People Powered Policy Making

The mission of Free Press – the organization I work for – is to educate the public about the media policy decisions that shape everything we watch, read and hear and to amplify the voice of the public in those policy debates. For too long, media policy has been made in our name, but without our consent. Policies are shaped by those who have access to the halls of power, and we are fighting every day to give the public a seat at the table so that our policy makers hear from real citizens, not just corporate lobbyists.

However, recently a number of people have questioned if the public should really have a say in media policy. The policies that govern everything from cable TV to mobile phones and radio to the Internet are extraordinarily complicated, and involve a range of engineering, law, and business problems (as well as implications for civic, democratic and justice issues of course). For shorthand we usually just say this stuff is wonky. Some have argued, that given the complicated nature of these debates what can the public add and who really should be dictating the future of our media system?

For example, this past week David Cohen,executive vice president of Comcast gave a talk on the issues of Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality is the principle that the internet was built on – that all data online is treated equal. It stops internet companies from interfering with your life online, and ensures that they can’t privilege some websites over others. It is, essentially the first amendment of the digital age. Whether the FCC can or should codify net neutrality principles is perhaps the most hotly debated media policy issue right now.

However, regardless of the clear and far reaching implications of Net Neutrality for the public, Cohen dismissed public input, saying essentially – “trust us, just leave it to the experts.” “Net Neutrality is, first and foremost, an engineering issue,” he said. “Opinion is not a basis for national policy, he added later. “It must be grounded in engineering principles, based on facts and data, consistent with the public interest.” While engineers may be experts on how networks work, I don’t think they are experts on how the Internet shapes people’s lives in diverse communities across the country. Engineers ought not be the arbiters of our public interest.

To truly understand what is in the public interest, Free Press believes you have to talk to the public. To that end, we have spent years working with the Federal Communications Commission – getting them out of Washington DC, and into neighborhood across America. We’ve helped turn out tens of thousands of people to provide public testimony about the impact of media ownership and the internet on their lives. If engineers are experts in network management, the public are experts on the public interest.

The most recent of these public hearings was held in Albequerue, New Mexico (co-sponsored with the Center for Media Justice and the Media Literacy Project). It was a powerful event where people from across New Mexico talked about the role of the internet in education, social justice, employment, small business, creativity and more. People of all ages and backgrounds spoke – some read poetry they had written especially for that event. But even this event sparked questions about the role of the public as evidenced by these two tweets:

There is a bias in our policy making process that privileges expert opinions over everyday perspectives. And it’s a bias that only serves those with the resources to hire experts. Unfortunately, this bias has only been reinforced by the current chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. When Julius Genachowski came into office he promised to make the agency more open and transparent to the public, but also promised to base all of his decisions on a “data-driven process.” Data comes in many shapes and sizes, but in a practical sense a reliance on data privileges those who have access to the data and the skills and resources to crunch it. In short, experts. Indeed, Genachowski has not attended one public field hearing held by the FCC yet.

Free Press has a phenomenal legal and research team – but it is five people with a limited budget working on every media policy currently in play in DC and fighting hundreds of companies and their associations. Juxtapose this against one company like Comcast who has over 30 firms and more than 80 former government employees on its lobbying payroll, not to mention an army of researchers, engineers and analysts. Ironically, the FCC should be the people’s experts – engineers, lawyers, and researchers working in the public’s interest. But because of the political system, these experts, who may or may not want to do the right thing, either succumb to industry pressure, or have their expertise sidelined in the name of corporate politics. Thus, when our policies are based on experts alone, the public loses out.

In recent years policymaking has been held hostage by America’s biggest industries. The results are telling. Financial policy written in favor of big banks and Wall Street resulted in the biggest financial crisis in decades. Environmental policy written in favor of big oil resulted in the biggest oil spill in history. Media policy written in favor of the biggest media giants resulted in unprecedented consolidation and contributed to the loss of more than 30,000 journalists jobs. Which means, of course, that there are fewer and fewer watchdogs monitoring the policymaking process and empowering the public to get involved.

When we leave policy to pundits, lobbyists and experts alone we sacrifice it to Washington D.C. conventional wisdom. There is no doubt that each of these stakeholders has a role to play – but they all must be understood through the lens of our communities and informed by the voice of the public. When policies are being considered we have to understand how the rubber meets the road across America. If we were to open up policy making to genuinely engage communities in the process we would have to respect and honor all the ways people make sense of the world around them, and the impact that policy has.

Policy has to be informed by the people. Myles Horton, the community organizer and educator, used to say that people are experts on their own lives and experiences. Similarly, just this weekend at the Personal Democracy Forum in Chile Ricardo Faúndez of Digitales por Chile said, “La mejor solución está al interior de las personas más involucradas en el problema.”

Translation: “The best solution is within the people involved in the problem.” That is a lesson, our policy makers would do well to learn and it is up to us to teach them.

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