All five FCC Commissioners were at Stanford University this afternoon for a panel discussion on Net Neutrality, so my colleague and I took a field trip down south from San Francisco for the day. Remember how Comcast paid a bus full of people to take up room at the hearing in Boston in February? We arrived early to make sure that we'd get a seat this time, but there was nothing to worry about - according to Chairman Kevin Martin, who opened the meeting with a statement of the FCC's efforts to include everyone at the table for an "open and transparent" conversation, Comcast (and all the other Internet companies) declined the invitation to dialogue with the public.
During opening remarks, Commissioner Michael Copps spoke passionately about the need to regulate the industry so that Big Business doesn't hijack the Internet. He went on to say that we should bring as many voices into the conversation as possible, and invoked the D.C. adage that "Decisions made without you are usually decisions against you." I couldn't help but notice that not a single one of the Commissioners or panelists on the stage was a person of color. Go figure.
Next was Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who is even cooler than Commissioner Copps. I just now looked up the word "finesse" to make sure that I was using it correctly, and I am. Get this: the man is making opening remarks at an FCC hearing on Net Neutrality, and he also manages in less than five minutes to proclaim "Free Tibet!" AND make a statement against nuclear weapons. So smooth. (This moment was only upstaged by the very articulate Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School, who made a sly endorsement for Obama during his opening statement by flashing a PowerPoint slide with the word "HOPE" when he talked about voting in November.)
I was feeling very encouraged by all this, until Commissioner Deborah Tate got up to speak. Commissioner Tate happens to be the only woman of the five, and I was so excited that a woman was finally speaking that it took me a minute to read between the lines of what she was saying. She started by extolling the virtue of "minimal government interference" and argued that the pressures of competition in the free market would ultimately cause the corporations to regulate themselves. Seriously, I forgot that people really believe that kind of BS. (Do you remember when the Yes Men argued at a WTO meeting, incognito of course, that the free market eventually would have selected a more efficient means of production than slavery if the government hadn't interfered?)
Commissioner Tate followed up with a three minute tirade from left field about child pornography. She told us that, even as we speak, the big corporations are voluntarily working out a way to shut down online child pornography. It wasn't clear to me what she was trying to prove, or how this demonstrated that Big Business could be trusted to keep the Internet free of monopolies. It did raise some eyebrows and questions, tho - it's all smoke and mirrors to distract us from the issues at hand. "Hey - look over here at the children, while we're taking away your rights!" (By the way...pay attention to the children too!)
Even Michele Combs of the Christian Coalition of America saw through it. Although she began her remarks with a short soap-box about her "pro-family" organization (that's code for "We hate gay people."), she argued with fury that grassroots political organizations would be effectively silenced if the FCC didn't take action. In response to Commissioner Tate's message about child pornography, Combs called our attention to the fact that the pornography industry wasn't in the room to protect Net Neutrality. She said, "That's because they know that if the corporations have their way, they'll have the money to pay." She went on to say that Commissioner Tate's assertion that the free market would pressure the Internet companies to do the right thing was "offensive." Pay close attention to what I'm about to say, because I don't think I'll ever say it again: I whole-heartedly agree with Michele Combs and the Christian Coalition of America. (Did I just say that?) And even tho she also said something nice about Reagan, I couldn't help but applaud when she was done speaking.
The FCC should follow the lead of Commissioners Copps and Adelstein. We need for the FCC to make a clear policy statement on Net Neutrality. As Professor Lessig argued, we need to know that this isn't a battle we're going to have to keep fighting, but that Net Neutrality is a principle that we can take for granted moving forward. And like Commissioner Copps said, we all need to pay attention and hold Congress and the FCC accountable for good policies. We're all very busy working on our own specific issues, but if we don't hold the government accountable to do the right thing on Net Neutrality, we're all going to have a much more difficult time making space for change.