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5 Questions for...Helen Brunner, Director, Media Democracy Fund

March 03, 2011

The pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world have focused the world's attention on the importance of demography and the promise and perils of globalization. They've also demonstrated the growing power of new communications technologies to influence and affect change. From Egypt to Libya to Iran, the reponse of strongmen and dictators has been predictable: Shut it down. More and more, however, economic and educational opportunity, creativity, freedom of expression, and democracy are intertwined with and dependent on the Internet and wireless communication.

Brunner_helen Recently, PND chatted with Helen Brunner, director of the Media Democracy Fund, which partners with funders to make grants that "protect and promote the public's rights in the Digital Age," about events in the Arab world, net neutrality, and the role of nonprofit advocacy groups in ensuring that every American continues to benefit from an open 'Net.

Philanthropy News Digest: Over the last six weeks, we've seen autocratic regimes in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere attempt to squelch pro-democracy protests by "turning off" the Internet. How have those governments done it? And what does it say about the Internet as a neutral, open network?

Helen Brunner: I think it speaks to the centrality of the Internet to civil society and democratic movements across the world. The Internet is now the world's primary tool for communications and accessing information. You're right that it's problematic that a dictator can attempt to shut it off or limit access to information, as China does. Your readers might be surprised to learn that it's relatively simple to shut off the Internet — Fast Company has a recent piece that does a good job of explaining how it works — but essentially you can unplug it. Obviously, this is easier in repressive regimes, since they're already in control of much of the communications infrastructure or have an extremely close relationship to the providers. But it's way, way too late for us to go back to a world that doesn't rely on the Internet — that genie is out of the bottle. That's why it is so important to establish a strong set of protections that govern the Internet and what governments and corporations can and cannot do with it. We need to establish basic rights that protect a neutral and open network.

PND: Could something like that ever happen in the United States?

HB: Yes and no. The United States' current infrastructure would make it all but impossible to unplug our Internet. But that could change. Senators Lieberman (I-CT), Collins (R-ME), and Carper (D-DE) have introduced a bill, the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, that would allow the federal government to shut down civilian access to the Internet should a "cybersecurity emergency" arise and keep us offline indefinitely. Under the bill, "unplugging the Internet" would not require a judicial order.

PND: What does "net neutrality" mean, and why should Americans care?

HB: True net neutrality would prevent major Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon from blocking, slowing, or favoring one Internet user's content over another's. They would have to treat all content the same, which is the case today. My Web site loads as quickly as yours, which loads as quickly as CNN's or Fox News'. It means we wouldn't have to worry about a company prioritizing my Web content over your content based on money, political orientation, or whether they own the content themselves. If you think the average person should have access to any point of view, and that nonprofits should be able to use the Web to freely promote their ideas and messages, then net neutrality matters to you.

PND: The Federal Communications Commission passed new regulations concerning net neutrality in December, only to have the new Republican-controlled House vote to defund the FCC's efforts to enforce those regulations. What did the FCC propose, and why do Republicans in the House object?

HB: A very quick description of the FCC decision is that it created some weak and fairly vague consumer protections on the wired — broadband and dial-up — Internet, while leaving wireless Internet almost totally unprotected. One of the themes of the Republicans in the new Congress is a rejection of government regulation. However, if we want to protect small businesses and preserve the Internet's role as an engine of job creation, ensure that innovation flourishes, and guarantee that all Americans have access to a twenty-first century communications infrastructure, we need a "cop on the beat," so to speak.

Although the FCC has attempted to provide some assurance that everyone's content will continue to reliably reach its destination and now requires telecommunications companies to disclose their network management policies to consumers, the commission leaves open the possibility of economically motivated content discrimination. In a letter to the FCC before the vote, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) wrote: "Absent significant changes to the draft order as it has been described to me, adopting these rules as they are may actually send signals to industry endorsing any closing off of the Internet that is not specifically prohibited."

So, why are the big telecommunications companies suing the FCC and Republicans in Congress intent on blocking action by the commission? My guess is that Republicans prefer that there be zero free-speech and consumer protections when it comes to the Internet and — given their partial victory — are going for total victory. If they win, the ability for the FCC to enact the many provisions of the congressionally mandated National Broadband Plan will be in jeopardy.

PND: What should we be paying attention to over the next few months in terms of the debate?

HB: There are the lawsuits and two bills moving through Congress. But the decision is not the end, it's only the beginning. The new rules and the manner of their adoption underscore the deep need for more work in the media justice field, as well as the effectiveness of nonprofit advocacy groups working in this area. They are extraordinary organizers and are using every tool at their disposal, from town halls and viral videos to academic research, op-eds, and petition drives. Without their work, the FCC would likely not have included the consumer-protection provisions that made it into FCC Chairman Genachowski's proposal, some at the eleventh hour. That said, as the debate over a free and open Internet enters its next phase, the public interest community will need to work even harder.

Mitch Nauffts

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