Transparency Isn’t the End, We Need Responsive Leadership

News reports indicate that we should expect to see Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal on net neutrality rules this week in advance of a December 14 vote on the rules. Whatever you think about net neutrality, Chairman Pai's move to release FCC rules before they are voted on is a step in the direction of good government. Transparency is a key ingredient to facilitate democratic participation, accountability, and trust in government. The question in the days ahead is, 'Will FCC leadership be responsive to the public's concerns in the net neutrality debate?'

At Benton we believe that communications policy—rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity—has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Unfortunately, many public interest advocates in this arena toil in anonymity. I often joke that we work in an obscure field that has profound impact on all of our lives and on the health of our democracy. But every once in a while, the public takes note of and interest in telecommunications policy. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" was one such instance. Hundreds of thousands of people contacted the FCC to say they were upset that Justin Timberlake briefly exposed Ms. Jackson's nipple during the Super Bowl Halftime Show.  The FCC's attempt to gut media ownership rules in 2003 (later thrown out by the courts) was another. More than half a million people contacted the FCC then, asking it not to change its rules.

Net neutrality is another issue of keen interest for the public. Back in 2014, you may recall, the FCC received three million comment from internet users, asking the Commission to adopt strong, enforceable rules. This year, the FCC has again received millions of comments from everyday citizens asking the Commission to preserve the rules it adopted in 2015 and that were upheld by the courts in 2016. 

Some decry the public's participation in these proceedings as emotional and/or superficial. FCC staff say the comments submitted by the public are not usually very deep or analytical or, you know, substantiated by evidence, documentary or otherwise. They're expressions of opinion. And, considered thus, they are discounted if not discarded entirely as suspect, unverifiable, unsophisticated. The only people who can have their concerns heard at the FCC, then, are lawyers, economists, or researchers—or the monied interests that can pay for them. 

If net neutrality's own jargon can be used as metaphor here ... lobbyists, lawyers, and economists—who mainly represent the companies and industries that are being regulated—get paid prioritization for their comments ... while the public's comments get a zero rating. 

When FCC Chairman Pai first announced he would begin the practice of releasing orders before voting on them, he said, "You should not have to have a high-priced lobbyist or hire a lawyer in Washington to figure out what it is the FCC is proposing to do." But what difference does it make, Chairman Pai, if the public learns about changes to their broadband service on November 23 or December 14 if, in the interim, the FCC refuses to be responsive to the concerns everyday citizens express about your proposal? 

Transparency is a great step. But we need more to facilitate democratic participation, accountability, and trust in government. The FCC needs to acknowledge that it's rare for ordinary Americans to speak up about free expression and corporate accountability in the internet industry; and it is hard for a person who works, commutes, and takes care of family to find time to participate in government proceedings -- and to research and write what the FCC might deem "substantive" comments. The FCC should recognize that personal experience is substantive, too. 

To truly build on the Commission's newly-adopted transparency, the FCC should treat its rulemakings as a genuine democratic process that values peoples' voice, history, and context. 

A tip of the cap, Chairman Pai, for revealing what's in the net neutrality order. But shame on you if you don't listen to the public's response and make substantive changes to address its concerns.


By Adrianne B. Furniss.