Co-authored with Ben Scott
Mignon Clyburn, Barack Obama's choice to fill a vacant Democratic seat at the Federal Communications Commission, will face a confirmation hearing Wednesday in the Senate Commerce Committee.
As the third Democrat on the five-member commission, Clyburn would cast a deciding vote for President Obama's bold technology agenda. And yet, Clyburn's nomination has met with a mixed reaction from FCC-watchers. Some fear she may already have pitched her tent with the entrenched special interests that have controlled media policy for decades.
It's been asked: What do we know about her position on key issues such as Net Neutrality? Can she be counted on to break open wireless markets for more innovation and consumer choice? Will she stand with Obama's reform agenda and help overhaul an agency that's long been in the thrall of corporate lobbyists?
Getting to Know Mignon Clyburn
Here's what we do know: Clyburn is the daughter of powerful South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), the House Majority Whip. Clyburn's nomination for the FCC post was met with apprehension about her family ties and her history as chair of South Carolina's Public Service Commission, which is reputed to be close to the phone and cable industries.
The big fear among open Internet activists is that a president who has said he will "take a back seat to no one on Network Neutrality" may have just nominated an FCC commissioner who's not even riding in the same car.
As veterans of the Net Neutrality wars and backers of many of the most progressive ideas in the Obama platform on technology and media, we encourage the Clyburn critics to take a step back. We don't know for certain how Clyburn will think, act and vote as an FCC commissioner. But there are reasons for optimism.
The Reform Opportunity
The path before her is pretty clear, and the opportunity for reform is profound. The FCC is now crafting a national broadband plan to deliver Internet access to every American, weighing reforms to free up valuable wireless spectrum, and undertaking crucial efforts to diversify media ownership.
Obama's technology agenda -- the blueprint for the new FCC -- strongly supports an open Internet, universal Internet access and more voices in the media. In Congress, the leadership within the Senate and House commerce committees has aligned itself with the president's agenda. Others in Congress have already asked for an investigation of anti-competitive communications markets long under the control of powerful media conglomerates.
Clyburn could follow the well-worn path toward upholding the status quo, but she has the opportunity to become a strong leader for change, a voice for new stakeholders that have long been out of the picture at the FCC. With a broader frame in mind, let's take a look at what her nomination represents.
The Luxury of High Expectations
As the first African-American woman commissioner, she represents progressive change that is deeply in sync with the transformation of D.C. politics that Obama is trying to realize.
Working alongside new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski as well as Commissioner Michael Copps, a longtime public champion, Clyburn has the opportunity to diversify media ownership to include women and people of color long absent from corporate media boardrooms.
Communities of color, the urban poor and rural residents are those most often stranded on the wrong side of America's digital divide. Clyburn has a historic opportunity to help close the gap.
The open Internet has been under assault from the same Internet access companies that routinely pass over these communities. Clyburn can stand alongside Obama, Genachowski and Copps in support of an affordable, free-flowing Web that discriminates against no one.
Naturally, if the commitment to these ideals falters, we'll be among the first to cry foul. But for now, we have the luxury of high expectations.
She could be an agent of change at the FCC like none before her. She deserves that chance.
-- Timothy Karr is the campaign director and Ben Scott is the policy director of Free Press, the national, not-for-profit media reform group.