Genachowski concedes that he underestimated the demands of Washington politics. A devotee of strategy games and complex puzzles, Genachowski keeps a Rubik’s cube on the coffee table of his FCC office and a leather backgammon set tucked behind the couch. But the game of politics confounded him.
“I am a results-oriented person, so it’s natural to start thinking in terms of compromise,” Genachowski said. “In today’s Washington, compromise is the wrong frame, like a dirty word.”
That was evident in the political theater that erupted in the fall of 2009, when he set out to create controversial rules ensuring companies have equal access to the Internet, a concept called “Net neutrality.” The policy was intended to prevent Verizon, AT&T and Comcast from charging customers more to use rival services from Skype or Google’s YouTube.
Dozens of lawmakers blasted Genachowski as a heavy-handed regulator who risked killing thousands of telecom jobs just as the country was suffering through a recession. They called for hearings, wrote angry letters to newspapers and protested to the White House.
Verizon chief executive Ivan Seidenberg said in June 2010 that Genachowski’s Net neutrality proposal would “cause uncertainty in the marketplace, create disincentives for investment and make one of the true success stories of the American economy less competitive.”
Senior FCC staff asked Genachowski to proceed anyway, saying they had what card players would think of as a sure bet: They had a majority of votes on the five-member commission. And both chambers of Congress were led by Democrats.
Instead, Genachowski postponed voting on the proposal for many months and asked for more meetings with Web and telecom firms.
In the midst of negotiations, Genachowski faced a surprise court decision in spring 2010 that cast doubt on the agency’s ability to regulate broadband Internet providers at all.
Consumer groups and Web firms asked the FCC chief to reclassify Web companies as telecom carriers, to make it more clear that the agency had jurisdiction over Web services.
But members of Congress attacked the idea as harmful to the multibillion-dollar industry. Wall Street analysts decried the move as a market destroyer. The last thing the chairman wanted was a legacy as a job-killer, senior staff said.
Genachowski’s top legal advisers wrote up the reclassification plan. But after much pondering, he gave in to the pressure and scrapped it, according to former senior staff members.
In December 2010, Genachowski went ahead and issued compromise Net neutrality rules. Verizon and MetroPCS sued the agency to get them overturned. Consumer advocacy groups lamented that the rules meant nothing for wireless users.
And the question raised by the court decision about whether the FCC has jurisdiction over the Internet remains unresolved.
Genachowski “got much better in the second part of his term and got more done,” said Feld, of Public Knowledge. “But he’s left a hell of a lot of work for whoever comes next.”