Former eBay president and CEO Meg Whitman’s speech to the Republican National Convention on Wed. night (Sept. 3) was notable for what it didn’t say. Whitman is a giant in her field. She was the head of one of the largest, most successful, most culture-changing companies to emerge since the modern Internet came into existence.
She made lots of money for eBay and from eBay. That was why her speech was so disappointing. The word, “Internet” didn’t appear once. Neither did “innovation” or “technology.” She talked about the economy and lowering taxes and creating jobs and took some political shots at the Democratic ticket. But there was not one word for the medium that vaulted her and her company into American business history, the medium that is the greatest vehicle for innovation and consumer empowerment we have.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2006, in the heat of the legislative debate over Net Neutrality, Whitman emerged as a formidable champion for the cause. She even sent a letter to millions of people registered on eBay pushing Net Neutrality. The Republican Platform Committee should have looked on eBay to see what Whitman said at the time.
She was right on the money then, putting her personal prestige on the line and catching criticism for doing it. She put it out there in as forthright manner as you can:
“The phone and cable companies now control more than 95% of all Internet access. These large corporations are spending millions of dollars to promote legislation that would divide the Internet into a two-tiered system. The top tier would be a “Pay-to-Play” high-speed toll-road restricted to only the largest companies that can afford to pay high fees for preferential access to the Net. The bottom tier – the slow lane – would be what is left for everyone else. If the fast lane is the information “super-highway,” the slow lane will operate more like a dirt road.”
She joined with fellow Internet company powers Jeff Bezos from Amazon, Barry Diller from IAC, Eric Schmidt from Google, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft and Terry Semel from Yahoo! to send a letter asking legislators to “preserve the openness of the Internet.”
And now, nothing. It’s not Whitman’s fault, of course. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the party’s nominee, opposes Net Neutrality. The Republican platform is particularly skimpy when it comes to Internet and tech issues. Perhaps that’s because the Republicans see the Internet as an enabler of evil. Internet issues are in the “Protecting Our Families” section, not the “Expanding Opportunity To Promote Prosperity” section.
The Republican platform sees the Internet in terms of “Stopping Online Predators and Ending Child Pornography,” as well as supporting laws prohibiting gambling over the Internet. The first was in the draft platform, the second was added during platform meetings prior to the convention. No one disputes the need to stop online predators, and Congress has been on record several times as trying to choke off Internet gambling. But certainly someone must realize the Internet is more than that. Meg Whitman does, but she’s not talking.
Maybe it’s that emphasis on the social ills of the Internet that led to the Republicans not making Internet connectivity part of their platform. After all, why increase connectivity if it will lead to child pornography and gambling?
By contrast, the Democratic platform has its section on “A Connected America” under the economic development section. That section calls for a national broadband strategy that recognizes the importance of connectivity to job development, health care and other issues, while also affirming, “We will protect the Internet’s traditional openness and ensure that it remains a dynamic platform for free speech, innovation, and creativity.”
It’s the kind of thing the 2006 Meg Whitman, a recognized Republican leader, would have said. It would have been nice if the 2008 Republicans had listened to her.