Al Franken: Net Neutrality is the Free Speech Issue of Our Time

Hundreds gather in the Twin Cities and online to put real faces to the debate over broadband access and regulation.

By Jamilah King Aug 20, 2010

The broadband debate got a lot more down to earth last night in Minnesota. Over 700 people gathered for a town hall meeting at a Twin Cities high school to talk about how, and why, the Internet should be regulated. (Watch the meeting in the video above.)

The topic of the night was net neutrality, the long-held principle that the Internet should remain free of interference from service providers. The goal was to turn a debate that’s been mostly relegated to the Beltway into a discussion with faces and real life stories of people who either can’t afford or aren’t invited to the decision-making table. And it was largely successful in demystifying a civil rights issue that’s often clad in tech heavy jargon.

The crowd was joined by over 1,000 online viewers who tuned in via live webcast of the talk, along with several dozen who, once the in-person gathering had filled to capacity, watched the action on televisions outside of South High School’s auditorium. The convening, organized in part by Free Press, the Center for Media Justice, and Minneapolis-based Main Street Project, featured FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, Michael Copps and Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Rictchie, along with amalia deloney from the Center for Media Justice and Free Press President Josh Silver. 

The town hall was the first public gathering on net neutrality in recent months, and happened on the same day that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski resumed talks on broadband regulation with major industry players in Washington. Those talks had actually begun in July, but were abruptly called off last week when Google announced its own half-hearted regulatory plan with Verizon. The meetings had already come under intense scrutiny from consumer advocates and civil rights groups, who demanded that the future of Internet policy be made by more than just a few key players.

"We feel media policy needs to be people centered and community based," said deloney, before the town hall. "You can’t have that without including people in the policy-making process."

At the town hall, deloney went on to explain how the Internet had played a crucial role in building media strategy for Guatamelans after federal immigration officials raided a processing plant in Postsville, Iowa, and detained 389 immigrants in 2008.

Sen. Franken explained what he saw as the dangers or letting companies write the rules they’re supposed to follow.

"I believe net neutrality is the first amendment issue of our time," Franken told the crowd. "Today a blog can load as fast as the Wall Street Journal, and if the blog is good, it can get more traffic than these media conglomerates. But if bigger companies can pay for faster priority Internet access, that blogger no longer has a shot."

Commissioner Cobbs expounded on the importance of the FCC getting its act together. 

"The point of regulators is to do things companies don’t like to protect consumers," he said.

In an effort to counter claims that regulation would stifle users’ online experiences, Commissioner Clyburn made sure to distinguish between who would be on the receiving ends of the rules. "Government will not regulate content on the Internet," she said, adding that the rules would only apply to Internet service providers in how they parcel out service to their users.

But while Franken, Copps and Mignon all spoke pointedly about what should be on everyone’s legislative agenda, it was the stories of ordinary people often left out of the debate that rang the loudest. 

"Having access to an open Internet allows me to level the playing field and amplify my voice in ways unimaginable," said Chaka Mikali, a Minneapolis-based housing organizer and musician, adding that it allows him to compete against corporations with unlimited resources. 

Mikali went on to explain how important broadband is in his political work, enabling him to communicate instantly with his organization’s 14 regional organizers, get in touch with city leaders, and follow up on job leads for mostly low-income tenants. All of that, he says, could be in jeopardy if telecom companies imposed a tiered, pay-for-play system.

After the official panel ended, 100 people in the audience gathered to address the FCC commissioners. One man, who identified himself as an engineer, urged the commission not to undo the hard work and innovation that pioneered the medium. The director of a homeless shelter spoke about how his center was often packed with people looking for jobs and housing. And a hearing-impaired woman spoke about the importance of the Internet in allowing people with disabilities to quickly access important information.

Organizers said it was important that the gathering happened in Minnesota. In a region of the country that’s often overlooked in an increasingly bicoastal debate, the focus of the night was to show how failing to regulate broadband could hurt communities of color the most, they said.

"I am always open to these types of exchanges," Commissioner Clyburn said before the gathering. "So look for me in a city near you."

Organizers are planning to do just that. Similar town hall meetings are in the works in cities across the country.