Politicians, Artists Draw Broadband Battle Lines

The FCC could cut a net neutrality deal before Christmas.

By Jamilah King Nov 22, 2010

There are messy shots being fired this week in the long-simmering debate over who gets to control the nation’s Web traffic. Last week reports surfaced that FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski is planning to implement net neutrality rules before Christmas. Now as the commission tries to finally position itself before the GOP gains congressional control in January, power players in the black community are exchanging fighting words over which policies serve them best.

The debate over net neutrality has been waged by activists and techies for close to a decade. In short, proponents argue that the principle of net neutrality should be formally adopted by the FCC in order to keep Internet service providers from interfering with content on their networks. But companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast claim that they need flexibility to manage traffic on their lines, and that regulation would just makes their jobs a lot harder.

Genachowski’s proposal could come as soon as Wednesday, some sources believe. The proposal that Genachowski allegedly pushing, but has so far denied publicly, is said to look a lot like Rep. Henry Waxman’s aborted effort from earlier this fall. But there’s one big exception: Genachowski’s reportedly pushing to include wireless protections, reports Politico.

The chairman has been criticized in the past for appearing spineless in the face of big telecom companies’ demands. President Obama campaigned strongly on a pro-net neutrality platform in 2008, and appointed Genachowski as the person to help carry that agenda forward.

The FCC is in a race against the clock. Incoming Republicans have already told the commission to back off of net neutrality altogether. The leading GOP contenders for the House Energy and Commerce Committee have all "voiced strong concern with the FCC’s net neutrality rules," Kim Hart wrote for Politico.

"We’re happy that the chairman is moving forward," said Joe Torres, government relations manager for Free Press. "We just hope [the proposal] isn’t watered down."

Torres noted that so far there’s been little public discussion over whether the commission will reclassify broadband as a universal service, thereby making it easier to for the commission to regulate on legal grounds by putting it into the same regulatory family as landline phone and television services.

Meanwhile, some African American activists continue to question the motives of big name opponents of net neutrality, especially on the Democrats’ side. Last week Wired reported that James Rucker, executive director of Color of Change, an African American online advocacy group, wrote a letter to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi urging her to oppose the candidacy of Bobby Rush to become the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

"Congressman Rush has repeatedly supported the interests of the telecommunications industry over the interests of regular people, and has been a fierce opponent of network neutrality," Rucker wrote.

"I have grave doubts that Congressman Rush is capable of being an honest broker on important telecommunications matters," he continued. "AT&T, America’s oldest and largest telecommunications company, has long been one of the larges donors to Congressman Rush’s campaign committee and leadership PAC."

The letter alleges that both Rush and Fred Upton count on AT&T as a major donor, and have questionable motives for speaking out against net neutrality.

In response to Rucker’s allegations, Rush wrote in a statement that he is "extremely proud" of his decades of service, and has worked "tirelessly and effectively on a vast number of issues."

"I will not allow the Silicon Valley funded Color of Change.org group, which purports to "strengthen Black America’s political voice" through the Internet, to call into question my integrity and honesty to lead the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet as its Ranking Member," Rush wrote.

"The notion that this Silicon Valley controlled group should have the only word on what is in the best interests of people of color is foolish. When an organization rents a Silicon Valley glass house, they ought to be careful about throwing stones."

Artists try to make an impact

And just as net neutrality claws its way back into the headlines, there’s more on how artists are positioning themselves as stakeholders in the debate. Last week, spoken word poets helped steal the show at a town hall meeting sponsored by left leaning advocacy organizations in New Mexico. In a three part series at Oakland Local, Eric Arnold pushes the issue even farther.

For Arnold, a long time Bay Area-based music journalist, the debate’s importance is simple.

"For artists, the question is whether they’ll be able to maintain freedom of expression across multimedia platforms, he writes.

Of course, shady record labels and faulty distribution deals are nothing new for some artists, but Arnold argues that the Internet was supposed to have helped democratize that process a bit. And now, he says, that’s all in jeopardy, especially for independent musicians.

To help argue that point further, Eric Arnold wrote for in a series for Oakland Local about slippery slope many indy artists might face if the FCC fails to regulate broadband Internet. He focuses on Bay Area rapper Mistah F.A.B., who released his local hit "My Life" within 24 hours after Oscar Grant was killed by former BART officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland on New Year’s Day in 2009. The song was a racially charged attempt to "enlighten people to what’s going on," F.A.B. told Oakland Local.

"I knew that the local radio station wasn’t gonna play it. I knew the clubs weren’t going to play it," he said.

Instead, this song became popular a popular Bay Area anthem against police brutality on YouTube, according to Arnold. He also sheds some light on just how just how far back the struggle between indy artists and telco goes.  In 2006, hip-hop journalist Davey D wrote an open letter to hip-hop warning that the same powerful telecommunications companies that helped cripple urban radio now have their eyes on the Internet.

"How this policy war is resolved will shape the American economy and American pop culture for decades," Arnold writes.