September 2016 Archives

September 28, 2016 5:26 PM

Public Bully

Last week, the word going around town--and in the "Twittersphere"--was that Gene Kimmelman, the president of advocacy group Public Knowledge, was threatening that if FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel didn't "get in line" behind Chairman Wheeler's set-top box proposal that he would oppose her re-nomination for another term as an FCC Commissioner.  This article in Fortune supports the rumor with a quote from Kimmelman that "[w]e'll hold everyone accountable . . .  [for not supporting the Chairman's set-top box plan]."  If you're anything like me, you're probably asking, "who does this?"

Who Does This?

In communications circles, perhaps no group has been as successful at converting political capital into the old-fashioned kind as Public Knowledge.  After the group's previous president, Gigi Sohn, became a senior adviser to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Public Knowledge has carved out a lucrative niche for itself as a critical ally for commercial interests with regulatory goals, i.e., either seeking to escape scrutiny (e.g., Google), or to saddle their rivals with more regulation (e.g., Netflix and the CLECs).

Gene Kimmelman2.jpg

The group's current president, Gene Kimmelman, before taking over at Public Knowledge, was himself a political appointee for the first half of the Obama administration--as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice.  Kimmelman, as his Wikipedia page will tell you, "is a consumer protection advocate who specializes in competition law and United States antitrust law."

What Kimmelman's Wikipedia page won't tell you, though, is that he wields a lot more power than the average consumer protection lawyer, because he has been playing the "consumer friendly" face of one corporate interest, or another, for pretty much his whole career.  In fact, almost 25 years ago, the New York Times wrote about Kimmelman's talent for winning political battles by playing one set of corporate interests against the other.

The NY Times article notes that Kimmelman's first big political victory was against the cable companies--his current set-top box issue enemies--on behalf of the broadcast networks.  In fact, if you're a cable consumer, you're still paying for Kimmelman's first big victory--in the form of the retransmission fees that subscription TV providers (cable, phone, and satellite companies) pay local broadcasters to carry their stations.  These rates--and not the set-top box rates Kimmelman is attacking on behalf of current corporate client Google--have been primarily responsible for raising your cable bill over the last 2 ½ decades, and they're projected to continue to rise faster than other programming costs for the near future. 

Thus, given Public Knowledge's affiliations with powerful corporate interests--including Google (set-top boxes), Netflix (Internet peering), and CLECs/Sprint (special access/business data services--it isn't that surprising that PK's president would feel like he's got the power to bully an FCC Commissioner.  After all, it's probably a safe bet that Google has enough powerful friends in the White House, and in the Senate, to make Commissioner Rosenworcel's life a little difficult, to say the least.  But why do it so . . . publicly?

Why Be a Public Bully?

If you've got the political power, I can kind of see--in a TV bad guy sort of way--why you might try to deliver a political threat to an FCC Commissioner; assuming you thought your victim believed you had the power to deliver on the threat, and the issue was so important to you that you didn't mind looking like a cliché and a jerk at the same time.  But still, why tell the world?

It seems to me that, if you go public with your threat, you make it harder for your threat to work.  After all, the smaller the group of people that knows about your threat, the easier it is to give your target a "face-saving" way out.  

On the other hand, once you tell everyone--including those that have expressed concerns about your plan--that you'll "hold them accountable" if they  don't support you, then you not only make it harder for them to support you, but also anyone new to support you.  Who wants to be known as someone that got pushed around?

Likewise, it also makes it difficult for those that you want to carry out your threats if you put them in the public spotlight, because--they too--now end up looking like they were just "in your pocket."  A public threat makes everything "all about you" and not the issue that you wanted everyone to think was so important to you, Google/the White House, etc.  
Finally, when you go public, it's important that the politicians/public servants that you're threatening--up and down the line--know that you can deliver on your threat.  In other words, if you are the NAACP, AARP, or even a commercial group like a labor union or the NRA, politicians know that you control/influence voters and that's what makes them accountable.  Seems that Public Knowledge, despite having money and connections, might not really be representing millions of voting consumers--and that's a bluff that any inside-the-beltway interest group has to worry about being called.

Congratulations!  You Played Yourself

The expression, "you played yourself," coined by Ice-T in 1990 refers to a situation--frequently brought on by hubris--in which someone ends up frustrating their own ends.  Earlier this year, on the internets, it became a wildly popular meme, featuring DJ Khaled.  



It's always possible that Gene Kimmelman's public political threat really will make him more powerful than the public servants he threatens, or the politicians he is relying on to carry out these threats.  Then again, it's also possible that in delivering a cliché of a threat, he made a cliché of an error.