FCC Town Hall: Standing-room-only crowd in Minneapolis


Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Senator Al Franken jumpstarted last night’s town hall meeting on the future of the Internet at South High Auditorium.  The 600 in that audience didn’t realize they were the chosen few – the fire marshal halted admissions at 600 for safety reasons.  With minor outbursts, Twin Cities advocates of every stripe listened, then took turns expressing their unique spin.

Uptake video above – Senator Al Franken speaks with The UpTake’s Jacob Wheeler in Minneapolis prior to his addressing the FCC hearing on net neutrality, August 19, 2010

FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, both advocates for the vox populi, spoke to the challenges they face as presidential appointees on a regulatory agency operating in the eye of the storm.  The immediate challenge is the proposal for tiered internet service from new-best-friends Verizon and Google.  The commissioners also face regulatory challenges including network neutrality, media ownership, broadband development and conflicting priorities.  Speaking to the choir, they made it clear that they represent David in a pitched battle with the Goliath of aggressive corporate maneuvers, past regulatory inaction, economic disparities, global communications and the competing forces of the bottom line versus the public interest. 

Other speakers included representatives of the sponsoring organizations: Free Press CEO  Josh Silver, Minneapolis native Amalia Deloney of the http://centerformediajustice.org/ and Steven Renderos of the Main Street Project.  Laura Waterman Wittstock, host of KFAI’s the Circle, Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, and HOPE Community organizer/hip hop artist Chaka Mkali set the local scene with their articulate and passionate plea to the FCC Commissioners to listen – and to take aggressive action.

And then the audience took to the microphones.  More than 60 vocal activists, speaking on behalf of at least that many constituencies, tried with limited success to hold to the two-minute limit.  Some consistent themes prevailed in their messages:

  • Regulation is a powerful and essential role of government – the FCC has been negligent, even complicit, in favoring industry over the public interest.
  • Access to information, defined to incorporate the skills of access, is a human right.
  • Digital tools and access are essential to civic engagement.
  • Interest groups that speak for specific target populations – e.g. rural residents and businesses, ethnic groups, people with disabilities, creative artists, the homeless – must be at the table – and heard.
  • Alternative access options, such as libraries and technology centers, are underfunded and ill-equipped to meet the overwhelming needs of those who cannot afford, lack skills or face a impenetrable range of barriers to information.  At the same time, government resources and services are increasingly accessible only in digital format, requiring tools and skills that are beyond the reach of many who need and have every right to government services.
  • Information, no matter its nature, lacks value until and unless it is shared, accessible and put to use.  Small business developers and entrepreneurs depend on access to information to create products and services.  At the same time, small business depends on information and communications tools to protect, promote and manage the business of meeting market expectations.
  • Because government alone is not the answer and because government can and has exacerbated the problem, it’s up to “the people” to take the reins.
  • The time is now and the future of the Internet is at stake
  • The Federal Communications Commission is the regulatory agency with the mandate to define, represent and preserve the public interest against all odds.
  • Those present and the constituents they represent will defend and support the commissioners and other defenders of the public interest.

This list is culled from two hours of impassioned comments.  The good news for those who could not attend – and for those who were there and need to listen, weigh and reflect on what they heard, intrepid volunteers from TheUpTake streamed and videotaped the entire evening.

The town hall meeting pumped new energy into the ongoing community discussion, helped to create a sense of community among divergent interests, gave voice to some new leaders, and affirmed that the future of the Internet is not a passing phase.  The conversation continues on Tuesday, August 24, when Senator Klobuchar and FCC  Chair Julius Genachowski (who came in for heaps of blame at last evening’s town meeting) headline a Broadband Summit at the University of Minnesota Carlson School.