrality rules to apply to them. In separate PowerPoint presentations before Baker and Clyburn, CTIA-The Wireless Association asks that the commissioners “recognize that wireless is different.” Association lobbyists warned that a net neutrality rule that encompasses their member companies could have “significant unintended consequences.”