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The FCC’s Public Problem

Yesterday, Gigi Sohn, a senior advisor and legal counsel for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, took to Twitter for an extended Q&A with the public. And remarkably, by most accounts, the discussion was actually useful.

The Twitter chat was prompted by the enormous public outcry in recent weeks regarding Chairman Wheeler’s plans to implement a “pay for play” system on the Internet. That push back from the public has now forced Wheeler to revise his proposal, which would have dismantled the idea of net neutrality and undermined the level playing field of the Internet  (but even this rewrite may not solve the problem). As I have written before, this is particularly troubling in terms of people’s access to news, information and a diversity of voices and viewpoints online.

Sohn should be commended for her willingness to listen and talk honestly about these important issues, but it may have been too little too late.

In the past week more than 50 artists and entertainers have joined 50 investors, 10 senators and huge coalitions of public interest groups and tech companies in blasting Wheeler’s proposal. In a rare move, two of Wheeler’s democratic colleagues on the Commission released statements acknowledging their concerns.

This reversal is just the most recent in a long line of policy moves where the FCC has been caught off guard by public protest and broad-based pressure. For an agency that was established, in part, to protect the public interest, it has an enormous problem with the public.

Two years ago, as the nation voted President Obama into office for a second term, the former FCC chairman began to push a proposal to relax the nation’s media ownership limits. Jim Puzzanghera broke the news in the Los Angeles Times on November 6, 2012, writing, “Federal regulators are poised to ease ownership restrictions… And unlike previous battles, there is little opposition this time to easing the so-called cross-ownership rules.”

Within a weeks the press was writing a very different story. Civil rights organizations, unions and public interest groups began mobilizing at the local and national level. And by the end of the month members of Congress were weighing in against the plan. Petitions, emails and phone calls flooded the agency before the end of the year and forced the FCC to delay their vote. By early 2013 reports were emerging that the plan was dead.

This story could be written over and over again. The FCC has yet to develop strategies for meaningfully listening to the public and using public feedback in the policy making process. Even in 2006 and 2007 when it held numerous public hearings around the U.S., the events were often structured in a way that made it difficult for people to participate. And, even though the vast majority of public comments opposed media consolidation, the agency attempted to move bad rules forward anyway.

It’s common for DC insiders to complain about online petitions, or massive phone call campaigns that overwhelm the agency and their staff. But those tools are often all that is available to communities when the FCC seems to act first and ask questions later. Even the FCC’s own online commenting system is a nightmare to navigate for the average person who wants to learn about and participate in policy debates.

If the FCC doesn’t want to play this game of chicken with the public every time it takes up a controversial issue, it needs to find new ways to engage the public in deep discussions about the critical policy debates of the day and find ways for that feedback to truly inform the policy making process. Twitter chats are great, but that only reaches a small segment of the public.

In the nearly ten years that I have been working on media policy our technology has become increasingly more personal. As such, what used to be wonky policy debates are now of profound interest to many people who see how policy decisions impact how they use their TVs, phones and computers. But the FCC has failed to understand how media and technology have become so central to our lives, and that people want to have a stake in the debates about their rights to connect and communicate.

Until it figures it out, I expect the public – led by groups like Free Press – to continue to hold the FCC’s feet to the fire and to fight for a seat at the table.

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