Throughout the public interest community, one can find much wailing an gnashing of teeth over today’s Commerce Committee mark up of the Communications Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2006 (COPE). “A Bad Day for Media Democracy” reads the headline at Save Access.
Well, I’m not happy with COPE so far, but I think it turned into a good day for democracy, with better days to come. Because if you thought today was grim, you weren’t here for the absolute spanking net neutrality got in subcommittee in the beginning of April. In the week since the SavetheInternet campaign got underway, four democrats switched their votes on Net Neutrality from “anti” to “pro.” The day before mark up, the Republican chair of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust in the Judiciary Committee and their new task force on telecom declared all out war against the Commerce Committee effort to eliminate a free and open internet. The telcos, who earlier this month boasted they could get the bill past both houses and signed into law before the election recess, don’t sound nearly as confident despite today’s win.
What changed? Until the Subcommittee Spanking, folks let the tech companies do the heavy lifting and fought by the standard lobbying play book. Hill meetings, inside the beltway briefings, insider baseball, blah blah blah. Google v. Verizon, people said, and tuned out. And while the tech lobbyist worked with us public interest folks, one could not help but detect a certain — how shall I put it? — condescension and cluelessness as to how this “public interest” stuff really works. It kinda felt like posing for photo ops, while the “real” decisions about spending money on messaging and what strategies to persue and the ever-important smoke filled room meetings never involved anything as messy as the public.
And, as usual, the tech folks got spanked. Spanked real good. The kinda spanking you usually have to pay good money for if you fancy that kind of thing. Because despite having more money than the telcos and cable cos combined, the tech cos can never win using telco and cable co rules. Because the telcos and cable cos wrote the goddam rules and have played this game by this rulebook for a longer than most tech CEOs have been alive. As a result, the telcos and cable cos are very, very good at it. Meanwhile, as my friend and fellow traveller Jeff Chester at CDD observed the tech companies still can’t figure out how to play this game, or what they want to get out of it if they could figure it out. Or maybe they just like getting spanked, and miss the days when the intellectual property mafia would toast their little bottoms for them with legislation like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.
So, while still working with the tech lobbyists etc., the folks in the public interest community finally said “Screw this. You guys may be into getting spanked, but we prefer winning. And the way you win in democracy is by busting open the process, getting people to see what’s at stake, and reminding elected officials that their job is to do what’s best for their constituents not to referee industry food fights.” And thus, through the work of Free Press, Common Cause, Moveon and a host of others, was the SavetheInternet campaign born. And when the mainstream media refused to cover the story as too technical or boring or against the interest of their parent mega-companies, 500 bloggers took up the cry. And all this free speech stuff, that the telcos and the cable cos and the memebrs of Congress ignored because it doesn’t have a trade group and you can’t quantify it in dollar terms, really worked. And more and more people are writing letters and calling members and reminding them that there’s an election this fall.
There’s a lesson here; one backed up by the utter triumph of the pro-munibroadband forces against proposed amendments to outlaw munibroadband, or even to grandfather existing state-level bans. YOU CAN’T OUTSOURCE CITIZENSHIP. You can’t let “the tech companies” or even “the consumer advocates” or anyone speak for you. Citizenship carries responsibilities that go beyond the ritual of voting every two years. But when citizens wake up and speak up, and speak to each other, they find — to their surprise — they are strong. They find they have power. And they find that being a citizen may take hard work, but it is so, so, SO much better and more satisfying than being a couch potato. As the great Jewish sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not me then who? If not now, when?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the tech companies are on our side. They have a lot to offer, lots of resources, and, if they decide they are tired of of playing by the old rules and getting spanked, can really help push this effort over the top. But if we as citizens let this degenerate to a fight with Google, Microsoft and Silicon Valley venture capitalists who like tech start ups on one side v. AT&T, Comcast and Wall Street analysts who like monopolies on the other, with Congress brokering a deal between the two, then we citizens lose no matter which side wins. We can, we must, speak for ourselves.
When Ben Franklin left the Constitutional Convention someone shouted to him from the crowd “Mr. Franklin, what have you given us?” He answered “A republic — IF YOU CAN KEEP IT.” The Sausage Factory of democracy is a messy business, but it’s worth it. We can either let other folks make the sausage and eat whatever shit they put in, or we can wade in and make sure it comes out alright. We lost today’s battle. But we are turning the tide in the war. And if we keep growing and going like we have in the last week, we will win.
Stay tuned . . . .