The Awesome Power of Information Infrastructure -- And You

From the desk of
Michael Copps

Today I begin a monthly blog for the Benton Foundation. I’m excited about doing this and thank my friend Charles Benton for the opportunity to share my thoughts with Benton’s faithful readers.

Let’s begin with an overview gleaned from 10 years as FCC Commissioner. (By the way, it’s one of the most fascinating jobs in the world—dealing with edge-of-the-envelope developments that are transforming our country, meeting the visionaries and the can-do people behind them, and being able to exercise independence of judgment in making decisions. I’ll write more about this in a later blog.)

The first great awakening that struck me when I took office in 2001 was the awesome power of information infrastructure to propel America’s progress in the Twenty-first century and to enhance our civic dialogue. As broadband took root, those with eyes to see quickly came to see that there was no problem confronting our nation -- lack of jobs, inadequate health care, growing energy dependence, deteriorating environment, lack of equal opportunity -- that did not have a broadband component as part of its solution. But the powers-that-were from 2001-2009 were asleep at the switch, as my old boss Senator Fritz Hollings would say, not understanding the importance of modern telecommunications and media infrastructure to our country’s progress. So America slept while other nations left us in the dust in the global broadband sweepstakes.

We have been especially slow to grasp how extensive the shortfall has been. The damage goes incalculably beyond just the mechanics of our telecommunications infrastructure. It goes to the heart of our small “d” democratic dialogue -- our national conversation with ourselves. We have allowed this critical component of our information infrastructure to deteriorate to levels dangerously inimical to the future of our always-fragile self-government.

It’s a story involving both traditional and new media. Traditional media -- radio, TV and cable -- have by-and-large stripped themselves of the resources needed to inform the American people; hundreds of newsrooms have been shuttered or drastically down-sized; investigative journalism hangs by a life-thread; and thousands of reporters walk the streets in search of a job rather than work the beats in search of a story. It might not be so bad if new media could clean up the old media mess. But by now we should realize it’s not on auto-pilot to do this. While interesting innovation and entrepreneurship are taking place on the Internet, nowhere do I see the sustaining model or the deep-pocketed resources needed to fuel democracy’s news and information requirements. Business hasn’t found the models and government hasn’t bothered to articulate the vision. So we are where we are -- under-informed about what’s happening in our communities, our country and the world—and skating perilously close to denying our citizens the basic information they need to make intelligent decisions for the future. Reversing this dangerous slide is America’s greatest challenge.

What will that take?

  1. A strong reassertion of the public interest in our media’s future. Not just traditional media, but new media, too. That doesn’t mean “regulating the Internet,” but it does mean understanding that if our civic dialogue is going to migrate eventually to new media, then those platforms are inherently, intrinsically and inevitably infused with public interest implications. This will be a complicated conversation, made all the more difficult by the histrionics of today’s “news and information” purveyors who will try to under-cut the debate even before it starts. Policy-makers in Congress, the White House and, yes, the FCC have an obligation to jump-start this national dialogue. Burying our heads in the sand or pretending things will just somehow work out is a recipe for national disaster.
  2. A real mission to build information infrastructure. This means not just steps to repair and reform Universal Service funding, which the FCC is commendably doing, It means marshalling our private and public resources to bring broadband and the Internet to every Americans—no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives. We need to understand this will be a huge and expensive mission. Building nationwide infrastructure doesn’t come on the cheap. It never has. But our country has lost millions of jobs and much of our global competitiveness , and we’re not going to get them back unless we develop telecommunications and information resources that relate to the real-world challenges and opportunities of the Twenty-first century.
  3. A clear-cut commitment to an Open Internet where citizens, not gate-keepers, determine where we go, what we read and write, what applications and devices we use, and where non-discrimination and transparency rule. To allow this most dynamic and liberating technology ever invented to be short-circuited by a few powerful interests would be a tragedy of truly historic proportions. Hopefully the public and private sectors can work together on this, but in the end it won’t happen without rules of the road. Special interests have had too much input into writing the few rules we have and the public has had too little. Government needs to lead.
  4. A comprehensive Digital-Media-News Literacy program, beginning with K-12 but extending to all of us. A media environment wherein opinion claims to be fact, entertainment pretends to be news, and shouting claims to be rational discourse, short-changes democracy and endangers self-government.

Future postings will dig deeper into all this. For now, I will only underscore the urgency I feel about these issues. It is why I intend to keep speaking and writing about them in my "life after the FCC." But nothing good will happen without you. Forty years in Washington, DC tell me that while some good change can come from the top down, real change—the systemic stuff that actually enhances democracy and moves us forward—comes from the bottom up. It develops and grows from the grassroots, gathers power locality by locality, spreads across the country, and only then translates into public policy.

Begin with this: you really are the leaders you have been waiting for.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries.

By Michael Copps.