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New FCC Commissioner Clyburn -- The Next Net Neutrality Hero?

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Last summer, when Mignon Clyburn was nominated to be a member of the Federal Communications Commission, few people in the telecommunications world knew what to think of her. She was, most obviously, the daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC). She was a member of the South Carolina Public Service Commission who dealt mostly with electricity regulation. When she did engage in telecom issues, it was mostly on the side of BellSouth, the big telephone company.

Some people (including yours truly) raised the question where she would come down on the crucial issues, with the Bells, with whom her father votes, or with the Obama administration, which has pushed for an open Internet.

Since voting in October for a proposed rule to enact Net Neutrality rules, Clyburn has signaled her support for an open Internet with a couple of strong statements.

But after a speech she gave on January 22, Clyburn could well vault quickly from supporter to Neutrality Hero. The speech was to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC). This is a group that on one hand could provide her a sympathetic audience, were it not for the fact that their stance on Net Neutrality has tended to embrace the talking points for the telephone and cable companies. Late last year, MMTC, after having been criticized for edging up to, and possibly stepping over the line into, the Bell position on Net Neutrality, held its own little American Idol session, giving a number of parties a couple of minutes to describe their Net Neutrality positions. There was no debate, there was no feedback. Looks like anything Net Neutrality proponents had to say didn't make an impression.

In comments they filed in the Net Neutrality docket, MMTC and other organizations put forward the industry talking points that an open and non-discriminatory Internet could raise prices for consumers (citing a Bell front group as evidence). Then the groups raise the spectre of regulation of search engines and other applications, justifying this intrusion into the Internet as grounded in civil rights law, filtered through the prism of making certain that search engines don't harm minorities. Of course, this attack is one that AT&T, which generally disdains regulation, has put forward for years as a means of attacking Google.

In her MMTC speech, Clyburn answered all the questions emphatically, not only delivering a strong statement on behalf of a free and open Internet, but calling out minority groups for remaining silent or expressing wariness at new government regulation.

Noting that Web entrepreneur Jonathan Moore, a Net Neutrality supporter was able to start his Rowdy Orbit site with minority content for little investment, Clyburn noted: "Had the costs of access been much greater, however - say if he had to buy his way into priority status on one or more networks - Rowdy Orbit may never have seen the light of day."

She continued: "So in addition to the issue of how we tackle broadband adoption in communities of color, another central question we must answer is: How can we ensure that our communities can take advantage of this emerging economic force? And relatedly, how can we ensure that the current low barriers to entry remain low in order to prevent yet another communications model that has people of color once again on the outside looking in?

"To my surprise, most of the filings submitted and public statements issued by some of the leading groups representing people of color on this matter have been silent on this make-or-break issue. There has been almost no discussion of how important - how essential - it is for traditionally underrepresented groups to maintain the low barriers to entry that our current open Internet provides. I have seen virtually nothing on how important it is that we not allow what is today our Internet become theirs."

Clyburn then quoted from comments submitted by the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which does recognize the importance of Net Neutrality. She quoted NHMC, saying that high-speed Internet access is essential for small business owners to reach customers, to journalists and to content creators.

NHMC's comments were strong and direct. In one part that Clyburn didn't quote, the group said: "These (Net Neutrality) principles are necessary to ensure that all people - especially people of color, who have been traditionally under and misrepresented on mainstream media - enjoy opportunities to share their stories fairly and accurately. The Internet is one of the very few places where Latinos can respond to the vitriolic anti-Latino rhetoric that airs unopposed on some mainstream media outlets."

Clyburn also smartly linked the idea of a free and open Internet to MMTC's signature issue - minority ownership. She noted that MMTC has worked for 22 years to make certain that people of color "will have every opportunity to participate as owners, employees and suppliers in the electronic media and telecommunications industries."

She added: "These words, I believe, should apply directly to the Internet as well. Together we must ensure that people of color - and all Americans - can "participate as owners, employees, and suppliers" on-line. That cannot happen, however, if we passively permit a new set of gatekeepers to erect yet another set of barriers to entry."

Clyburn also pointed out the danger of using another Bell argument - the "unintended consequences" of government regulation: Some of you have expressed a concern that we must be wary of open Internet rules because of the potential for "unintended consequences." But the same argument can be made for any government regulation, especially those rules many of the folks here have sought on the media ownership front."

Considering the subject matter and the venue, this was as impressive a speech as an FCC commissioner can give.