Congress and the public will learn a lot about the Federal Communications Commission tomorrow. All five commissioners are due to testify before the House Communications Subcommittee at a general oversight hearing. It’s basically open season for any member of the subcommittee to ask any question about anything the Commission does.
This is the time the Commission, at least the Democratic commissioners, has to stand firm in defense of a couple of primary principles. Anything less will signal a fatal weakness that this Commission can be rolled by any industry and any industry’s friends, as well as by ideological opponents.
The first principle is Net Neutrality. All of the subcommittee Republicans and many of the Democrats are somehow opposed to the notion that the Internet should be open and free of discrimination. They want the big telephone and cable companies to be free to cut any deals, play any favorites and in general trash the culture that made the Internet what it is today.
President Obama campaigned on a different promise. He campaigned on a platform, written largely by now FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, of an open Internet. In a speech as recent as this May, Obama said he wants an Internet that is “open and free.”
Genachowski now has a chance to back up that platform and that rhetoric with a strong statement of intent to preserve and protect that open and free Internet. He will catch flack from many Subcommittee members who are beholden to the telephone and/or cable industries, but so be it. Similarly, new Commissioner Mignon Clyburn should speak up for Net Neutrality, to let the public know where she stands on the issue and to dispel any lingering doubts about her loyalty to the President’s platform. They should support legislation by Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) to codify a free and open Internet which protects basic Internet rights while allowing reasonable network management for telecom carriers.
Commissioner Michael Copps has always been a stalwart. Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Atwell would leave control of the Net to industry, on ideological grounds if nothing else. Their view may be popular with the Subcommittee, but it would be harmful to consumers and to the Net culture that grew up so successfully under a non-discrimination law.
The Commission (again, principally the Democrats) will also have to stand up for localism and diversity – two of the bedrock principles of the Communications Act. These seemingly well-accepted ideas may well come up in the context of the misguided Glenn Beck-led assault on Mark Lloyd, the Commission’s associate general counsel and diversity officer.
When the accusations that Lloyd, a distinguished lawyer and scholar in the public-interest community, was some sort of “czar” bent on looting right-wing radio stations and imposing the Fairness Doctrine, the Commission offered only a tepid and dense defense. Genachowski has to do better if the questions and accusations come.
He has to defend Lloyd personally and he has to defend the need for diversity in an economy in the strongest possible terms. He has to tell members of the subcommittee from rural districts that Lloyd is there to help them – to make sure, for example, that broadband policy helps everyone.
There are many in the public-interest community who were disappointed with the FCC when Beck first started his ugly campaign. More than 50 public interest groups sent a letter to the Commission defending Lloyd and FCC policies.
It’s time for the FCC to take a stand.