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Jonathan Spalter

Jonathan Spalter

Posted: March 22, 2010 04:50 PM

Can Democrats Cross the Other Digital Divide?

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I had the honor of serving in the Clinton White House and working closely with Vice President Al Gore on international affairs. I am a proud Democrat, an avid technophile and — of course — a vocal champion of the mobile future.

I also support without qualification the core principle of net neutrality — that people should be free to access the information of their choosing and share opinions just as openly on a connected soapbox as they can on a real one in our free society.

In fact, I have yet to learn of a single individual, outside of representatives of repressive foreign regimes, who disagrees with this notion.

Yet the net neutrality regulatory debate runs far deeper than the over-simplified soundbites that too often degrade and demean this high-stakes policy conversation. Legitimate concerns reside on both sides of this "other digital divide," and it is a myth that the differences run solely along partisan lines.

One of the more substantial concerns in international diplomacy circles relates to the potential example an over-reaching regulatory interpretation of net neutrality in the United States could set for the world.

This concern was recently expressed by U.S. Ambassador Phil Verveer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy. He made the fairly straightforward observation that, taken too far, a greater U.S. government role in the day-to-day operations of the Internet could be used by repressive regimes "as a pretext or as an excuse for undertaking public policy activities that we would disagree with pretty profoundly."

This, of course, is diplomacy-speak for China, Iran, and others who — to put it mildly — have yet to climb on to the transparency bandwagon.

This statement is wholly consistent with the views of Ambassador Verveer's boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently gave a remarkable speech of her own on Internet freedom, affirming the United States' unwavering support around the world for "the freedom to connect — the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the Internet to websites and to each other."

Most important, the concern Ambassador Verveer raised is real, so much so that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, to his credit, proactively raised the issue in announcing his net neutrality rulemaking last fall. He flatly stated that "there should be no confusion on this point at home or abroad: The Commission fully agrees that government must not restrict the free flow of information over the Internet."

All of these are healthy and thoughtful statements about a complex issue we currently are trying to work through as a nation. Yet in the past week, it's been disheartening to see the emergence of a virtual truth squad that seems bent on silencing voices that might question the merits of an extreme regulatory interpretation of net neutrality.

On this site alone, Ambassador Verveer has been accused of "carelessness," of being "off message" and — fighting words to any devoted progressive — of blindly repeating "Republican attack bullets." The clear implication? A dissenting point of view is illegitimate and should not be allowed to see the light of day. The given explanation? "Because — like it or not — we are not living in a time when policy debates and public opinion tolerate nuance."

As someone who served as Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Information Agency, these are arguments I have heard before — just never in the United States.

Those who would criticize Ambassador Verveer for his realistic analysis of the diplomatic implications of an extreme U.S. approach to net neutrality need to be clear-eyed about this. Countries like Iran, China, and North Korea, to name a few, are constantly on the look-out for any opportunity to point to U.S. practices and policies as a specious way to justify their own repression of the Internet and mobile communications.

Health care. Afghanistan. Our economy. Global warming. Financial services reform. Net neutrality. I can't think of a single major issue in this country that is best solved by a bumper-sticker slogan. Nuance is the defining difference between getting it right and getting it terribly wrong.

Clearly, some of the frustration comes from the health care debate, where Democrats have proven more diverse in their opinions than Republicans. One outcome is moderation. Just as our nation shouldn't have to choose between health care and putting food on the table, neither should we have to choose between free enterprise and freedom.

The net neutrality debate will require a centrist, sensible and, yes, nuanced resolution. We don't get there with muzzles and intimidation. We get there by acknowledging that there are legitimate questions on both sides of the debate, and by demonstrating that Democrats are inclusive, tolerant of diverse viewpoints and able to deliver balanced policy outcomes that make a difference in people's lives.

Practical and reasonable solutions ought to be the order of the day. Indeed, it is imperative now that we have the National Broadband Plan. If there's a lesson from the health care debate, it's that we should strive for a healthier and more thoughtful debate about the future of our innovation economy and free society around the world.

Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served as an advisor to and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration.

Mobile Future is a 501(c)(4) coalition that is supported by technology businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in wireless technology and services are enabled and encouraged. For a full list of members and sponsors and to learn more about the coalition, go to


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