As some of you may recall, about 15 states considered legislation that would have prohibitted or effectively prohibitted municipal broadband systems. The only state to pass what ammounts to an absolute ban on new munibroadbad systems in 2005 was Nebraska. To throw the supporters of munibroadband a bone, the statute created a state commission to study the munibroadband question.
According to this op ed in the Lincoln, NB JournalStar, the Broadband Service Task Force (BSTF) is likely to recommend continuing the ban. According to the author of the op ed — Jack Gould, Chair of Common Cause NB (Common Cause national as well as local chapters have opposed legislative bans on muni systems) — this recommendation does not flow from independent research or even public sentiment expressed by the citizens of NB at open meetings. Rather, despite a 200K budget, the BSTF started late, did no independent research, and has not held a meeting where members of the public can testify. Instead, it has relied on written submissions from interested parties.
A coalition of national organizations (including my employer Media Access Project, Common Cause, and other national and Nebraska orgs) submitted comments opposing the munibroadband ban (with a big shout out to the Brennan Center for drafting the comments). But so have the local incumbents whom, Jack Gould notes, have a lot more weight with local policy makers than distant public interest groups who do not contribute to local campaigns.
I feel bad for the people of Nebraska, but only to a point. The key reason (IMHO) Nebraska adopted a muni ban last year when all other states rejected such proposals is that in all other states, local organizations came together and enlisted the help of local citizens to fight the proposals. By contrast, the folks in Nebraska tried to settle the matter with an insider compromise, then got rolled the last week the legislature was in service. Even now, the people of Nebraska could decide to get involved in this issue. But they haven't. So they will get the government they deserve.
Yesterday, Alex posted that the sponsors of the Copyright Modernization Act of 2006 got withdrawn from mark-up. Alex made a point of thanking everyone for once again calling their members of Congress to protest yet another expansion of IP rights at the expense of the public. Alex was exactly right.
As Nebraska continues to prove, what makes the difference between a succesful campaign against special interest legislation and a failure is citizen participation. It is an old chestnut of public policy that special interests can prevail because it is too hard for citizens to mobilize effectively against a cadre of extremely mobilized, disciplined lobbyists acting in their self-interest. But when the public does mobilize, it proves very effective in stopping special interest legislation.
The internet has helped make citizen engagement, civic discourse, and collective action easier. But it doesn't magically solve the problem. And, paradoxically, there is a danger that the very success of citizen engagement will ultimately lead to its failure. We keep beating back legislation like the CMA of 2006, but the special interests are still around to try again next Congress. Will the people who call their members of Congress eventually decide “oh, I don't need to make that call; these bills never pass”? Will the people who pay to support Public Knowledge and other organizations (such as my own employer, Media Access Project) eventually say “Oh, that isn't an emergency anymore. This year I'll support something to do with global warming”?
As the folks in Nebraska are finding out, you only have to lose once. Yeah, it's a hassle to have to make the same phone call every few months to remind your member of Congress they work for you, not the RIAA. But it's more of a hassle to have to live in a world where we leave policy to the motivated special interests that don't mind taking the time to exercise their First Amendment right to “petition their government for redress of grievances.”
Stay tuned . . .