Wow! — 3.7 million comments for Net neutrality and still counting. If the Inside the Beltway crowd thought this was not an issue all across America, they should be feeling disabused of that notion by now. I wish they had been with me one Saturday earlier this month at the Fighting Bob (La Follette) Fest in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It’s a great annual event put on by the good folks at The Progressive. Thousands of people showed up to discuss America’s current political distemper and the urgent need for practical progressive reform. Running through the many Baraboo discussions and sessions was a strong commitment to an Internet that serves the needs of democracy and self-government and a media that reflects communities and diversity of political and cultural opinions. In fact, many of the attendees took out their cell phones onsite and contacted the FCC to urge strong Net neutrality rules.
While I celebrate the great grassroots movement that the Open Internet cause has fired up, I know we still have a long way to go before we can declare victory. The big Internet Service Providers (Comcast, Verizon and AT&T), their business partners and their armada of hired lobbyists are working even harder now because they are beginning to realize that this might not be the slam-dunk they hoped for as recently as a couple of months ago. They know the power of the money they wield — but I think it is beginning to dawn on them that a true grassroots firestorm just might be able to trump their almighty dollar.
How I wish the Federal Communications Commission, which will decide the future of the Open Internet soon, would get out of town and travel the country to understand first-hand how the citizens who must live with its decisions feel about this one. Why should the American people be limited to an online forum with no opportunity for face-to-face interaction with the FCC “deciders”? Instead of holding these kinds of sessions, the FCC is holding a few “roundtables” in Washington, with a lot of the usual suspects doing the talking. This isn’t a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the only thing, either. By itself, this inside-the-Beltway conversation just doesn’t get it; I believe it does an injustice to the American people.
The commissioners need to hear straight-from-the-mouths of citizens around the country who don’t enjoy the kind of access that Washington insiders have. And citizens deserve the chance to look the deciders in the face and tell them why we need an Open Internet and strong Net neutrality rules. I am pleased that leaders like Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) have joined the push to take the FCC to the people.
I know from personal experience how helpful on-the-road hearings and town hall meetings can be. As an FCC commissioner from 2001 thru 2011, I traveled around the country to all kinds of public gatherings on media consolidation and the Open Internet. I never went to a meeting without learning something I hadn’t known before. These were interactive sessions with open microphones so citizens could speak their piece and ask their questions. The sessions went on for hours — one of them for 9 hours, ending at one o’clock in the morning! Hundreds of people would show up to share their thoughts on how the media was letting them down. It was a great education for me, and it was good for the attendees to hear first-hand what the commission was up to.
Shouldn’t an agency charged with consumer protection actually go talk to consumers? While I applaud individual commissioners getting out of town for informal meetings in recent months, that isn’t the same as real hearings with all five Commissioners that are part of the official record. And it doesn’t draw nearly as much media and public attention to these important issues.
There is time, Chairman Wheeler, to conduct several full commission meetings before you call the vote on Net neutrality. I guarantee you that you’ll learn a lot and have a sounder basis for making the critically-important decision you and your colleagues must vote on shortly. In fact, you shouldn’t be calling a vote until you and your colleagues have had a chance to talk — really talk — to the American people.
In the meantime, folks, keep those e-mails, cards and letters going to the commission. While the official “comment period” may be over, this input still counts. In fact, it counts a lot. Commissioners keep up with what comes their way, and it’s important that they know support on this issue hasn’t crested — it’s still building. Strongly.
These are the e-mail addresses of the five sitting commissioners:
Chairman Tom Wheeler — [email protected]
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn: — [email protected]
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel: — [email protected]
Commissioner Agit Pai: — [email protected]
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly: — Mike.O’[email protected]
There is another important action you can take. The Commission listens very closely to Congress because the Senate and House conduct ongoing oversight of the agency. They will be tracking and reacting to whatever decision the FCC makes. So your Senators and Representatives need to know how important this issue is to you. Call the Capitol switchboard and get patched through to your elected representatives: (202) 224-3121.
Here’s the bottom line: we can’t solve any of the daunting challenges facing our country now without a guaranteed Open Internet. We can’t even have an intelligent national dialogue about them when a corporatized media and a cableized Internet continue dumbing-down the news and information that are the essential prerequisites of successful self-government.
It’s all on the line right now. Our nation’s chance for real progress on the many issues confronting us could be destroyed if the FCC makes the wrong decision. Every issue we talked about at “Fighting Bob” — and we talked about many — rides on getting our media right and keeping our Internet open.
Do you want fast lanes on the Internet reserved for the 1%? Do you want Internet gatekeepers deciding what news you see and what you don’t? Do you want special interests with their own axes to grind censoring your online access?
Me neither. Together, we can win this fight. Let’s take it to the next stage.
© Common Cause/ Benton Foundation, http://benton.org. The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.