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Taking Sides on `Net Neutrality'

Ex-Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry draws fire from the left for his work for telecom giants.

June 05, 2006|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry is no stranger to well-aimed political attacks. After all, he held down the briefing room podium for Bill Clinton during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a task he compared to being a "human pinata."

He was called "a stonewalling administration mouthpiece" who "perfected a plethora of dodges" and "was a master at speaking with charm, wit, self-deprecation and ease -- yet saying nothing."

But even McCurry admitted surprise at the verbal shellacking he's received on the Internet lately. More shocking to McCurry is the end of the political spectrum doing most of the name calling: his traditionally supportive left.

It's all because of his latest job working for AT&T Inc., BellSouth Corp. and some other communications companies to shape public opinion on perhaps the most controversial aspect of telecom legislation moving through Congress.

"I've faced far worse in the past," McCurry said of the criticism. "Although the bad names I got called were from the other side."

McCurry is co-chairman of Hands Off the Internet, a group arguing against so-called Net neutrality rules -- federal regulations preventing phone and cable companies from charging extra to zip some high-bandwidth services through their wires faster than others.

The group is squarely in the middle of a brewing battle over the issue against big Internet companies, such as Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. With many congressional Democrats and liberal bloggers supporting Net neutrality, McCurry finds himself opposing his historical allies.

In a highly charged election year, McCurry has been branded a turncoat, a Democratic Jedi lost to the dark side at a time of looming crisis across the Internet.

The intense and personal flogging -- partly provoked by McCurry's sharp responses -- shows how contentious Net neutrality has become for some Internet users.

He's been called a "sellout" and "stooge," a purveyor of "dishonest hackery" and "classic flack misdirection," and an "industry sock puppet."

"I think people are reacting not just to the issue but to their disdain for a top-tier Democrat shilling in such an overt way for big-money interests," said David Sirota, a liberal political blogger and author of "Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government -- and How We Take It Back."

McCurry said the response to his new job demonstrated the "constant jihad" of 21st century politics and the ongoing struggle between the liberal and centrist wings of the Democratic Party.

"There are millions and millions of good Democrats who get paid by corporations," he said, "and I think every time we bash corporations, we just turn off people who are in the middle of the political spectrum."

McCurry is one of those Democrats.

After leaving the White House in 1998, McCurry became a partner at Public Strategies Group in Washington, developing communications strategies for corporate and nonprofit clients.

He signed on earlier this year with a coalition of telecommunications companies battling an effort by large Internet companies to get Congress to pass rules that would outlaw any preferential treatment of data over the Internet.

Some phone company executives want to charge extra to guarantee fast and reliable delivery of video and other data-heavy applications.

As word spread of McCurry's role, bloggers started ripping him.

Last month, McCurry ripped back.

"On Net neutrality, I feel like screaming 'puh-leeeze,' " he wrote on the Huffington Post, where he sometimes blogs. "The Internet is not a free public good. It is a bunch of wires and switches and connections and pipes and it is creaky."

He slammed his critics for "worshipping" Vint Cerf, a co-founder of the Internet and now a Google executive who has testified to Congress about the need for Net neutrality rules. McCurry said Cerf had "a clear financial interest in the outcome of this debate" -- and further inflamed his critics by misidentifying the Internet icon as "Vince Cerf."

McCurry ended by declaring he was not a "big bad lobbyist" working for a "big bad corporation."

"What a joke you think I am one of them," he wrote.

Net neutrality supporters were not amused.

"It was just snarky," said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based technology advocacy group. "Once you lose control like that, you become easy bait."

McCurry admitted he used sharper language than he did as White House press secretary but said he wanted to demonstrate he had real passion for his position and was not just a corporate mouthpiece.

"When it's your own fanny out there on the line," McCurry said, "you get a little more sensitive."

With no major problems of Internet discrimination yet, the government should stay out, he said. It's a classic, centrist Democrat position straight from the Clinton era.

"We don't always have to be in favor of government regulation," he said.

But McCurry said that because the issue involved the Internet, some people had gotten scared by "apocalyptic" visions of toll lanes on the great, democratizing information superhighway.

"The Internet has given voice to a lot of people who feel disconnected from the establishment, and maybe that's why they feel threatened, because this is their tool," he said. "This is their squawk box."

Ironically, one of McCurry's first initiatives when he left the Clinton administration was starting Grassroot.com., an organization to promote grass-roots political action on the Internet.

He never figured that political action would be aimed at him.

"I was a little surprised at how personal it was," McCurry said. "On the other hand, I'm a big boy."

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