No neutrality in study funded by Microsoft, Google

President Barack Obama’s Federal Communications Commission ordered a taxpayer-funded “independent” study of broadband policy from an institution funded by Microsoft and Google. These two companies have lobbied for and stand to profit from the policies advanced by the study and by the White House.

Obama’s FCC announced in July that it had chosen Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to “conduct an independent, expert review of existing literature and studies about broadband deployment and usage throughout the world.” The study, led by professor Yochai Benkler, has provided fodder for advocates of net neutrality regulations, such as the Obama administration.

Unreported so far is the fact that on the center’s Web page naming donors is a section called “Support for Current Activities,” thanking corporate and foundation donors. The list includes Google and Microsoft.

Both companies fear that the owners of the networks — companies such as AT&T and Comcast — may start charging more to those buying or sending premium content (such as high-definition streaming video) through the wires. Net neutrality regulations would function as price controls — government protection against cost increases for content providers.

So Google and Microsoft want net neutrality — the principle that network owners must treat all data equally in all respects — codified into law. They fund the Berkman Center at Harvard. Obama’s FCC tapped the Berkman Center to study global broadband policies and markets.

Tech writer Bret Swanson read the study and reported, “The real purpose of the report is to make a single point: Foreign ‘open access’ broadband regulation, good; American broadband competition, bad.”

In other words, the Google- and Microsoft-funded center “independently” reported back to the Obama administration findings that support the view Obama, Google and Microsoft have been touting all along: Government should regulate the Internet as if it’s a public utility.

Washington, D.C., Beltway consultants for AT&T, which would suffer under net neutrality, are objecting that the report’s lead author, Benkler, clearly entered his “independent study” with conclusions already in mind.

In the past, Benkler has made clear his vision for the Internet. In a white paper for New York University’s Brennan School of Justice, he called for “a core communications infrastructure that no one owns and that no one can control,” which would require “a core common infrastructure equivalent to our public highway system — nonproprietary and equally open to all.”

Benkler also assailed the “deeply entrenched belief that markets based on strong property rights are the sole approach to attaining social productivity.”

In short, Benkler is deeply skeptical of the notion of private property and he firmly advocates socializing the wires and radio spectrum on which the Internet is conveyed. He’s also funded by Google and Microsoft, who stand to profit from the policies his conclusions promote.

The Berkman Center’s Web site proclaims commitment to “autonomy in our research and transparency in our relationships,” and explicitly states that it will reject contributions that have strings attached. There’s certainly not enough evidence to suggest a quid pro quo, but that the White House would tap an industry-funded institution to produce a taxpayer-funded “independent” report certainly deserves mention.

The Berkman Center’s patrons also are very close with Obama. Microsoft, for instance, was Obama’s No. 4 source of funds in the 2008 election. Obama’s $834,000 from employees and executives at the software giant was more than 10 times McCain’s Microsoft fundraising.

If you add together Microsoft’s donations to every single Republican running in 2008 for president, House or Senate, the total is still less than Obama’s Microsoft haul.

But the Obama-Google bond is much tighter.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt went on the campaign trail for Obama, and, according to Fortune magazine, “served as an informal economic adviser during the campaign.” Four Google executives chipped in a combined $100,000 for Obama’s inauguration.
In February, as Obama was building support for the stimulus, he brought Schmidt and other tech CEOs to the West Wing to hear their ideas and gain their backing.

For those frustrated with corporate influence and the politicization of science in the Bush administration, Obama at least represents change: It’s a new batch of CEOs with their hands in policymaking.

Timothy P. Carney is The Washington Examiner’s lobbying editor.

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