A Talmud Ace Tackles Thorny Issue of Net Neutrality

Media Czar: Julius Genachowski’s rise from a Long Island yeshiva to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission puts him in command of regulating the Internet.
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Media Czar: Julius Genachowski’s rise from a Long Island yeshiva to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission puts him in command of regulating the Internet.

By Joy Resmovits

Published December 08, 2010.

How should the United States regulate the Internet?

The answer to this question — which affects the flow of information and culture, the growth of the economy and the future of communications, education and democracy itself — rests largely in the hands of Julius Genachowski, a 48-year-old Jew from Long Island with knowledge of Talmud and an appointment to one of the most critical policy posts in Washington.

If his December 1 proposal to address Internet regulation is any indication, Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission since June 2009, is seeking a solution in a very Jewish way: He issued a compromise in the pitched debate over the Internet’s openness, a concept often referred to as net neutrality.

The information and communication technology sector comprises about one-sixth of America’s economy. With more business, paperwork and personal connections moving online, the matter of who can access which website, through which service, and how fast, is becoming increasingly important throughout the country, as is the ability to create new Web businesses.

The high stakes of his job — which includes complicated issues relating to the regulation of television and radio, as well as to the Internet — mean that Genachowski (pronounced jen-uh-COW-ski) spends his days threading the needle between the interests of global media concerns and grassroots activists, telecommunications corporations and think tanks, Congress and the White House. Those are tensions he may be comfortable mediating in part because he once was a Talmud ace.

“The education I was lucky enough to receive is a very important part of my background,” Genachowski, whose schooling has run the gamut from Orthodox day school to Harvard Law School, told the Forward in an interview at his Washington office. “We’re all the products of our background, and I’m sure it informs what I do in many ways.”

He said the FCC’s most immediate goals are to employ underused parts of the broadcast spectrum for innovation and increased wireless capacity, and to make the country more economically competitive through technology. “We have real opportunities to help improve the American economy through information and communication technologies,” he said. “To be in this job at this time, working on economic issues and our global competitiveness, is something that’s rewarding and that keeps us all working around the clock every day.”

But the question of net neutrality — how open the Internet should be, and the FCC’s role in enforcing that openness — has received the most press attention and controversy of late. Because of broadband Internet’s current classification within the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC cannot regulate broadband communications, as determined by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Comcast vs. FCC last April.

Calls for increased regulation stem from consumer groups and liberals who say that the lack of competition between Internet service providers is detrimental to Internet users — especially when service providers can freely block or slow down content that competes with their own offerings, or offer different speeds and access levels based on price.

Genachowski landed in this demanding role because of his past association with the FCC and with the president, as well as his experience as a media executive. While attending Harvard Law School, Genachowski worked as co-notes editor of the Harvard Law Review — under Barack Obama. The two became and remained friends, even attending each other’s weddings. After graduating, Genachowski worked in the office of then-U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer and clerked for Abner Mikva, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and for Supreme Court justices William Brennan Jr. and David Souter. He worked in the FCC as chief counsel to Chairman Reed Hundt, who served under President Clinton. His longest private sector gig was as chief of business operations at the media company IAC.

The Obama campaign tapped Genachowski in 2008 to chair its Technology, Media & Telecommunications Policy Working Group. “I was not looking to come back from the private sector,” he recalled. He advised the campaign’s use of technology and articulated a clear plan for achieving net neutrality, one that excited free Internet purists.

This past January, Obama sent Genachowski and his family as part of America’s delegation to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “To be on the ground of Auschwitz as a representative of President Obama… it was a proud moment for me,” Genachowski said. In his office he keeps a stone that he picked up at the camp.

Although reluctant to discuss his personal religious practices publicly, Genachowski is proud and open about the cultural component of his Judaism. In fact, he began his remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing by telling the story of his parents, Lithuanians who fled the Nazis.

His family’s roots are deeply enmeshed in the Jewish world. The chairman’s brother, Joey Genachowski, is president of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and a board member of the Young Israel of Woodmere, both on Long Island. His first cousin once removed is Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Worldwide Kosher Division. His great uncle, Eliyahu Moshe Genachowski, served in the Israeli Knesset. Genack told the Forward that the Genachowskis can even be traced back to the students of the storied Vilna Gaon, the Vilnius Genius.

Julius Genachowski was born August 19, 1962, to Adele and Azriel Genachowski. He grew up in Great Neck, a Long Island suburb, in a family that attended the local Young Israel. He attended Orthodox day school at North Shore Hebrew Academy and summered at Camp Raleigh. His high school was the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, which is part of Yeshiva University. Though he says he cut classes to play basketball, he won the Talmud award.

Genachowski spent a year after high school studying in Jerusalem at Yeshivat HaKotel, where he and his peers practiced “learning, discussing, questioning each other, even the possibilities of different points of view,” he recalled. “One of the things that you take away from learning Talmud, learning Gemara, is that two or three brilliant people can look at the same passage and have different interpretations and views, each of which makes a lot of sense, but they’re not all consistent. So I enjoyed that.”

Today, Genachowski attends Sabbath services regularly at Adas Israel, Washington’s largest Conservative synagogue. He’s married to Rachel Goslins, a maker of such film documentaries as “God’s House,” a feature about Muslim Albanians who rescued Jews during World War II. Goslins now serves as executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The couple lives in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of D.C. with their three children.

Genachowski’s talmudic streak was evident in his recent proposal on regulating the Internet. In a speech December 1, Genachowski outlined what he called the “rules of the road” for regulation. They included an obligation of transparency for ISPs, the prohibition of ISPs from blocking content, gutting “unreasonable discrimination” on the flow of Internet traffic, and allowing providers to charge different prices for different amounts of broadband use and different speeds. In short, the proposal would have the FCC regulate telecommunications corporations more than the companies would have liked, but less than consumer groups felt was necessary for preserving an open Internet.

“He was able to balance both the current constituencies with the need to keep the eye on the future,” said Steven Waldman, who is Genachowski’s senior adviser at the FCC as well as his good friend (and the founder and former editor of Beliefnet). “He was practical in that he listened for a year to the concerns that different groups had, and he made some adjustments.”

Another associate takes a dimmer view of Genachowski’s moves at the FCC. Sascha Meinrath worked under Genachowski during the Obama campaign and used to be a fan of the telecom czar. But now, as director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative — one of the interest groups, along with players like Free Press, that are lined up against industry lobbies like the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in the ongoing fight over net neutrality — Meinrath is a critic.

“As chairman,” Meinrath said, “he’s incredibly timid in that he has initiated a number of processes that are either far too drawn out — we have not seen incredibly important decisions made in a timely manner — or he’s attempted to create third ways or compromise solutions.”

As soon as Genachowski announced the plan, the FCC’s Republican commissioners criticized it for exceeding the FCC’s mandate. Telecommunications companies stayed neutral, with some delivering mild praise and others saying it would take an act of Congress to solve the problem.

On the other side, public interest groups were incensed, saying the regulations failed to protect consumers and had a weak legal foundation. Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps — whose vote Genachowski needs — agrees, and recently told an audience at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that if establishing stable rules that force openness “requires reclassifying advanced telecommunications… we should just do it and get it over with.”

Over the next few weeks, Genachowski will discuss the plan with associates and adversaries. He needs at least two votes from the four other commissioners at a meeting set for December 21. He may have to tweak his proposal before then, and his training in talmudic reasoning could come in handy during the process. “Not to stereotype Jewishness, but he’s a questioner,” Waldman said. “He likes to probe and discuss and argue. That’s certainly part of Jewish tradition.”

Contact Joy Resmovits at resmovits@forward.com


In the video below, the Forward takes a look at five more memorable FCC moments:



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