Note: This is my contribution to “Open Internet Week” on the Free Press Action Network. Anyone can join in and start posting on the site, so please do.
This is an auspicious week for champions of an open Internet in the United States. On Tuesday, Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chip Pickering (R-MS) introduced the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008” (HR 5353). And on Friday, Media Alliance and a strong cohort of Bay Area organizations are hosting the Oakland Digital Inclusion Summit (ODIS).
If you’re in the Bay Area and you care about the open Internet, you should absolutely come to Laney College on Friday for this summit. The event starts at 10:00am, goes to 6:00, and is free.
Sadly, for these steps forward, the Senate has taken a step back this week by passing a version of the federal eavesdropping bill that grants immunity to the telcos that broke the law to participate in the Bush administration’s illegal domestic spying. The House can still stand tall in conference committee, but time is running out.
The Internet Freedom Preservation Act would require the FCC to ensure net neutrality on the Internet. If I could take a pen to it, I would revise section 3(4) of the bill, which proscribes favoritism “based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet” to include type of content. But I think that’s covered in other sections and overall it’s a wonderful and principled piece of legislation.
The bill mandates that the FCC hold at least 8 summits across the country over the course of the year to gather public input on Internet policy. The measure even specifies a 30-day advance notice for the summits so the commission can’t cheat its way around the public engagement.
As I said, the people of Oakland are not waiting for the FCC to come to them. And in contrast to an FCC hearing where the public submits testimony before the dais, tomorrow’s Oakland Summit includes a variety of formats to strengthen horizontal networks among the many local community-based digital inclusion efforts.
There are many measures that I hope will have their day in Congress in 2008. The Community Broadband Act would preempt state bans on government-funded, publicly-accessible broadband infrastructure. The Broadband Census Act, also from Rep. Markey, would greatly improve the federal government’s collection of data on Internet access (though Markey traded a specific 2 Mbps measure of broadband that was in the original draft in exchange for industry and bipartisan support, giving basic DSL service a reprieve).
I’m looking forward to 2009, when we might see the return of vital federal programs like the funding for Community Technology Centers (which Bush cut in 2002) and the Technology Opportunity Program (which Bush ended in 2004).
The potential downside to federal funding is that it could all wind up in the coffers of a single, dubious nonprofit like One Economy or Connect Kentucky that work in tandem with telco incumbents. To counter that, we need to educate lawmakers about the healthy variety of existing solutions, make the government grant process more accessible, and increase the capacity of community-based organizations to respond to requests for proposals (RFPs).
In using the “digital inclusion” framework, we are saying that we need to address the digital divide at the levels of Internet access or deployment, hardware provision, training and education, content production, and advocacy and organizing. And we are quick to demand that municipal broadband efforts facilitate or fund all of these areas. But our smaller organizations are only capable of one or two pieces of this work. And when we do collaborate, the tendency is to work within our specific discipline where we share a constituency, a culture, and funders.
We should be collaborating and interconnecting across disciplines, combining the best our community has to offer so we can offer a coherent, full-spectrum solution built on principles of efficiency, localism, and openness. We need to make the case that our locally-specific, community-based approaches are more effective than a top-down, industry-driven, cookie cutter solution.
Gatherings like the Oakland Summit are an important step towards making this happen. Such collaborations are the key to fulfilling the promises spelled out in the Internet Freedom Preservation Act and to laying the groundwork for more positive Internet policies in the coming years.