The Federal Communications Commission's newest Democrat, Mignon
Clyburn, had some interesting comments to make about net neutrality on
Friday at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council's Social Justice summit. They came as the rush to stop the FCC from implementing its proposed Internet non-discrimination rules
is in full force. And leading the charge are groups that, ironically,
say they're opposed to discrimination, among them the MMTC.
For example, here's the latest from the National Caucus of Black State Legislators. The FCC, its latest press release
warns, is taking up Internet regulations "that many civil rights
advocates fear could impede broadband adoption and could, instead, lead
to increased digital disenfranchisement of our nation’s minority and
low-income communities." And to the House and Senate leadership, NCBSL wrote the following:
"Much of the net neutrality debate has more to do with providing
high-end users (such as the peer-to-peer traffickers who account for
20% of Internet use) with access to large amounts of bandwidth at the
expense of everyday users. Thus we are concerned that unmanaged
networks would leave the underserved with increased costs and
It should be noted that higher costs with less service is exactly what net neutrality advocates warn could happen with unfairly "managed" networks—priority access deals in which content
providers would pay more for better network flow, or consumers would
pay more for IP video, voice, or online gaming, or they'd pay more when
content companies passed their priority access costs along.
But when it comes to the priority access question, the MMTC says
bring it on. In fact, the group uses some of the same wording as AT&T's filing on the issue (e.g., "voluntary arrangements").
"Under the terms of this proposed rule, broadband Internet access
service providers would be prohibited from entering into voluntary
arrangements by which content, application, or service providers agree
to pay for enhanced or prioritized services," MMTC writes.
"While phrased as a 'nondiscrimination' rule, this proposal could have
the effect of requiring broadband providers to recover the costs of
their next generation networks entirely from end-user consumers because
broadband providers would be denied the flexibility to charge Internet
companies for enhanced or prioritized services."
To this mainstream civil rights wisdom comes Commissioner Clyburn,
an African-American woman who clearly thinks differently here. In her
speech, Clyburn praised the work of Jonathan Moore, Founder & CEO
of Rowdy Orbit IPTV, whose got his entertaining "life-in-the-hood" animated series started on a hope and a prayer.
"The reality is that minority content is almost impossible to get
distributed through traditional channels," Clyburn noted. But with an
initial investment of $526, Moore put his video network online. "Had
the costs of access been much greater, however—say if he had to buy his
way into priority status on one or more networks—Rowdy Orbit may never
have seen the light of day," Clyburn added.
Then she lobbed this concern into the crowd. "To my surprise,
most of the filings submitted and public statements issued by some of
the leading groups representing people of color on this matter have
been silent on this make-or-break issue," Clyburn confided. "There has
been almost no discussion of how important—how essential—it is for
traditionally underrepresented groups to maintain the low barriers to
entry that our current open Internet provides."
She pointed out that, historically, the main concern for most
minority media advocacy groups has been (up until now), eliminating
barriers of entry for entrepreneurs, such as in radio and television.
Minorities own 7% of licensed radio stations and only 3% of full power
television signals. "These numbers are appalling, and they show no sign
of improving in the near future."
The Internet could change these percentages, Clyburn noted,
adding that minorities are "faced with one of those rare moments in
time where a sea change is actually possible for groups that have
traditionally been marginalized by the structure of the communications
I fear that if we miss the boat on this opportunity,
the Internet will end up becoming media ownership 2.0. I do not buy the
argument that all regulation is dangerous, and I am confident that you
do not either. I believe in smart regulation, which is why, for
example, we have begun a process that will account for reasonable
network management. But I hope we can work together to create strong
rules that do not cede control of the most significant communications
advancement in our lifetimes. By sitting this one out, or worse, by
throwing up roadblocks that will enable what is now "our" Internet to
become "their" Internet, we simply would be reinstating the very kinds
of imbalanced structures that we have been attempting for decades to
dismantle in other contexts.
The dominant feeling
Mignon Clyburn is turning out to be someone other than what many
observers expected. She's certain swimming in a different direction on
this issue than most civil rights advocates,
including the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and
100 Black Men (big exception: the National Hispanic Media Coalition,
which Clyburn mentioned in her comments, is pro-net neutrality. And in doing so she's also defying the worried predictions of prominent net neutrality advocates.
"Behind closed doors, just about everyone I've talked with—right
across the board—has been deeply concerned that Ms. Clyburn will be a
disaster for the public interest," wrote prominent media reform
advocate Sasha Meinrath following her nomination by President Obama in May. "The dominant
feeling is that she is extremely tight with the telecom incumbents and
that having her on the FCC will all but ensure a stalemate that will
prevent any meaningful telecom reforms from being passed."
And Public Knowledge's Art Brodsky, noting the pro-incumbent telco
tilt of the South Carolina Public Service Commission, where she
previous served, warned hat there will doubtless be pressure on her to follow the policies that
veteran telecom attorneys from the region acknowledge she has long
We asked Brodsky what he thought of Friday's talk at the MMTC.
"I think we were right to raise the questions early on, and now the
Commissioner's speech on the subject, speaks for itself (as do her
other comments on the topic.)," he told us. "Even more importantly, she
brought into more public attention the fact that not all minority
groups are opposed to Net Neutrality, citing the National Hispanic
Media Coalition's comments. That, to me, is the most significant aspect
of her speech."
Ditto, said Meinrath. "I think Commissioner Clyburn was particularly
courageous in calling folks out on this issue," he told us. But: "The
real key will be how the Commission votes on these issues, the boldness
of the national broadband plan (which appears to be floundering), and
the ways in which the Commission deals with the backlog of numerous key
proceedings that are detrimentally impacting the state of
telecommunications across the country."