FCC chairman announces resignation


Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, left, speaks during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on March 12. Genachowski announced his resignation from the FCC on March 22. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)
March 22, 2013

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced Friday that he plans to step down — even as his Wikipedia page has been spruced up.

The FCC has been working with a third party to redo Gena­chowski’s page, according to a senior official. Numerous entries were added that tout accomplishments such as his work with Mexico to prevent stolen cellphones from crossing the border. Other entries mentioned speeches in which the chairman asked cities to increase broadband Internet speeds.

But the entries do not disclose that the FCC was working with a third party, contrary to Wikipedia’s practice. The world’s largest online encyclopedia restricts editorial entries that could be a conflict of interest. The Federal Trade Commission has contributed widely to profiles of officials but discloses its involvement to readers.

“Providing information to a third party and having that third party edit on your behalf is generally frowned upon,” said Jay Walsh, a spokesman for Wikimedia, the nonprofit organization that operates Wikipedia. “A core principal of Wikipedia is to deliver a neutral point of view. That means no editing for profit and no editing with a conflict of interest.”

The FCC did not respond immediately to a request for comment by Genachowski.

A senior FCC official said the chairman’s office is looking into the matter and declined to comment on the record. The official agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity because information about the entries was still being gathered.

The official confirmed that staff at the FCC worked with a third party on the Wikipedia entries. The official would not confirm whether the FCC first reached out to the third party and declined to identify its partners for the Wikipedia entries. The official denied that the third party was paid.

Genachowski, a friend of President Obama, will be leaving the FCC after a mixed record that disappointed some of the consumer groups that were his earliest supporters while also developing a plan to bring more Americans access to broadband Internet.

Obama is expected to announce a successor soon. Tom Wheeler, a tech and telecom venture capitalist and fundraiser for Obama, is a leading contender.

The new chairman will inherit much unfinished business, including a massive plan to auction wireless airwaves and federal lawsuits that threaten the agency’s ability to regulate broadband Internet providers.

“I hope this will be a period that was clear the commission focused on broadband, extending high-speed Internet to everyone everywhere and unlocking the benefits of broadband for the economy and the American people,” Genachowski said in an interview.

In his four years at the FCC, the price of cable, wireless and broadband Internet has gone up for consumers, an increasing number of whom have come to rely on mobile devices as their main method of communication.

At the same time, the broadband Internet market has become much more concentrated, analysts have said, giving consumers fewer options for providers. The FCC tried to combat that by rejecting AT&T’s mega-merger with T-Mobile in late 2011.

But Genachowski also approved industry-shifting deals in his four years: Comcast’s titanic merger with NBC Universal and a controversial marketing agreement allowing cable firms and Verizon Wireless to cross-sell each other’s products.

The former media executive for IAC/Interactive Corp. will depart in a few weeks, he said during a news conference. And he will leave some projects in limbo, analysts say.

His complicated plan to auction a chunk of television broadcast airwaves to commercial wireless operators will be considered next year. But its success relies on whether broadcasters agree to sell their airwaves and join in the auction proceeds.

Genachowski was touted early in his tenure as a rare combination of savvy businessman and public advocate. But he struggled from the start with Internet access rules that have drawn lawsuits against the agency and may have undermined the FCC’s role as arbiter of Internet policies.

This summer, a federal court is expected to hear arguments from Verizon Wireless and Metro PCS against Genachowski’s net neutrality rules that dictate how Internet service providers operate their networks. The decision by the federal appeals court could be used as the framework for how the deep-pocketed telecom industry will fight other regulations of Internet services, legal experts say.

Consumer advocates say the chairman missed the opportunity to more forcefully declare its legal ability to regulate broadband Internet providers.

“When Julius Genachowski took office, there were high hopes that he would use his powerful position to promote the public interest,” said Craig Aaron, president of the consumer media reform group Free Press. The group has been particularly critical of Genachowski’s willingness to reform media ownership rules that they fear will allow a few media tycoons to sweep up more broadcast, newspaper and radio assets.

Aaron said that “instead of acting as the people’s champion, he’s catered to corporate interests.”

Genachowski promised to focus the agency on expanding Internet access and creating net neutrality rules that ensure that Silicon Valley Web firms are not shut down by wireless and cable firms with competing products. He had a “clear focus on innovation,” Obama said Friday in a statement.

A former counsel to the FCC during the Clinton administration, Genachowski worked with agency and Capitol Hill lawmakers to convert a multibillion-dollar federal phone subsidy to a program that gives grants for broadband Internet connections in hard-to-reach places.

Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and other telecom and broadcast media groups lauded Genachowski in statements Friday, saying the FCC successfully turned its focus to expanding broadband Internet during Genachowski’s tenure.

“Any chairman should be proud of these accomplishments, which are going to leave a lasting imprint on communications policy in the United States,” James Cicconi, executive vice president at AT&T, said in a statement.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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