The Personal Democracy Forum is one of the foremost gatherings anywhere of people who use the Internet. Wander around and you will find entrepreneurs, developers, writers, activists (and many of those here fall into multiple categories) all of whom are working in some form on political activity online.
And so the problem, and the promise, of trying to make sure that Internet remained open showed up starkly in the first presentation, by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. In the on-stage interview with PDF founder Andrew Rasiej, Wales was asked (full disclosure: I asked the question) whether the concept whether the Internet could contribute to a new governance structure depended on everyone having access to broadband and to a non-discriminatory Internet.
Wales’ reply was telling. He basically ducked the question. “I have no idea. I build web sites,” he said. His views on an open Internet were complex and he wasn’t sure about them, Wales said. For good measure, Wales also said he wasn’t sure about broadband subsidies because those were some form of corporate welfare. We might agree about the second. Universal service subsidies to telephone companies have been debated for years. But that he wasn’t sure whether he was in favor of an open Internet was baffling and disappointing.
Several attendees tweeted about his response, and the good news is that many of them were critical of Wales failing to take a position on an issue so central to the web sites he builds. How will Wikipedia fare when the telephone and cable companies come calling with their offer of “quality of service” extra charges to make sure that Wikipedia loads correctly? That will cost him some money. How much will future Wikipedia pages suffer when multimedia articles are slowed to a crawl? It is simply irresponsible for an industry figure like Wales not to be in the front lines for a cause on which his creation depends. Wikipedia is the creation of its users. If those users also are hobbled in what they do online, Wikipedia suffers.
If Wales needs some education on the issue, he should check out the speeches of FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. In her latest, to the Media Institute, Clyburn provided a stirring defense of the need to go ahead with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s plan to make certain consumers and innovation are protected online. Clyburn has turned into a bold and effective spokeswoman for a free and open Internet. Her latest is built around the legal argument, while this one gets to the heart of the societal challenges around broadband and links them to the FCC actions.
It’s not understating the case to say the FCC needs all the public support it can get, particularly from the corporate community. Wales shouldn’t be able to shrug off so fundamental a question.
Unfortunately, Wales is not alone, as writer Jason Rosenbaum wrote in an excellent post on Firedog Lake. His question: Where are the big pro- net neutrality corporations? Rosenbaum writes: “For companies that make their money delivering services over the Internet, net neutrality is a key business concern. So where’s their fight?”
His observation: “They’ve joined together in the Open Internet Coalition and have been running a grassroots-style campaign for a long time now, and these efforts are well and good. But preserving net neutrality is a core piece of their business model, so it’s time to up the ante. These companies have gobs of money – they need to hire lobbyists to educate Members of Congress about the importance of net neutrality. They need to buy television ads, start convincing users online that the issue is important through online advertising, and in general start digging into those deep pockets.
“This battle doesn’t have to be David vs. Goliath. It’s time our own Goliaths got involved.”
AT&T spent about $6 million in the first quarter alone this year for lobbying. Google spent $4 million in all of last year, which is more than any other big Internet company, unfortunately. It’s time for the rest of the industry, big and small, to step up and let Congress and the FCC know. The future of Wikipedia, and dozens and dozens of other companies, is on the line.