Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 73 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Todd O'Boyle on network neutrality and democracy. Listen to this episode here.
Todd O'Boyle: This is why this is the free speech issue of the 21st Century.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi, and welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
This week, Chris checks in with Todd O'Boyle, Program Director for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause. The group began in the 1970s, as an organized movement of citizens concerned about the U.S. democratic process. Fortunately, it continues today, working to educate citizens on a variety of issues, like media and democracy, money and politics, and ethics in government. At ILSR, we find our work often in sync with Common Cause, and we have collaborated on a few projects.
Today, Chris and Todd discuss net neutrality, along with related issues that influence the quality of our democracy. Common Cause recently released a comic titled "Big Deal, Big Money," that describes how issues such as transparency, lobbying dollars, and corporate influence threaten our voices. It's a great piece that really brings together all the different pieces of net neutrality, and explains how huge corporate interests use the political process to try to end it. Here are Chris and Todd.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell. And I'm here today with my friend, Todd O'Boyle, Program Director for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause. Welcome to the show.
Todd: Thanks, Chris.
Chris: Excellent. You and I have known each other for quite some time. We met face to face for the first time at the National Conference For Media Reform out in Boston, I think.
Todd: Yeah, in 2011.
Chris: It seems like we've done a lot since then. Who don't you tell us a little bit about Common Cause?
Todd: Sure. Common Cause is a national, nonpartisan nonprofit that was formed forty-some-odd years ago to promote good governance and transparency, get the money out of politics, and basically make American democracy function better. So that means we have a number of program areas in 36 state chapters across the country.
Chris: Excellent. I know some of those state chapters have been involved in fights over community networks. Down in Nebraska, I know, in particular, you have a gentleman who is very involved in that, and has been involved for many years. In Colorado, in Minnesota, we've had a lot of important allies, who have been with Common Cause over the years. So we thank you for that.
Todd: Absolutely. And on the national level, of course, listeners to this broadcast know that you and I wrote a report together, a two-part report, on the case of Wilson, North Carolina, GreenLight municipal broadband network. My home town, and thus the subject of some graduate research I did.
Chris: Right. I was the first case study. And the second one was how Time Warner Cable went to the state legislature and got a law passed to make sure other communities couldn't do that. That was a -- it's a great report. I hope people that are not familiar with it will go check it out.
But let's start off with a little bit of talk on community networks. You're interested in making government work better. How do community networks play into that?
Todd: Well, it's in several ways. Common Cause is really concerned with the corruptive role of money in politics. And everywhere you look, when it comes to the restrictive bills that preempt or eliminate municipal broadband, or scale it back, those are always, you know, to a one, the result of intensive lobbying campaigns by the biggest telecommunications firms in the nation. They're using so-called ALEC "model" bills. This is another major focus for Common Cause: the American Legislative Exchange Council, and its attempts to pass industry-friendly, consumer-unfriendly legislation on a state by state basis. We get concerned about that -- the process side of things. But then, also, substantively, in the 21st Century, the way that voters inform themselves and activists organize themselves is online. And so that means we need universal, quality, and affordable telecommunications, strong regulatory oversight, strong public interest, consumer oversight, to make sure that folks have access to the information they need to make the decisions they -- you know, that make the decisions that are fundamental to democracy.
Chris: So, with community networks, you see them as playing both the role of informing people. But also, you see this issue where the main reason that this is a policy fight at the state level is because of all the money that a few big companies can pour into the political process and just try to dominate and get their way, whether they're doing it themselves or whether they're with ALEC.
Chris: But you said it comes down to making sure people have good access to information that they need. And also that a lot of these fights just come down to very powerful companies dumping a ton of money into the state legislatures. Now, you also -- you're active more at the national level, I think, for your particular work. And, you know, Common Cause, I know, has a bunch of state offices that are more or less autonomous. But you really work at the national level. So, what do you see in terms of community networks there? What's your sense of how their people in D.C. think about this issue?
Todd: Well, I'd say that we have some legislators that have expressed strong support of a municipal authority to create its own networks, and for communities to provide for themselves. And we've also got some that are fairly opposed. Others that -- maybe it's just not on their radar. So that's really the task of folks like yourself, myself, and our listeners, to really raise and say this is an issue that matters. There's not as much awareness as I think there should be. I think, even among policymakers, there's often an assumption of, well, you know, the Internet, it's just sort of -- you've got the local cable company, right? So, I think there's a need for some greater education, maybe on the staff level, about the importance of competition in the broadband marketplace, and the fact that, you know, we got to this place where we are, with many communities feeling they've been left behind, and they need to resort to building a network of their own, because we made some policy decisions more than a decade ago to eliminate competition in wired broadband. So, not everyone is aware that, you know, internationally, consumers in many countries get lower prices for higher speeds. And there needs to be some awareness-raising. That's one thing that we work on when we make visits to The Hill -- is to say, you know, whether you realize it or not, competitor countries -- our peers abroad -- have, you know, better service for a better dollar.
Chris: So, one of the issues that is always in a national focus, because it's never really been a state issue -- states don't have power over it -- is network neutrality. I don't want you to spend a lot of time describing a really visual product, but you guys came up with a really fun comic. We're going to make sure that we're linking to that in our show notes, so people can find it. But why don't you tell us a little bit about your work on network neutrality, and what it is.
Todd: Well, we worked with the artists at Symbolia magazine. And I'll plug them, because they do a great job of illustrating journalism. They tell the news of the day in an illustrated fashion. And it's really persuasive, very engaging, and it's interactive. We worked with them to tell the story of Verizon's multi-million-dollar -- I think it was a $53 million -- was the final tally we came up with -- for the amount of money they had spent, lobbying, campaign contributions, over the last several years.
Chris: And there's probably other ways that they've snuck in some lobbying that wasn't included in that.
Todd: Or there's dark money they spent, through anonymous, unaccountable ads. We may not be able to know that, in the post-Citizens-United world, just how much money they're putting in, and by what means. But, yeah, I would say that IS a floor. And so we set about telling the story of how we got to the place we are right now. Of -- first, the Comcast case, earlier -- you know, a few years back. And then, the FCC rules that we have on the books, that are supposed to protect consumers, and offer some network neutrality protections -- but don't go nearly far enough, in our opinion. And even these weak rules are the target of a Verizon lawsuit. And the point is, Verizon has shown that they will spend whatever it takes, all over Washington and up and down the levels of government -- state and local level as well -- to push their anti-consumer agenda. And so, yeah, we put together some artwork that tells a story and gets away from some of the really complex, technical points, about Title I vs. Title II, and simply says, this is what's at stake: your ability to inform yourself as a voter, your ability to communicate with people around you, your ability to access the sites that are most important to you, that you depend on, the ability to use the apps that you want on the cell phone or tablet that you've already paid for.
So, you know, we tried to convey that message, in an artistic and engaging way. We had a lot of success with it. It really blew us away in terms of our web traffic. We were on the front page of Reddit for about 24 hours, which I don't think anybody was expecting, but that happened. And we were really excited to see that a whole raft of people that had maybe never heard of Common Cause were able to come, check out what we got going on, and maybe learn a little bit about Verizon's money and influence-peddling.
Chris: Yeah. I have to remind people that Verizon, you know, they actually were basically camped out in Chairman Genachowski's office while he was developing these rules. And Verizon had tremendous input in how the rules were written. And as soon as they were passed, Verizon turned around and filed a lawsuit to try and get rid of them. I just can't even imagine. I would have been so livid if I was at the FCC in that. But, you know, these people from Verizon, they don't really suffer from that. Because they own D.C., it seems like. They can just do whatever they want.
Todd: It's funny you tell the story of how Verizon helped negotiate these rules that they're now challenging. The ink was still drying. In fact, their first attempt to challenge the rules in court was dismissed, because -- on a technicality: since the rules weren't yet technically in effect when they filed their challenge, they were dismissed in round one. And then they came back another -- later, and brought suit against the FCC, on the grounds that the FCC didn't have the authority to enforce network neutrality. And also, they said that they should have editorial control over the Internet, which is pretty disturbing, if you think about it, as a matter of free speech online. The idea that Verizon claims the right to censor users, and what they are accessing, saying, or doing online. This is why, to paraphrase Senator Franken, this is the free speech issue of the 21st Century.
Chris: You always know you can curry favor with me by quoting Senator Franken, one of our truly inspiring folks from up here in Minnesota, on the issue of Internet freedom.
Todd: Yeah. And you're also well-served by Senator Klobuchar, who has done a great job of standing up for consumers, particularly in the wireless space.
Chris: One of the other issues that you work on is transparency. And we've touched on it a little bit. And it's part of the way you come to the community network issue -- is on trying to make sure big companies aren't disrupting our elections and basically sneaking their legislation through. And some of this actually relates to television and the Federal Communications Commission. So, why don't you tell us a little bit about your work on this transparency issue, and how it's related to some recent news about the new commissioner -- Chairman of the FCC?
Todd: We have long supported transparency and ad disclosure at Common Cause. We really feel that it's just a fundamental part of a functioning democracy. That if we're going to have unlimited political spending -- which is itself a problem. But if we're going to have unlimited political campaign expenditures, then voters have a right to know who is behind these ads. And it turns out that the FCC has had, for decades, the authority to require what's called sponsorship identification. So, the FCC regulates the airwaves and also cablecasters. And so, if you're running something on the airwaves, the FCC does have jurisdiction over it. Has jurisdiction over broadcast licensees -- I ought to be more precise. And the FCC could, with a simple vote at the commission, compel broadcasters to require disclosure -- donor disclosure -- of who's funding these anonymous, shadowy, so-called "dark money" ads. That if someone says, you know, this ad brought to you by Citizens For Motherhood and Apple Pie, you really ought to have a chance to know who's behind that. And is that really about motherhood and apple pie? Or is that about pushing an anti-consumer, anti-environment, anti-voter, you-name-it agenda? Even the Citizens United decision, as odious as it was, eight of the nine justices agreed that disclosure of political funding is entirely consistent with the First Amendment. So we're calling on the FCC to enforce the authority it has on the books.
Again, to repeat, Congress gave the FCC the authority to compel ad disclosures -- sponsorship identification -- in the '30s. They have had this power for decades. Congress has rewritten and amended the Communications Act several times since then, and they've left this in every time. I think that's all the Congressional authority you need for the FCC to say, it's high time that voters get the transparency they deserve. We can make political ad disclosure a reality. And they would take a simple vote. We'd have it in time for the 2014 off-year elections. We are pushing the Commission. We're asking Chairman Wheeler to take this issue on, and make transparency a reality.
Chris: And I think we should note that there's two angles for getting at this. One is, certainly, the Federal Communications Commission should just be able to take action with the authority it has. And then, there's a different approach, which is the Disclose Act, which is actually legislation in Congress. And I wanted to note that, you know, disclosure something that benefits both people on the right and people on the left. This is a nonpartisan issue. Because whether you're upset about the money that Mayor Bloomberg is putting in to try and take guns off the streets, or whether you're, you know, upset about an issue that the left -- or the right -- is moving forward, no matter who it is, I would think we'd want to know who's pushing these ads.
But the Disclose Act was held up by a few senators that put anonymous holds on it. And there was a big story in "On the Media" about it. But I just want to get at -- the FCC can solve a lot of this by just taking action with the authority it already has.
Todd: Yeah. You're absolutely right, Chris. And I'm glad you make the distinction between the Disclose Act and Section 317 of the Telecommunications Act. Senator Ted Cruz put a hold on Tom Wheeler's confirmation to chair the FCC, because, he said, oh, I don't want the FCC legislating the Disclose Act. And I think it bears repeating, that there's a difference. I mean, the Disclose Act included political disclosure and several other provisions. Section 317 deals with sponsorship identification for broadca- -- and would be a requirement of broadcast licensees. It would give voters a very real measure -- and an important measure -- of transparency and accountability in the political process. But the issues are distinct. I think it is high time that the FCC move on this. The GAO -- the Government Accountability Office -- released a report earlier this year saying, yes, indeed, the FCC has the authority to do this. And so I think that's all we really need to know. It's time for the FCC to do something about this.
Chris: What else should the FCC be doing? We -- as you and I are speaking, we have the new FCC finally coming in. They've been confirmed. They're going to be taking the oath shortly. What do you think they should be doing?
Todd: Well, I think it is time that we get back to a world of media diversity. We've seen what happens when you allow corporate media titans to monopolize the media. We end up with less localism, less diversity. The media no longer is able to serve its function of holding the power accountable and informing democracy. And so, let's put the brakes on media consolidation, one. And then, two, let's roll it back.
So, we're encouraged to see that the FCC is moving forward with low-power FM licensing. And that's a good start. But let's make sure that we take further consolidation off the table, and look for ways that we can roll it back.
I'd say another good place for the FCC to continue its work is on public interest telecommunications. Let's make sure that we have strong net neutrality protections for consumers. Let's preserve the open and uncensored Internet. There's just too much at stake otherwise.
And, thirdly, I'd say, let's make disclosure a reality. Let's give voters what they deserve. And let's make that a priority. We can get there in time for the 2014 elections.
Chris: Great! Well, thank you for coming on.
Todd: Thanks, Chris. It's a pleasure. Any time.
Lisa: Thank you, Todd O'Boyle, for visiting with us today. You can access, "Big Deal, Big Money" at the commoncause.org website. We also provide a link on muninetworks.org blog at the commoncause tag. For two case studies that Chris and Todd coauthored, go to muninetworks.org and click on "reports" from the "Resources" drop-down menu.
We want to encourage you to contact us if you have ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can follow us on Twitter, where our handle is @communitynets . This show was released on November 19, 2013. Thank you to the group Mudhoney for their song, "The Neutral," licensed using Creative Commons. Have a great day.