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Helen Brunner, Founding Director, Media Democracy Fund

April 27, 2016

Helen Brunner, founding director of the Media Democracy Fund and an advisor to the Quixote Foundation, recently was awarded the Council on Foundations' 2016 Robert Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking for her efforts to protect the public's basic rights in the digital age and to secure universal access to a free and open Internet. Central to that work was funding and organizing the successful campaign to preserve net neutrality that culminated in the Federal Communications Commission's 2015 decision to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or "throttling" — intentionally slowing — the flow of legal content or services and from offering "fast lanes" for a fee.

PND spoke with Brunner about the role of philanthropy in the ongoing debates over freedom of expression, data privacy, and the impact of social media on civic discourse.

Helen_brunnerPhilanthropy News Digest: The supporters of net neutrality seemed to have won a decisive victory last year, but the issue is being adjudicated again, with Internet service providers suing the FCC over the rules it issued in 2015 to protect the "open" Internet. Given that the court hearing the complaint is the same one that blocked the commission's earlier rules on net neutrality, how hopeful are you the new rules will be upheld?

Helen Brunner: I'm extremely hopeful they will be upheld, because I think this time we got it right. One of the things the commission didn't do in 2010 was to actually reclassify the Internet so that it could be regulated the way the commission regulates telephony. The Internet originally was regulated as a telecommunications service, but then the FCC decided, for a brief period, to regulate it more as an information service. But then they realized the Internet was far too important in terms of driving the economy — and innovation — to hamper it in that way, that the openness and innovation engendered by the Internet wasn't as well protected as when it was regulated as a common carrier. So they switched back, and that is, in fact, the current classification that enabled us to argue for "open" Internet, or net neutrality rules, under the rule of law properly.

So I'm hopeful the court will come back with a positive ruling. We had an extraordinarily good attorney arguing in court for the public interest petitioners, but the one thing that might come back for further review is mobile, which we care very much about because so many vulnerable populations rely on it for their Internet access. If the court feels that adequate notice wasn't given for that rule to be tasked, then the FCC will just go through the procedure again and get it right. That might be a concession the court would make in order to give more time for the big mobile companies to respond as to why they think it's a bad idea. And, of course, it would also give advocates of net neutrality another chance to respond as to why it's so important for the public interest and vulnerable populations for mobile to be neutral. There's a great deal of sympathy at the commission for that position.

PND: Social media played a major role in galvanizing public calls to preserve net neutrality and keep the Internet open. At the same time, social media seems to have had a pretty corrosive effect on civic discourse and the expectation of a right to privacy. Are those the kinds of inevitable trade-offs we all must accept as the price of the democratization of communication in the digital age? Or can something be done to slow or even reverse those trends?

HB: These are societal issues as well, whether we're talking about the coarsening of civic discourse or the aggressive tone of pundits in mainstream media. Social media is indeed amplifying all that, but I think we see polarized discourse everywhere, so it's something we need to address on a broader level. That said, there are some technical innovations that can cause social media to go off on a bad track, including something called "bots" on social media that can be used to drive discourse in a highly polarized direction, as well as techniques that enable companies to create false narratives. Now that isn't to say there aren't real dialogues and genuine arguments on social media, but there are things we can do to address the problem of bots, and there are several projects that different people are working on with the goal of at least eliminating the artificial hyping of phony debates.

PND: The Scrivner Award recognizes your "creative grantmaking" in fighting "for the public's basic rights in the digital age and to secure universal access to a free and open Internet." How did your earlier work with nonprofit arts organizations shape your strategies to help protect freedom of expression in the digital age?

HB: Well, I'll give you an example. When I was involved in the arts and the National Association of Artists Organizations, I was on the Hill lobbying for freedom of expression and the protection of the National Endowment for the Arts artists' fellowships and realized that the Telecom Act had the potential to open the door for an enormous number of mergers and the homogenization of voices. Before that, through a grant from what later became the Open Society Foundations, we were conducting a multi-time-zone panel — it was the very early days, and we were doing it on bulletin boards and things like that, very primitive. Nonetheless, when I saw fourteen artists living in fourteen different countries, from South America to Africa to Europe and Asia, debating the issues of the day and who would be the best artist to forge an exchange between the former Eastern Bloc countries and the United States, the hair stood up on my arms. I realized then the extraordinary importance of growing and protecting this platform and network for movements around the world.

Similarly, the campaigns we did early on around the AIDS pandemic — Day Without Art, Red Ribbon, those kinds of things — also showed me the power of symbols and of direct constituent-to-policy maker discourse that circumvents traditional lobbying. And so when we did things like the Internet blackout to prevent the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act, that was very much in my mind and connected to Day Without Art, in that it focused attention on what might happen if we didn't have the Internet.

PND: The FBI's demand that Apple unlock the iPhone of a suspect in the San Bernardino terrorism attack underscored, as few things in recent memory have, the delicate balance between data privacy and national security. Which party was correct in that dispute? And in an open, pluralistic society that depends on its digital devices for almost everything, where should that balance be struck?

HB: Well, it is a delicate balance, and it is something that needs to be examined rigorously from all sides. In this particular case, I strongly believe Apple was right, because if the government is able to establish a precedent with respect to unlocking phones, it will make everybody less secure, including the Department of Defense, which has been uncompromising in saying that encryption is actually a critical component of national security. I mean, if backdoors are put in, that means the backdoors are there for everybody, including the bad guys. Is that what we want? I don't think so. There are so many cyber-security experts who have come down on the side of encryption, and it's really law enforcement that is not quite understanding the technology enough to understand that what it is asking for would create many more possibilities for terrorists and others to be able to get in and get what they need to plan things that would harm us.

So as we go forward and it all gets more layered and more complicated, as it will, because that's the nature of technology, we need to look at how we structure our technology so that societies are protected. In fact, we're now working on a program with [Harvard University professor] Latanya Sweeney and [Federal Trade Commission chief technologist] Ashkan Soltani that is aimed at building and diversifying the pipeline of technologists. The Ford, Open Society, and Knight foundations pooled resources in order to increase the number of technologists who understand public interest technology and who would be willing to work in government and to advise policy makers. And the Hewlett Foundation, under the leadership of Larry Kramer and program officer Eli Sugarman are taking a leadership role in looking at the cyber security space. I was just at a meeting they convened where many different points of view were expressed, and it was, I think, a step forward in the broader discussion.

The other thing that our grantees are attempting to do is to change the rules in terms of who is allowed into the security briefings for the members of Congress. As it stands now, members of Congress go into briefings without their aides, because their aides don't have high enough security clearance. What that means is members of Congress have no backup in terms of staff or others who can explain the technology, and so they only hear law enforcement's or Homeland Security's side of the issue. As you might guess, we see this as an important structural change that would help a lot in terms of policy maker education. And there are other programs folks are putting together that directly address policy maker education at the city and federal levels, although I don't know that we have enough resources to address the issue at the state level yet, which is a problem. It's an ongoing need, and if we fail to address it there will be unintended consequences for all of us.

PND: In a video on the Media Democracy Fund website, you address the question, "What would the future look like without the open Internet" by asking, instead: "What kind of world is possible if we actually had a robust and healthy communications system that enabled any individual, anywhere, to learn anything, start a business, and establish a rich network of contacts across the globe?" How would you answer your own question? And what should philanthropy be doing to bring about such a world?

HB: There are any number of protections that need to be put in as we understand things like big data and how it is used or not used in the society we live in now. At a session on big data at the Council on Foundations earlier this month, I realized that philanthropy's understanding of big data is about ten years behind where it should be, so there's room for a lot of education in philanthropy. It's critically important.

To answer your question about what kind of world an open Internet makes possible, let me say it would mean, to give you one example, that we would be able to address the "homework gap" for young people in this country who do not have connectivity at home and who sit outside libraries at night trying to pick up a Wi-Fi signal so they can get their homework done, or who drive sixty miles to the one place on the reservation with Internet, waiting in line for an hour to get ten minutes on the computer, and then driving back home. It's a huge problem in terms of educating our kids, especially our least advantaged kids.

It's also a huge problem in terms of health care. Without a fat pipe, we can't have telemedicine that would allow a world-class stroke center to look at the scans of someone in rural America who's had a stroke and determine the type of treatment that person needs to keep them from becoming permanently paralyzed. We only have 49 percent broadband penetration in rural areas, and it's even worse on tribal lands.

It would enable us to communicate and organize across the globe for water rights, which is becoming an increasingly important issue, as well as other human rights. The open Internet is central to the ability to fulfill human rights around the globe, and it would help give us a world where people can access world-class health care, a world-class education, where they could express themselves and mobilize, where they could vote and be much more civically engaged, at every level. We can see that in cities that have built their own municipal networks, cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Lafayette, Louisiana. I think we need to do a longitudinal study that looks at communities that are putting in muni-broadband and study the impact over five, ten, fifteen years to make sure we've actually moved the needle on people's quality of life and ability to engage with elected officials and others in positions of power.

As copper phone lines are eliminated and people are no longer able to call 911 unless they have broadband, we need to be thinking about how we are going to address issues like that. And if we come together to create a healthy communications system, we will be more connected and cohesive as a society, every individual will be able to express him- or herself, every individual will be able to get the information they need and access quality health care. It will make it much, much easier for people to age in place, and that, in turn, will create enormous benefits for those communities and the people who call them home. We can do this, and there's no reason we shouldn't.

— Kyoko Uchida

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