Holiday Party: Ogling the Oligarchs

Eyeballing the FCC boss gives one observer a look at the new owners of the Internet

You get some interesting jobs in D.C. around the holidays. Politicians using the season of giving to squeeze a little more giving out of a special interest or two, or playing Santa-and-his-elves with the wrong elves.

The ones who have to win an election are a little discreet, at least. Most of the dirty work happens much more out in the open, disguised as casual social meetings. Capitol hill staffers making a few extra bucks by casually introducing the Congressman to that lobbyist whose name no one wants on the visitor's record book.

Political, sexual and financial favors being paid back with more introductions and standup meetings by the hors d'œuvres where lists of possible winners of rich contracts are shortened from many names to just one, closed-door meetings behind someone else's doors, where recording devices and visitor records and the rules thick around normal "official business" are a little thinner.

This one wasn't too bad. Crash an FCC party and eyeball the boss -- Julian Genachowski -- to see which of the various constituencies that had contributed "ideas" to the net neutrality policy the agency just put out looked like they might be better friends of Julian's than was really appropriate.

I can always tell who's causing trouble for someone else and what the hot-potato issues are going to be for the next year by who someone pays me to watch at semi-public but exclusive holiday parties.

Sometimes I can land an invite, or merge with a Congressional entourage and let the tracings of power sweep me through the barriers.

Some are a little tougher. My client got an invite to the FCC holiday party for staff drones and "special friends" of the agency, but I didn't like the idea of using his or a cheap copy.

Little bar codes on the back meant the rent-a-cop, Secret-Service wannabes on the door would be scanning the invites and checking IDs against whatever privacy raping piles of personal data they'd been compiling into profiles.

I was pretty sure there was a thick profile on me in that database; I didn't relish the idea of helping them put a face or name on it.

Clients who are important enough for an invite are important enough for a permanent visitor pass.

I borrowed the client's pass -- a mag card much stupider than I'd expected from FCC. I cloned the important parts, filled in the rest with an identity that looked important but didn't exist and burned the new "me" onto a dummy card.

Got me through the gate like a MetroCard on a Brooklyn subway.

It took a while to navigate to the party floor through acres and acres of cube farm filled with busy ants sending Republicans detailed defenses of why FCC should be able to regulate the Internet, apologies to Democrats on why it had not yet over-regulated it, explanations to Internet companies on why regulation was going to benefit almost no one on the Internet, including them, and details on what Network Neutrality means and how to avoid it.

The earnestness of the whole thing made me nauseous.

Just as well. I snagged a "security" nametag its own had left sticking in a wall outside his cubicle, which kept me from raising any suspicions entering the party through the staff door. Thirty minutes into the party, the hors d'œuvres table was already almost bare.

The floor was thick with knots of people -- hundreds of tiny cliques of professional wonks

dressed in khakis, monotones and quiet desperation -- stood and noshed, or danced tipsily, while the real players moved like predators looking for their next meal.

I'd seen it at a million D.C. parties.

What I hadn't seen before was what looked like a competitive migration -- heading in my direction.

In the lead was Genachowski, the FCC's chairman and former venture-capital whiz-kid and champion of high-tech startups and, lately, hero to overpaid telecom CEOs everywhere.

Blue-suit, red tied and wingtipped to the gills, he and a pair of aids walked briskly toward my left, from the direction of the dance floor.

In Genachowski's wake were half a dozen oversized capitalists, balding and rotund, in expensive suits, large shoes and a big gap between their fingers where an Cuban smokable should have gone. They looked like an anarchist's caricature of a fatcat circa 1913.

Genachowski was heading toward the open double-doors of the Janus conference room, directly to my left, clearly bringing the fat cats with them. As they got closer I recognized a couple of them as execs for the big carriers -- the ones who stand to win big from net "neutrality" policies that the people who own the pipes pretty much decide what's allowed to go through them, how fast and at what cost.

Moving to cut them off were a group of three dudes whose over-casual outfits draped in that peculiar way only an $800 polo shirt or $1,200 set of golf slacks can. Tech dudes.

They were aiming for the door of the Janus conference room, but didn't have a chance of getting there before Genachowski and the carriers slammed the door. They kept expecting people to move out of the way when it was obviously the polite thing to do, and getting skunked by East Coasters who don't like to be told what's right or moved out of a comfortable place just because it was the right thing to do.

Without ever meaning to, the crowd kept the tech dudes back.

On the other flank a hippie horde was charging, climbing over anyone in the way, righteously haranguing anyone who slowed them down and only stopping to stall off the munchies by eating the tiny snack plates of anyone they overran who had not polished off their bit of buffet.

Open-source, privacy protecting, tech-savvy anarchists. Even if they caught the fat-cat train, they didn't have a chance.

Good reasons are never enough of a defense against good money.

There was only one thing between Genachowski and what was obviously to be an ultraprivate conference with his very special friends from the carriers and telecom industries: civilians.

Accidentally standing in front of the conference room toward which Genachowski was plowing was a middle-aged couple wearing visitor badges and dress clothes that made them look like the kind who could afford to drive a Saab or Volvo, but not one built this decade but wouldn't consider driving anything flashier.

If they were Republicans they'd drive an SUV; if they were Democrats they'd drive a Prius. I couldn't tell from the way they dressed; it was too cold for Birkenstocks and too the dress code was too casual for a Brooks Brothers suit.

They could have been anyone, and probably were.

"Mr. Chairman," the woman of the couple said as the fat-cat power train bore down on them. "Do you have a second? I wanted to put in a word about the net neutrality ruling?"

"Sorry," Genachowski let his right arm hang, but raised one hand to expose the palm, fending off the couple without actually making the rejection obvious to anyone else. "I'm afraid I'm late for a.."

"Just a word, Mr. Chairman," the guy of the couple said. "It just seems this plan leaves out consumers that... "

"Thanks for looking out for the constituency," Genachowski said, blowing past them without an giving either an opportunity to shake hands. "We're here to protect ordinary Americans."

The fat cats shoved in through the double doors behind the Chairman, into an empty room with a single table, filled with opened bottles of wine and platters of pork entrees that looked a lot more substantial than the snacks being served in the semi-elite room they'd just left.

"Private meeting," the slowest fat cat panted, blocking the middle of the doorway with his body, reaching with both hands to close the double doors.

"But we just wanted..." the woman sputtered.

"Yes," the fat cat purred. "So did we."

The door closed and snicked loudly as the cat locked it for good measure.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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