Net Neutrality's Quiet Crusader
Friday, March 28, 2008
Bearing video cameras, laptops and cellphones, a small army of young activists flooded into a recent federal meeting in protest.
Members of public-interest group Free Press weren't there to support a presidential candidate or decry global warming. The tech-savvy hundreds came to the Federal Communications Commission's hearing at Harvard Law School last month to push new rules for the Internet.
For the first time, Congress and the FCC are debating wide-reaching Web regulations and policies that would determine how much control cable and telecommunications companies would have over the Internet. The issue has given rise to a new political constituency raised on text messaging and social networking and relies on e-mail blasts and online video clips in its advocacy.
Although Free Press has generated buzz for its aggressive and sometimes controversial tactics online, its ringleader in Washington is an unlikely crusader. A soft-spoken 30-year-old PhD candidate, Ben Scott has become an operator in multibillion-dollar battles involving corporate titans, regulators and consumers debating policies over who controls the media and the Internet.
"There have been policy moments in the past when the market has been shaped by decisions made in Washington -- radio in the 1930s, television in the 1950s and cable in the 1980s. That moment is now for the Internet," said Scott, who runs a nine-member office.
Working mostly behind the scenes, Scott has been a driving force for "net neutrality," a concept that in policy terms has come to mean enforcement of open access online, so cable and telecom operators cannot block or delay content that travels over their networks. In a complaint filed at the FCC last November, Scott and his staff called for action against Comcast, which admitted it slowed content over its network involving the BitTorrent file-sharing site.
Scott and the group's 500,000 members, most of whom joined online, helped sell their argument. Free Press drew together strange bedfellows, including the Christian Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gun Owners of America, and helped set in motion a broader debate on the issue that resulted in the recent FCC hearing in Cambridge, Mass. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also sponsored a bill to strengthen governance against Internet service providers trying to control consumers' Web access over their networks.
"Ben has exquisite political judgment and is a key player in net neutrality and wireless issues because he represents a new, grass-roots dynamic in the battle against media concentration and the communications colossus," said Markey, chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.
Under pressure, Comcast yesterday said it would work with BitTorrent to improve the transfer of large files over the network.
Free Press's critics -- who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions on net neutrality policy are ongoing -- say the group often oversimplifies complex technical issues, dismissing the importance of some network management practices that block spam and pornography, for example. Free Press is also not the populist group it makes itself out to be, critics noted, partnering with corporate interests when it suits its goals, as it did with Google on net neutrality. Also, they said the group is not as boot-strapped as it may appear, with donors such as billionaire George Soros and singer Barbra Streisand.
Free Press has more than $5 million in funding, in part from major foundations such as the Soros Open Society Institute. Its annual lobbying budget is $250,000, compared with the $13.8 million spent by Verizon Communications, $17.1 million by AT&T and $8.9 million by Comcast last year.
The group, founded in 2003, was the brainchild of Scott's doctoral adviser, University of Illinois media history professor Robert McChesney. Its first mandate was to fight policy changes allowing greater media consolidation between local newspapers and broadcast concerns.