Members of public-interest group Free Press weren't there to support a presidential candidate or decry global warming. The tech-savvy hundreds came to the Federal Communications Commission's hearing at Harvard Law School last month to push new rules for the Internet.
For the first time, Congress and the FCC are debating wide-reaching Web regulations and policies that would determine how much control cable and telecommunications companies would have over the Internet. The issue has given rise to a new political constituency raised on text messaging and social networking and relies on e-mail blasts and online video clips in its advocacy.
Although Free Press has generated buzz for its aggressive and sometimes controversial tactics online, its ringleader in Washington is an unlikely crusader. A soft-spoken 30-year-old PhD candidate, Ben Scott has become an operator in multibillion-dollar battles involving corporate titans, regulators and consumers debating policies over who controls the media and the Internet.
"There have been policy moments in the past when the market has been shaped by decisions made in Washington -- radio in the 1930s, television in the 1950s and cable in the 1980s. That moment is now for the Internet," said Scott, who runs a nine-member office.
Working mostly behind the scenes, Scott has been a driving force for "net neutrality," a concept that in policy terms has come to mean enforcement of open access online, so cable and telecom operators cannot block or delay content that travels over their networks. In a complaint filed at the FCC last November, Scott and his staff called for action against Comcast, which admitted it slowed content over its network involving the BitTorrent file-sharing site.
Scott and the group's 500,000 members, most of whom joined online, helped sell their argument. Free Press drew together strange bedfellows, including the Christian Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gun Owners of America, and helped set in motion a broader debate on the issue that resulted in the recent FCC hearing in Cambridge, Mass. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also sponsored a bill to strengthen governance against Internet service providers trying to control consumers' Web access over their networks.
"Ben has exquisite political judgment and is a key player in net neutrality and wireless issues because he represents a new, grass-roots dynamic in the battle against media concentration and the communications colossus," said Markey, chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.
Under pressure, Comcast yesterday said it would work with BitTorrent to improve the transfer of large files over the network.
Free Press's critics -- who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions on net neutrality policy are ongoing -- say the group often oversimplifies complex technical issues, dismissing the importance of some network management practices that block spam and pornography, for example. Free Press is also not the populist group it makes itself out to be, critics noted, partnering with corporate interests when it suits its goals, as it did with Google on net neutrality. Also, they said the group is not as boot-strapped as it may appear, with donors such as billionaire George Soros and singer Barbra Streisand.
Free Press has more than $5 million in funding, in part from major foundations such as the Soros Open Society Institute. Its annual lobbying budget is $250,000, compared with the $13.8 million spent by Verizon Communications, $17.1 million by AT&T and $8.9 million by Comcast last year.
The group, founded in 2003, was the brainchild of Scott's doctoral adviser, University of Illinois media history professor Robert McChesney. Its first mandate was to fight policy changes allowing greater media consolidation between local newspapers and broadcast concerns.
Scott, who was in Washington at the time, joined soon after.
"It was the moment when core policies were being set up on the future of digital media and communications," McChesney said. "For Ben, who had studied this stuff, it was like asking a political scientist to be chief of staff to the president."
The issue also resonated with Free Press's fast-growing membership. Members regularly blasted the FCC and lawmakers with e-mails, video and online petitions. They flooded the agency's hearings on media ownership around the country to protest the rules. A Philadelphia district court eventually overturned the regulations, sending the FCC back to the drawing board.
"What we've done is organize the massive pent-up frustration that the media wasn't measuring up," Scott said.
Harnessing that is sometimes just a matter of capturing a moment and publicizing it online.
When Free Press employees discovered Comcast had paid people to attend the hearing at Harvard and appear supportive of the company, it blasted e-mails with photos and video of some hired stand-ins sleeping in the front rows. The video was viewed 60,000 times on YouTube.
Members of Free Press "are people in their 20s and 30s who are active in politics, who have grown up on the Net, who have come to learn and appreciate the value of the Net and want to preserve it," said Richard Whitt, the Washington telecom and media counsel for Google.
If the issues are new to Washington, so is Scott's understated style.
The son of a Methodist minister, Scott is no bombast. He doesn't interrupt people. When he speaks -- whether it's about media ownership or low-power radio -- he does so with a studied economy of words, and in a voice that makes people crane to hear him.
"Ben Scott and his people are bringing thoughtful, knowledgeable arguments and doing their homework," said Blair Levin, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. "And they never are saying they want you do something 'because we said so.' "
Scott's kindred spirit at the FCC might be Democratic commissioner Michael J. Copps, also a student of history who recently read a biography on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Scott and Copps recently bonded over the book, drawing comparisons between the New Deal and net neutrality. At another meeting that day, Scott and the other Democratic commissioner, Jonathan S. Adelstein, held forth on legal definitions and case law for net neutrality.
Scott understands that effectiveness lies in the ability to cater the message to the right audience.
"Ultimately power is transacted on a personal level," he said, "and ultimately people make decisions based on conversations with people that they trust."
Catherine Bohigian, chief of the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning, said Scott keeps discussions going by advocating without aggression.
"You are able to talk about issues and don't have personalities that get in the way," she said. "We've been on the other side with him on some issues; but being a nice guy, you want to work with him."
It's not that Free Press's approach doesn't occasionally backfire.
On Valentine's Day, as part of an e-mail campaign, Free Press posted an fictional online video of FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin in a hotel room with big corporate lobbyists.
"Let's just say I didn't get calls back from the chairman's office for a couple weeks," Scott said.
Eventually Scott was forgiven, and Martin consulted him about a net neutrality hearing scheduled for next month at Stanford University.
"There have been times I might have agreed or disagreed with the position he's taken, but his ability to mobilize at the grass-roots level and advocate and communicate effectively has certainly had an influence at the commission," Martin said of Scott.
At Scott's urging, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) wrote a bill in June to expand the number of low-power radio stations on the FM dial -- an issue that had languished for a long time.
After low-power advocates Pete "Petri Dish" Tridish and Hannah Sassaman approached Scott three years ago to craft their message and go against the powerful National Association of Broadcasters, Doyle took up their cause.
"What people don't know is that getting a bill like this together requires a lot of hard work. It's laborious, and a lot of people don't want to do it," Doyle said. "But Ben and his people are coming prepared and with all the facts and figures and willing to do the hard work and that makes us on the committee really take notice."
© 2008 The Washington Post