On Internet Fight, Follow the Money to Keep the Scorecard

comcast-money-640x365Edinburgh     The problem of transactional versus transformational organizing is nowhere clearer than in the lines being drawn around the issues of net neutrality and the internet as a public utility between old line civil rights groups and reformers. Some are trying to make much of seeing groups like the NAACP, LULAC, PUSH, and old lions like Rev. Jesse Jackson trek into the offices of the FCC and its chair, Tom Wheeler, to ask the commission to let the companies do whatever they can to whomever they can to make their money.

It’s a sad and embarrassing commentary on the state of the institutional apparatus of reform. It is also a display of the real grease that smooths the engines of our movement rather than the direction we all know we need to travel on the highway.

Comcast, AT&T, Times-Warner and others have paid the pipers. For years they have underwritten conventions, conferences, partnerships, projects, ad books, awards, and scholarships for the old-line outfits. The big companies maintain relationship specialists with various names whose job description is in fact managing these relationships, providing the grease, pressing the flesh, solving little problems, and showing up at big events. This is soft power that tries to avoid the direct expression that a quid pro quo is involved; even when everyone involved realizes that there will come a time when the chits are called in. Most smoothly expressed, these big companies, and most others like banks for example, would maintain that at the most they are getting access and have the right rolodex to be able to present their best cases to the decision makers in these organizations.

I’m not saying that the organizations shouldn’t take the money. Times are hard for organizations. At the same time they have to be able to walk away and maintain their credibility or it’s all over. Look at the tragic farce that has become Andrew Young’s legacy from civil rights to politics and diplomacy, and now as corporate shill from Walmart to whoever makes the next contribution and pays the next plane fare. These are cautionary case studies. We saw this over and over when ACORN was in fights with the banks and other lenders for example. I’ve often told the story of the settlement with HSBC, where we insisted ACORN’s share for remediation had to be double the annual level of what they had paid an old line, Beltway civil rights organization to saddle up to defend them. In fact we saw it with Comcast when they refused to listen to our demands for outreach to our communities on internet access, and instead wanted to accuse us of a shakedown. They thought, and still think, it’s all transactional. In the arrogance of corporate power, many of these big whoops start to believe that everyone can be bought, even when they must know only some are really for sale.

There’s a reason that politicians and others are left scratching in the face of modern protests and turmoil around police brutality and racial discrimination. They don’t have anyone to call on their speed dials that has credibility on the streets and in communities. They are calling the old lions, but they are a long way from the action because in fact they are in the lobby waiting to come up the elevator for a chat now.

Reportedly Rev. Jackson argued to the FCC’s Wheeler that he needed to protect the big company’s monopolies so that they would make investments in minority communities. Given the tragedy of sorry access and utilization in our communities from these companies as well as the exorbitant pricing which creates the divide and maintains their millions, it is just a matter of time before everyone asks Rev. Jackson and others, “What investment?” And, that is a question to be feared, if the answer is only an investment in some this and that with these organizations, rather than in the communities that are so desperately demanding change.

Transactions are invariably temporary. Transformation is always permanent. When change is coming, and it is coming, it’s best to be on the right side of the line.

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Surprise! Comcast Doesn’t Own Obama

20110101_ldd001New Orleans    Well, another country heard from! President Obama seems to be shaking off the midterms by stepping up his game. He came out forcefully for “net neutrality.” That’s not really news, he’s always said that he was for net neutrality, but this time he finally came out foursquare for the internet being classified as a public utility. Furthermore, he was against the fast and slow lanes for the internet that has been proposed by big cable and internet companies to further monopolize their cash machine, while denying net neutrality. 

Of course all of this was the President joining the rest of us in heaving a rock at the windows of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Admittedly, four million people have now weighed in on this question of the FCC holding hearings and determining the future status of the internet, the vast majority arguing decidedly for net neutrality and for full utility classification like electricity, telephones, and the like, but still his rock has a lot of weight. Unfortunately, the FCC is more beholding to Congress than the President once they are appointed for both their budget and legal implementation, and more than just me are still scratching our heads at why he named a corporate communications lobbyist and trade association executive as chair of the FCC, so it’s not like they are jumping to attention at his call.

But, let’s celebrate the good news where we find it, even as we acknowledge that the struggle is still fierce. The stock market understood the message well enough and pulled down the stocks and value of Comcast and the like by 4% in the wake of the President’s remarks, because they get the fact that big, bad, bully Comcast is not going to be happy with even a compromise on this issue since they want it all, all of the time. Comcast likely overstepped again and over-estimated the buddy-buddy relationship they were claiming for their executive vice-president David Cohen with the President and thinking that his living room fundraisers with Obama allowed them to stake a quiet claim to his silence on this issue, which he has maintained over recent years. The President’s remarks made it clear they may have made some down payments, but they don’t own his farm.

No matter how many times Comcast and others want to claim that they need a monopoly machine to keep the tech wave rolling, their loud roar can’t seem to drown out the voices of Netflix and others saying, “nay!” Reports of a meeting between Vimeo, Kickstarter, and other internet upstart darlings begging the White House and Obama advisers to ride hard with the rest of us against the bullies and earlier meetings with Facebook, Google, and others, make it impossible for Comcast and the like to claim that they speak for Silicon Valley and innovation.

These days we have to be honest with ourselves. We’re never going to win this hands’ down. Whatever emerges will be a sloppy compromise with dreams dragging and lawyers rushing into court, but at least the Comcast con has been called, and more and more of our allies are stepping into the fight so we’re not going to get bulldozed.

Now if we could just get the same support in bridging the digital divide….

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