The K Street Shuffle

Today’s story is about the old shell game, or how the needs of democracy are thwarted. While Washington concerns itself with trivialities, we respond with cynicism, and K Street lobbyists use that cynicism to settle important questions behind our back.

Do you have your milk and cookies? Good, let’s begin.

I can’t imagine a more important question for America’s Internet users than the shape of our nation’s telecommunications policy. Politicians and lobbyists have been talking competition for years, but in the real world we still face one Bell monopoly, one cable monopoly and (soon) two long distance outfits (AT&T and MCI).

Who is making the rules for the next millennium? Click here to see their names – it’s the lobbyists representing the “competitors.”

What Internet issues are our solons jabbering about while industry lobbyists make policy? George W. Bush’s new web site, a silly hack of its home page, and (most insanely) whether anyone with a political web page should have to register with the Federal Elections Commission, First Amendment be damned.

You may be wondering by now what the new policy will be. Brock Meeks (who thankfully has not been asleep at his desk) reports that access charges long distance outfits now pay local Bells will be cut slowly, replaced by a monthly surcharge on each line to subsidize service in poor neighborhoods and rural areas. The long distance subsidy of local service goes away, so the question of whether your modem’s call to an ISP is local or long distance becomes moot.

Since all this is being done gradually, the Bells have plenty of time to improve their lines and share a monopoly on residential broadband with AT&T, which is no longer being pressed to open its cable lines to Internet competition.

FCC chairman William Kennard, whose policies are being made by phone industry lobbyists, can then bluster all he wants about how phone outfits must open up their networks right now or be subject to regulation.

Is Mr. Kennard’s threat something they should worry about? About 110 years ago, a white Atlanta newspaper writer named Joel Chandler Harris did a re-telling of traditional black folk tales under the title of the “Uncle Remus Stories,” which provides an answer.

(If you didn’t click the link above, let me summarize the story. You’ll remember that Brer Fox, played in this case by Mr. Kennard, had finally caught Brer Rabbit, played by the Bell lobbyist, and was preparing to eat him all up. Brer Rabbit begged and begged Brer Fox, “please don’t throw me into that brier patch” (regulation) for its thorns would kill me.” Finally, in a fit of anger, Brer Fox did just that, which is how Brer Rabbit got away, because that’s where he’s safest and happiest.)

Now here’s what makes it all so delicious. Politicians wouldn’t want you listening to the story I just told (or catching its lesson), because “Uncle Remus” is now considered offensive to blacks. I could reference Virginia Hamilton’s wonderful “The People Could Fly,” but then you’d miss the controversy, which is the point.

While you were watching the controversy, the lobbyists were making your laws for you. And while the lobbyists were making your laws for you, their minions were fighting those laws on the ground.

And if this angers you, guess where you go for redress? That’s right kids, back to Washington!

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