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Ferguson’s About Net Neutrality, Too

Michael Winship

At the end of the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart, as Senator Jefferson Smith, is in the midst of his filibuster against the corruption of the political machine that sent him to Capitol Hill as their lackey. Now he knows the truth and he’s taken over the floor of the Senate to tell it.

The nation is enthralled by his one man stand, but no one back in his home state is hearing the story: the machine controls all the newspapers and radio stations and even when the kids in Smith’s youth group print out a special edition of their own paper to try to tell his side, they’re run down by Boss Taylor’s goons.

Ultimately, Jimmy Stewart triumphs, of course, thanks to some handy, Hollywood-style deus ex machina, but just imagine if Jeff Smith and those kids had mobile phones, the Internet, Twitter and Facebook. Okay, maybe it wouldn’t have made for movie magic, but look at the power of today’s social media in the hands both of journalists committed to truth-telling and everyday citizens fighting back against injustice. And think of the loss to democracy if that ability to access a free and open Internet is taken away.

The tragedy and ensuing crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, have shown the ability of social media to get the story told.

Yes, we’re talking about preserving Net neutrality, preventing the FCC from allowing the Internet to be split into fast lanes for the rich and slow lanes for the rest of us, lanes that could be clogged or blocked to prevent word from getting out about corporate and government malfeasance.

The tragedy and ensuing crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, have shown the ability of social media to get the story told. David Carr wrote in The New York Times that, “Twitter has become an early warning service for news organizations, a way to see into stories even when they don’t have significant reporting assets on the ground. And in a situation hostile to traditional reporting, the crowdsourced, phone-enabled network of information that Twitter provides has proved invaluable.”

Also thinking about the situation in Ferguson, Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy noted, “It seems like a world ago in which such places, and such incidents, would be buried in silence, though, of course, residents knew of their own ignored plight. Now, we expect documentation, live-feeds, streaming video, real time Tweets.”

Which is a reason why the new generation of civil rights leaders – despite opposition from legacy groups like the NAACP that have received significant funding from the media and telecommunications conglomerates — recognizes that maintaining an Internet accessible to all is crucial. “…Keep in mind, Ferguson is also a net neutrality issue,” Tufekci writes. “… How the Internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission continues its consideration of proposed rulemaking for an Open Internet and has just extended the latest period for public comments until September 15. A final decision may not come until next year, and you can keep e-mailing them at OpenInternet@fcc.gov. More than a million comments were received during the first comment period, shutting down the FCC’s platform more than once.

What many of those comments say is that there’s a simple solution — if only Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler and his commissioners will grasp the nettle and defy Washington’s rotten habit of never admitting or correcting a mistake. Under Title II of the Communications Act, broadband service providers can be reclassified as telecommunications services, common carriers like the phone companies. “Common carriage simply means that companies must serve the public indiscriminately,” Candace Clement of the media reform group Free Press writes. “And that is the DNA of Net Neutrality.”

Despite the cries and moans of Verizon, Time Warner and Comcast and the hundreds of millions they, their allies and lobbyists have spent trying to convince – or scare — us otherwise, that’s really all there is to it.

It’s essential to listen to citizens instead of lobbyists, to see in their faces and hear in their testimony the very real impact an Open Internet has had on their lives and how adversely affected they would be should that access and freedom be taken away.

But there are disheartening indications that the FCC’s Tom Wheeler may not be paying heed to the public, opting instead for a watered-down version of the rules that might best be called “Net Neutrality Lite.” And although President Obama’s recent comments in support of an Open Internet may seem encouraging — “You don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to various users,” he said – the president has shown no signs of putting his words into action. Former FCC Commissioner and interim chair Michael Copps, now with Common Cause, and Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, have requested a meeting with the president to further press the case for Net neutrality. That’s a good thing. But the person Barack Obama really should be talking to – loudly — is Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist, lest we forget, for the cable and telecommunications industry. If the president really means what he says, he should demand that Wheeler do the right thing.

It’s more important than ever that Wheeler and the FCC get outside the Beltway and into the community, that it hold public hearings on the Open Internet around the country. It’s essential to listen to citizens instead of lobbyists, to see in their faces and hear in their testimony the very real impact an Open Internet has had on their lives and how adversely affected they would be should that access and freedom be taken away.

According to Free Press, “It’s been more than five years since all five FCC commissioners left Washington, DC, in an official capacity to hear how the agency’s policies affect real people. The public is invested in the future of the open Internet and wants to have a voice in this debate.”

It’s about time. An analysis of that first million or so public comments is revealing – and not because of the near 10,000 uses of a certain common obscenity. As crunched by the data analysis company Quid and reported by Elise Hu at the NPR “All Tech Considered” blog, “While the research showed several themes matched the talking points in the debate advocated in the press, the two more surprising emerging arguments were not outflows of advocacy group talking points or news media. They had to do with how the Internet affirms American principles.

“One cluster focused on preserving net neutrality to maintain a diversity of opinion. Commenters argued that biasing faster traffic to the content providers that can pay for it removes a set of voices that should have a fair shake in sharing content. ‘It’s the idea that America is America because you can connect to different opinions,’ Quid’s Sean Gourley says.

“The related but separate cluster of arguments had to do with the American dream. Commenters believe America should be a meritocracy, and that everyone should be able to compete equally with everyone else. Not preserving net neutrality, commenters argue, tilts the playing field away from everyone and toward firms in special positions of power.”

Hear that, Mr. President and Chairman Wheeler? The Internet “affirms American principles.” We’re seeing that as the press and public seek the truth in Ferguson and rely on social media to help reveal it. Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith would be pleased. “There’s no place out there for graft, or greed or lies,” he tells his fellow senators. “Or compromise with human liberties… Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They are right here. You just have to see them again.” A free and open Internet shines the light.


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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. 

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