The Internet Discussion We're Not Having

The next President should convene a White House Conference on the Future of the Internet.

Our media are letting us down. From their mostly vapid coverage of the 2016 Presidential campaign on television to the paucity of new information on the Internet’s major “news” sites, the communications ecosystem is failing our democracy. It’s a failure that has already cost us dearly and a breakdown that will only get worse until we recognize and confront the damage that has been done. Sadly, amid the incessant hurling of personal broadsides and character assassination from many of the candidates, and the ubiquitous replay of sordid electioneering masquerading as “breaking news” on just about every channel, real coverage of issues gets the hindmost.

We’re all to blame, of course. We can’t deflect all the fault onto CBS network chief Les Moonves who crows about saturation coverage of Donald Trump being “damn good” news for CBS even as he opines it might be bad for America. “The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he is reported to have said. But we have to accept that the fault lies also with the millions of us who have watched passively as politics have been reduced to just another reality show—a spectator sport that can be consumed sitting in your living room, staring at a screen, and nursing a cold one. We have replaced real civic and community engagement, including voting, with the cheap thrill of watching another contestant get voted off the island. Anyone who seriously believes this kind of citizen engagement is adequate to meeting and mastering the troubles our country confronts is playing fast and loose with democracy.

Not so many years ago, I believed the new world of the Internet would become our twenty-first century town-square of democracy, paved with broadband bricks and digitally uniting and enabling all of us to hear and be heard. The best of new media would build on the traditional sources of news—radio, TV, and cable—and take it to a higher plane. I was enthused about the Internet because its power was at the edges where citizens live, and not at the center where big providers are accustomed to setting the rules of the road.

But it didn’t take me long after I became an FCC Commissioner to realize this was not even close to being the road we were traveling. The Internet, dynamic and filled with such awesome potential, was, in fact, already barreling down the highway of consolidation, commercialization, and gate-keeper control that had made such a mess of traditional media. Power on the Internet was moving quickly from the edge to the center—to the large corporate interests who had their own agendas, both commercial and political.

The Federal Communications Commission I joined in 2001, during the Bush 43 administration, was riding a bus to a different destination. It was busy approving hundreds of media consolidation deals wherein a few big companies gobbled up hundreds of previously local and independent media and then, in order to finance these multi-billion dollar transactions, proceeded to shutter or drastically shrink newsrooms and wipe out almost a third of investigative reporters and newsroom staff in the years since. News beats were eliminated. Left virtually uncovered by the media and thus hidden from the light of public scrutiny, state legislatures went on to pass stacks of special interest legislation that favored the powerful and ignored the rest of us. Coverage of community news, local cultures, minority groups, women, global events—all were drastically cut back in favor of homogenized infotainment, scratch-the-surface issues coverage, and shouted opinion-mongering. With precious few exceptions, fact-based investigative reporting was rapidly becoming the province of foreign news providers and narrowly-circulated journalism department investigations.

The FCC thought this was all great. It was, the majority believed, the work of God’s invisible hand guiding the free market, and it would all end up just fine—especially for the special interests whose business plans were green-lighted by the agency.

The same FCC acted in 2002 to remove the broadband Internet from any meaningful public interest oversight by transferring it from one part of the law, where such oversight was mandatory, to another vague part of the statute where it arguably was not. It was not until this last year, with its ruling on network neutrality, that the current FCC put broadband back where it belongs. It is not surprising that Big Cable and Big Telecom are challenging this decision in federal court. Whether it is allowed to stand has enormous implications for our media and our democracy.

An Open Internet, as the FCC ruling in 2015 provided, is where consumers can access the legal content they want, run applications of their choosing, attach devices, be protected against discrimination by gatekeepers, enjoy transparency, and harvest the benefits of innovation. The FCC put its soundest legal case forward to the court, and most observers believe its arguments will prevail. Court rulings are never a slam-dunk, however, and if there is a split decision upholding some parts of the rules but not others, legal pandemonium could go on for years. However the decision goes, it will be appealed, just like almost every other important FCC decision. Remember, too, that Congress might step in and, in its current composition, wreak incalculable damage on the future of net neutrality.

But the discussion over net neutrality must not be the end of our discussion about the future of the Internet. Indeed, far larger questions confront us. In their meticulously-researched and visionary new book, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols illumine the fundamental centrality of the Internet to our lives, and they bemoan the current civic environment wherein the country seems unable to “embark upon the necessary discussion about a digital revolution that may be every bit as disruptive as the industrial revolution.” The authors have a firm grasp of the truly life-altering effects that technology changes have had on us, and they understand that future changes will be even more impactful. The questions we are facing are hard and the answers will be uncertain:

  • How do we deal with a future where the Internet does much of the work you and I do now?
  • Can we accept a radical change in the nature of work itself?
  • How do we live with devices whose intelligence challenges our own?
  • Can we adapt, how will we live, and who will we be in this brave new world?

No one has answers to these questions, nor do I suggest that they are even possible to answer. But I do suggest that it is past time for us to start considering them, and we must do so in an inclusive, national conversation. If so much of our existence is going to be determined by utterly transformative technologies, then we must make certain that a tool as powerful as the Internet advances the common good and not the opposite. Discerning and defining the common good is the prerequisite of an Internet that serves us all.

To begin tackling these existential challenges, I suggest that the next President of the United States promptly convene a White House Conference on the Future of the Internet. Invited would be a cross-section of the nation: representatives from both the private and public sectors: policy thinkers, innovators, business people, academics, journalists, diverse public interest advocates, minority groups, and others. It should also include just plain citizens who are the ones with the most at stake because they will be the most affected by the results of the Conference findings, so they should be an integral part of developing those findings. This is a job too big for any one agency to undertake, including even the Federal Communications Commission where I worked for many years. Only the White House can convene this council and give it the credibility it needs to function.

There are many additional topics that a White House Conference on the Future of the Internet could address:

  • What is the balance of an individual’s privacy versus the needs of national security (witness the current Apple v. USA contretemps)?
  • How do we stimulate the production of news and information on the Internet, where no model seems thus far capable of replacing the fact-based investigative journalism that has been lost?
  • How do we get away from what McChesney and Nichols call a “shriveled political culture” wherein media have run away from their primary responsibility of providing the news, information, and investigative journalism essential to a democratic polity?
  • What role, if any, should public incentives play in providing the grist for our democratic dialogue?
  • What is the right mix of competition and consolidation on the Internet?
  • How do we keep it open and innovative?
  • How do we finally get high-speed, affordable broadband out to all our people?

Perhaps a successful White House Conference could lead to regular summits that address these questions and new issues that emerge as technology and communications services transform our lives in new and unpredictable ways.

Public policy will affect how the Internet evolves, and whether that effect is good or bad depends upon the actions we take now. Our challenge is to make sure we develop good public policy to guide transformative forces, such as the Internet, that will have such a strong role in shaping our futures.

By Michael Copps.