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The Fate of the Internet. Decided in a Back Room

The Wall Street Journal just reported that the Federal Communications Commission is holding "closed-door meetings" with industry to broker a deal on Net Neutrality – the rule that keeps control over the Internet with the people who use it.

Given that the corporations at the table all profit from gaining control over information, the outcome won't be pretty.

The meetings include a small group of industry lobbyists representing the likes of AT&T, Verizon, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and Google. They reportedly met for two-and-a-half hours on Monday morning and will convene another meeting today. The goal according to insiders is to "reach consensus" on rules of the road for the Internet.

This is what a failed democracy looks like: After years of avid public support for Net Neutrality – involving millions of people from across the political spectrum – the federal regulator quietly huddles with industry lobbyists to eliminate basic protections and serve Wall Street’s bottom line.

We’ve seen government cater to big business in the same ways, prior to the BP oil disaster and the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. The Industry's regulatory capture of the Internet is now almost complete. The leadership of the one agency tasked with oversight of communications policy now thinks they can wriggle free of their obligation to protect the open Internet if only industry agrees on a solution.

Congress is holding its own series of meetings and, while they’ve been ambiguous on the details, many remain skeptical on whether the process will lead to an outcome that serves the public interest. After all, this is the same Congress that is bankrolled by the phone and cable lobby in excess of $100 million.

Why is this so startling even for the more cynical among us? The Obama administration promised to embrace a new era of government transparency. It’s the tool we were supposed to use to pry open policy-making and expose it to the light of public scrutiny.

In that spirit, President Obama pledged to "take a backseat to no one" in his support for Net Neutrality. He appointed Julius Genachowski to head the FCC -- the man who crafted his pro-Net Neutrality platform in 2008.

But the mere existence of these private meetings reveals to us a chairman who has fallen far short of expectations. Instead Genachowski is shying from the need to fortify the Internet’s open architecture in favor of deals made between DC power brokers.

These deals will determine who ultimately controls Internet content and innovation. Will phone and cable companies succeed in their decade-long push to take ownership of both the infrastructure of the Internet and the information that flows across its pipes? Will they cut in a few giant companies like Google and the recording industry to get their way?

Whatever the outcome, the public – including the tens of millions of Americans who use the Internet every day and in every way – are not being given a seat at the table.

Genachowski’s closed-door sessions come after six months of public comments on whether the agency should proceed with a rule to protect Net Neutrality.

During that period, more than 85 percent of comments received by the agency called for a strong Net Neutrality rule. Look at it this way: If a candidate received more than 85 percent of the vote, wouldn’t she have a mandate to decide on the public’s behalf?

In Chairman Genachowski’s alternative view of reality, though, the public is immaterial, and industry consensus supreme.

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