Broadband and the Public Interest

The Comparative Media Studies graduate students have been discussing current policy debates around "net neutrality." The phrase, "net neutrality," is in broad circulation at the moment but I suspect many people out there are not familiar with the core terms of the debate or how it impacts them. Stephen J. Schultze, a first year CMS masters student, asked if he might share some of his perspectives on this issue. Schultze holds a 2002 BA in computer science and philosophy from Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI). Since graduation, Schultze served as a project director at the Public Radio Exchange in Cambridge, MA: "Through PRX, I've been closely involved with station consultations on issues of cross-media branding in podcasting and web strategy. I launched a project that provides stations with a customized, branded podcast interface for their listeners. We advise stations that their brand identity and relationships with listeners have become more important than ever in a multi-channel world." He has also collaborated on projects through the MIT Media Lab where he helped Carla Gomez-Monroy to build an experimental radio production system for Mexican diasporic communities in New York City. Schultze spends a lot of his time these days over at the Berkman Center at that other place up the road from us and has been involved in the organization of the Beyond Broadcasting conference (more on that later). He is currently working on a documentary about podcasting for the New Media Literacies Project. What follows are his thoughts about how the recent election returns are apt to impact the debates around net neutrality.

Broadband and the Public Interest

by Stephen J. Schultze

Telecommunications policy wasn't exactly a hot-button issue in the midterm elections, but the resulting power shift in Congress could affect the trajectory of the Internet for years to come. Most of us are fairly satisfied with our day-to-day Internet experience. Why involve the bureaucrats when things are working just fine?

The problem is that things aren't working just fine. When it comes to broadband, we are falling embarrassingly far behind much of the rest of the world. On the heels of the elections, FCC commissioner Michael Copps wrote an editorial in the Washington Post entitled "America's Internet Disconnect." He noted that according to one study of "digital opportunity," the US ranks 21st in the world, right behind Estonia. We rely on private companies operating according to their market interests to connect us, and these companies have become more consolidated and less competitive in the last several years. Unfortunately, our telecommunications policy has failed to address the market failure that has left millions of Americans with limited and expensive options for broadband access - or none at all.

In the weeks leading up to the elections, high drama unfolded in Congress as Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) attempted to capture support for a telecommunications bill that revised parts of our telecommunications law. The bill met with stiff resistance from advocates of something called "network neutrality." Net neutrality is the long-standing principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally without discriminating between who is sending it - a kind-of free speech clause for the net. A diverse group of supporters thinks that the issue is as important as the broadband access issues highlighted by Commissioner Copps. The Stevens bill, which would effectively prevent such neutrality, was barely blocked before the elections. Likewise, a merger between AT&T and Bellsouth has been stalled while FCC commissioners try to decide whether provisions like net neutrality should be imposed. Some representatives have suggested that the FCC wait to hear from the new neutrality-friendly Congress before making any decisions.

These two issues have a common lineage in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. At the time it passed, the Clinton-championed legislation was hailed as a deregulatory victory that would clear the way for technological innovation. By 1999, the Internet had taken off in unanticipated ways, and it was becoming clear that the bureaucratic intricacies of the Act were more hindrance than help. Justice Scalia noted, "It would be gross understatement to say that the 1996 Act is not a model of clarity. It is in many important respects a model of ambiguity or indeed even self-contradiction." The Act has contributed to a great deal of confusion about how to best encourage true competition that would help address commissioner Copps' concerns, and it set up the structure that allowed network neutrality to be challenged.

It is difficult these days to find praise of the 1996 Act, but Senator Stevens' bill takes a minimally reformative approach. A more radical strategy has been advocated by free-market think tanks that seek to do away with nearly all telecommunications regulation. They propose that issues be dealt with after the fact in antitrust-like fashion. This is an attractive approach to removing regulatory barriers to competition, and is seductively simple. The risk is that it trusts the market to do what is best for us. In this model, it is difficult to ensure access for poor communities, or to explain how principles of network neutrality will be upheld over the shareholders' desire to derive more revenue through discriminatory pricing. To be sure, the free-market crowd has well-considered answers to these and other challenges, but it is likely a moot point for now. The bill advocating this approach, which was championed by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), had stalled in the 109th and is unlikely to progress in the 110th.

Instead, there are some signs that a different approach is gaining momentum. It lacks the simplicity of the free-market mantra, but appeals to an older principle in media policy. Since the Radio Act of 1927, our communications regulation has included language invoking the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." The "public interest" is a notoriously but necessarily slippery phrase. Over time, the implementation of the concept has eroded into little more than lame public service announcements and FCC indecency fines. The groundswell of support for net neutrality represents a remarkably successful invocation of the public interest in policy debate. It is particularly interesting because it draws its power from a broad-based grassroots coalition that has successfully stood up to heavily backed lobbyists and astroturf campaigns from the major telecommunications companies.

Network neutrality is not a clean-cut issue. There are legitimate quarrels with the proposals, which spur lively debate. However, the effort is remarkable example of citizens exercising their influence on media policy. They believe that neutrality is in their interest and they believe that they have the right to call for it. They are not simply consumers, as a simplistic version of the free-market approach might indicate. Instead, they have stood up for neutrality on principle and with the belief that a neutral Internet will have beneficial network effects that companies like AT&T and Comcast will not promote on their own.

Neutrality advocates are using the infrastructure of the Internet itself to build a broad base of support. They have formed partnerships that unite competitors like Google and Microsoft, and have brought together sometimes-adversaries like MoveOn and the Christian Coalition. They will have powerful allies in leadership of the 110th Congress - including incoming Speaker of the House Pelosi (D-CA) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), with the support of Representatives John Dingell (D-MI) and Ed Markey (D-MA) who will lead influential subcommittees.

The bigger task of developing a telecommunications regulation infrastructure that makes sense in a broadband world is considerably more difficult. The citizen-powered, public interest motivated, Internet-savvy crowd does not speak with one voice. It does not have much industry money at its disposal. It is not well versed in strategic influence. Nevertheless, it wields enormous power to the extent that it genuinely represents the citizenry. Few of those citizens would rank telecommunications policy in their top three voting priorities today, but the groundswell of support for network neutrality is a compelling model of public action. This is exciting in a moment when the upcoming changes in Congress overwhelmingly favor their cause. In short, these citizens believe that there is something special about media - and in particular the Internet - that gives the public the right to shape its direction. In this view, media is not just another private commodity. To reduce it to its instrumental market value is to risk turning into what Edward R. Murrow would call, "merely wires and lights in a box." Rather, they hold communication in common between them - whether it is public ownership of the airwaves, the wireline rights-of-way, or the discourse we co-create.