We Need An Open Discussion Of The Internet’s Future

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Fighting for communication’s future

LAST week, one of the most powerful figures in American communications policy, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, paid a visit to Philadelphia. He made this visit in what he called a “hinge” moment, at a time when many critical communication policy issues are being decided. We at Media Mobilizing Project – a community group focused on building a media and communications infrastructure for poor and working people across the region – hosted him. We were excited to do so, as the issues in front of Wheeler are legion – from the ability of municipalities to create publicly owned broadband infrastructure to the future of net neutrality and the continuing consolidation of our media system with the Comcast-Time Warner merger.

From the outset, we understood that Wheeler, along with the other FCC commissioners, meets far more often with corporate lobbyists from Comcast and other giant communications companies than with everyday people. Recognizing this, we surrounded Wheeler with incredible Philadelphians working to transform the media in our city. Among many advocates, he met digital literacy trainers, and leaders at the Free Library of Philadelphia and the City’s Office of Innovation and Technology. He met the people that run our public-access TV station, and one of the last black-owned talk-radio stations in the state.

In a robust conversation, many different participants in these meetings challenged Wheeler’s current proposal on the future of net neutrality, while detailing the problematic effects the Comcast merger would have on our communities. Wheeler also heard about the high cost and low quality of our broadband service and the lengths to which low-income people must go to get online.

Many of us have struggled for decades to build democratic communications in Philadelphia. It was amazing to be part of such a diverse gathering, as professors, poets and political organizers alike pushed Wheeler to foster a truly inclusive communications system.

But we were fewer than 40 people sitting with Wheeler for a couple of hours in two small rooms. And at the same time, in 2013, Comcast spent $18.8 million lobbying the federal government. This is hardly a surprise: The big decisions that the FCC will make this year – on Wheeler’s flawed Internet rules, the Comcast-Time Warner merger and state bans on municipal broadband – will have a huge impact on Comcast. That’s why Comcast lobbyists are a regular presence in Congress, in our city halls and statehouses, and at the FCC.

If the public will is to be heard, against the outsized power of Comcast and other companies, conversations like ours must be far larger – and they must happen in public. In Philadelphia – the poorest big city in the United States – tens of thousands of people are still offline, without at-home or mobile broadband. And Comcast uses its Internet Essentials program, which provides low-cost Internet access to low-income households, as bait to sell regulators on the merger; less than 9 percent of Philadelphians eligible for the program are able to use it.

Our event was originally designed to be a big public forum, where many critical communication policy issues and their effects on working Philadelphians would be openly discussed with the chairman. But as pressure mounted on Wheeler to craft Internet rules with strong nondiscrimination protections, and to stop the biggest telecom merger the U.S. has seen in decades, his staff pushed us to make it small, to close the doors to press and the general public, besides those attendees they vetted and approved, and to refrain from discussing the event publicly until it was over.

The discussion with the chairman was real, and impressive. We saw him engage with a high-school teacher who relies on a weak broadband connection at his school to serve students hungry to communicate. We also heard the chairman thoughtfully reflect on the reasons why a rural policy advocate didn’t get cable access to his home 20 miles outside Harrisburg until 2013. We sincerely hope Wheeler will carry these voices with him.

However, while we were impressed with the honesty and rigor of our conversation with Wheeler, we were disappointed that the meeting was held behind closed doors, particularly in light of the fact that Comcast and its contemporaries visit the commission each and every day. Public meetings are one of the few ways in which everyday people have any chance of counteracting the oversize influence that corporations like Comcast have in American politics.

As Wheeler thinks of the dozens of people he met with on Monday, we hope he’ll remember the millions filing comments in support of real net neutrality, and the thousands filing against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger and in support of diverse local media ownership.

And we hope he’ll make himself available to hear these voices before it’s too late.