U.S. Broadband and the Public Interest: A Deafening Silence? Now is the Time to Raise the Stakes

As the Senate considers legislation that could set the framework for U.S. digital communications for years to come, we are disappointed about the narrowness of the debate. Network neutrality, while vitally important, should not be the “end-all” in terms of addressing how the public interest must be served in the emerging digital era. Public interest groups and others should be pressing members of Congress and other allies to address how, for example, broadband communications can generate financial and other resources for Americans trapped in poverty. We should be asking now how phone and cable high-speed systems can be used to improve public education. Where are the calls for policies that would break open the lock that cable, phone, and broadcast companies will still have over digital television services? The time is also ripe to address campaign reform in the era of targeted digital advertising (where big money will still largely determine one’s political reach). Privacy, including protections from both government and commercial surveillance, should also be on the agenda.

Two weeks ago, NY State Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer decried the “lack of vision and investment” when he released a “universal broadband access” plan for New York. Spitzer was referring to his state. But we believe there is overall a “lack of vision” coming from those who care about the future of the country. Everyone who knows digital media recognizes that it will be one of the most powerful forces shaping our society. We will be defined as a culture by what we do with the ubiquitous, interactive, personalized, and virtual system that is about to unfold.

Network neutrality has justly generated a tremendous response—thanks to the good folks at Free Press, Common Cause and many others. But it is the `no-brainer’ of broadband politics. Stopping a Bell/cable takeover of the Internet is clearly required. But so are policies that ensure that today’s network neutrality proponents—such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and Goggle—aren’t just allowed to privately prosper. They and the phone and cable companies ultimately share the same business model—a broadband system where consumerism plays the dominant role in our lives. We must demand more than just an Internet that can deliver interactive ads.

Once legislation passes, our U.S. broadband system will quickly evolve. Market structures will be created. It will be harder to make changes. We understand that with a heavily business captured Administration, Congress, and FCC, a public interest agenda would be impossible to get. But it would set the stage for what should be raging and passionate action in the years to come to create a digital media system that nurtures free speech, civic participation, and social justice. With Senate Commerce Co-chair Daniel Inouye now in support of net neutrality and greater community control, groups may have an ally to begin such a call.

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