Can Openness Win the Day for Net Neutrality?

Amidst all the reporting and opining about FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s Net Neutrality plan, it’s wise to remember that Monday’s speech only marks the start, not the end, of the latest battle over this hot-button issue. What’s really different this time around is that the push for net neutrality rules is coming from inside the FCC, which has a majority of votes on the side of net neutrality proponents. But as longtime Washington watchers know, an FCC regulation is often only the start of a legal tussle that almost always ends up for final jurisdiction in the courts or Congress.

As supporters and detractors start the inevitable process of publishing their own predictably tilted views on the matter, it’s worthwhile noting another huge difference in the dialogue this time around — namely, the FCC’s own ambitious publishing, blogging and open-information efforts. While the FCC under Republican chairmen like Michael Powell and Kevin Martin was always going to mimic the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy and the power of back-room dealing, the FCC in the Obama administration era is using openness, data and interaction as a method to further its own agenda, and it’s a powerful force that is only starting to pick up steam.

Until Monday, Genachowski hasn’t really offered much in the way of meaty policy statements, hiding behind platitudes that had already elicited criticism. But when you start offering concrete ideas like Monday’s new net neutrality regulations — and then launch a companion website to amplify, explain and actively promote such ideas — it becomes harder, if not impossible, for astroturf organizations to spew their twisted logic, because the opponent (in this case the FCC itself) has an open, honest platform to respond and challenge its foes.

The key for the FCC will be to not just launch new sites, blogs and other outreach efforts, but to keep building, updating and refreshing them, so they can be seen as a reliable, responsive representative for the agency’s official communications. It will be a refreshing twist to see if the FCC uses its Internet outlets to respond quickly to criticisms or issues that arise, perhaps in the manner that Google has done so effectively at its public policy blog.

Even though it is a powerful government agency with the backing of the highest office in the land, the FCC under Genachowski is still a relative rookie in the league when matched against the experience and resources available to the lobbying teams at Verizon and AT&T. Or maybe a better way to look at it is to say the FCC is an expansion team, albeit one with some stellar free agents who are only now starting to learn how to play together. On the new team’s side is openness and transparency, features that can go a long way in attracting the kind of fan base that matters. Should be an interesting season of political football, to say the least.

UPDATE: Our good friend Maggie Reardon at C/Net has a great roundup of the day’s news, including the expected (and quick) rebuttals from AT&T and Verizon.

Need some background on the Net Neutrality issue? Download our free report, titled Net Neutrality Phase II: The Battle of 2009, from our website.

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