It's unusual for federal bureaucrats to achieve rock star status, but two commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission have amassed an enthusiastic fan base among the emerging "Open Internet" movement.
For several years, Democratic Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps have stood up, spoke out and worked all the angles at the cavernous FCC in defense of an Internet that is open, neutral, accessible and affordable to everyone.
These are the bedrock principles of a growing movement of bloggers, media makers, online activists and organizers who are fighting for unfettered access to the Net.
While in the minority, Adelstein and Copps have been joined by a somewhat unlikely ally in Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. The three of them are now poised to deliver a major victory to the little guys against one of the country's biggest and most ruthless media companies. The Making of the Movement
Adelstein and Copps' crusade on the Internet's behalf hasn't been easy.
Lining up against them in Washington is an army of hired legal guns and lobbyists working for the likes of Comcast, AT&T and Verizon. Every day, they swarm the FCC and Capitol Hill to blast away at any rule that would prevent their clients from becoming the new gatekeepers to the Web.
Who ultimately controls the Internet is a question that has galvanized millions of Internet activists in recent years.
Grassroots groups like SavetheInternet.com, Free Press (my employer), Public Knowledge, ACLU, MoveOn.org, Common Cause and Electronic Frontier Foundation see the Internet as the future of all media -at a time when more and more people are taking charge of their TV watching, music listening and other rich media experiences via a high-speed connection.
Using the Internet to Save the Internet
Millions of their supporters have used the tools of the Internet to send Washington a powerful political message: "Don't side with special interests and strip away our online freedoms."
In 2006, Capitol Hill was poised to pass a telco-friendly communications bill opposed by public advocacy groups for lacking basic consumer protections. More than 1.5 million people wrote letters to Congress, attended protest rallies across the country and organized using MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. The bill died on the Senate floor.
In 2007, the FCC was poised to hand over a valuable chunk of spectrum with no strings attached to powerful wireless companies. More than a quarter million people wrote the FCC demanding "open access" to these airwaves. The FCC attached some openness conditions before putting the spectrum out for bid.
When Verizon Wireless censored text messages by NARAL Pro-Choice America in late 2007, they sent tens of thousands of letters to Washington. Under intense public and media scrutiny, Verizon reversed its decision and let the NARAL messages through. New Media Democracy
"Consumers don't want the Internet to become another version of old media -- dominated by a handful of companies," Adelstein told an enthusiastic audience during a FCC hearing in Pittsburgh earlier this week. "They want choice."
In June, Commissioner Copps asked a crowd at the National Conference for Media Reform: "If you want to blog about local politics, should you really have to pay some huge gatekeeper for every reader you get? Should anyone be telling you what you can read and see and hear on the Internet? Which applications you can run? Which devices you can use?"
He pledged alongside Commissioner Adelstein to "do everything we can" to ensure that the Internet looks like "real media democracy."
Adelstein and Copps' tenure in Washington has come under a Republican-led FCC, which has routinely supported industry efforts to whittle away many of the user freedoms that are fundamental to preserving the Internet's democratic character.
The agency has become embroiled in an issue called "Net Neutrality" -- the fundamental safeguard for users' ability to go where they want, do what they choose and connect with whomever they like every time they boot up the Internet.
Net Neutrality has pitted Internet rights advocates from across the political spectrum against powerful phone and cable companies, which now control broadband access for nearly 99 percent of American users. But Adelstein and Copps have broken with the well-heeled lobbyists to take a principled stand for a people-powered Internet.
Beating Back Comcast
When AT&T announced its plans to merge with BellSouth in 2006, it was the two Democrats who attached Net Neutrality as a two-year condition of the merger and then strong armed Republican members of the commission to sign off on the terms.
Now the FCC faces a new opportunity to establish Net Neutrality as the guiding principle of the Internet.
Earlier this month Chairman Martin announced that he would recommend punishing Comcast Corp. for violating Net Neutrality and blocking subscribers' Internet traffic.
While the final order hasn't come out yet, it's worthwhile to look at how we got here. The Republican Chairman should get a lot of credit for his handling of the Comcast case, including holding public hearings on the issue.
But Adelstein and Copps have walked with the public every step of the way on Net Neutrality.
Now they stand ready to join with Martin against Comcast (Their vote is expected to happen during the August 1 monthly meeting of the five commissioners). This decision would set an historic legal precedent for all those fighting to keep the Internet free of corporate gatekeepers.
"Both commissioners have really shown their mettle on this issue," blogger Matt Stoller of OpenLeft.com said during last week's Netroots Nation conference in Austin. "Copps has been a visionary and a firebrand for the netroots. Adelstein has shown bravery by breaking with the conventional wisdom of Washington for the good of everyone else."