The classic smoke-filled room, hold the smoke

[Blogmeister’s Note: Don Evans, Editor-in-Chief of FHH Telecom Law, our newsletter about developments in the world of non-broadcast FCC regulation, has some thoughts of his own that he would like to share.]

I have no doubt that the meetings held at the FCC last week regarding the proper framework for regulation of the Internet were well-intentioned.   As has been widely reported, FCC Chief of Staff Ed Lazarus hosted a meeting at the FCC offices including AT&T, Verizon, Google, Skype, the Cable TV trade association, and the Open Internet Coalition to talk about Net Neutrality, among other things. When public interest groups and others objected that the FCC was brokering backroom deals with the power players while excluding everybody else, the FCC explained that it was “just trying to see if there is any common ground” among the disputing parties.   Fair enough.

But hold on just a second.

Wasn’t it the Obama administration in general – and FCC Chairman Genachowski’s administration in particular – that arrived on the scene with a much ballyhooed promise of “transparency” in government decision-making?   Gone would be the bad old days of a few corporate giants sitting around with policy-makers in smoke-filled rooms deciding the fate of the rest of the industry and, for that matter, of the general public, whose representatives were offered no seat at the table.   Some tentative steps in that direction were taken, including announcing the expected agenda items at upcoming meetings far enough in advance to permit everyone to have a last word with the Commission before the cone of silence imposed by the Sunshine Act descends. A new spirit of openness seemed to be stirring over the waters of FCC policy-making.

Perhaps that is why the recent backdoor maneuvering seems like such a betrayal.   To be sure, the GSA’s “no smoking” policy ensured that industry titans would have to leave their Macanudos and Cohibas smoldering outside in their idling limos while they met with “senior FCC officials”. And these days mineral water and acai juice are more likely to be on the beverage bar than rye and sour mash. So a lot of the fun, not to mention the smoke, has been drained from smoke-filled rooms.

But the essence of a smoke-filled room – the private, closed door, invitation-only, giant corporation-only session with high ranking policy-makers – certainly remains. The conception that something as important as Net Neutrality (with huge implications for the privacy of the American people), the development and growth of the Internet, and the expansion of broadband access could be hashed out by a few corporations over corned beef sandwiches with no involvement whatsoever from the rest of the world is appalling. It is everything that the Obama administration claimed to reject about politics-as-usual.

The FCC needs to do some damage control – and fast – to reassure people that in its quest to deliver universal broadband to strengthen our economy and democracy, it is not trampling on the very principles that it seeks to further.   An open decision-making process cannot take short cuts and can thrive only in the full light of day.