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Net Neutrality's Quiet Crusader

Scott, who was in Washington at the time, joined soon after.

"It was the moment when core policies were being set up on the future of digital media and communications," McChesney said. "For Ben, who had studied this stuff, it was like asking a political scientist to be chief of staff to the president."

The issue also resonated with Free Press's fast-growing membership. Members regularly blasted the FCC and lawmakers with e-mails, video and online petitions. They flooded the agency's hearings on media ownership around the country to protest the rules. A Philadelphia district court eventually overturned the regulations, sending the FCC back to the drawing board.

"What we've done is organize the massive pent-up frustration that the media wasn't measuring up," Scott said.

Harnessing that is sometimes just a matter of capturing a moment and publicizing it online.

When Free Press employees discovered Comcast had paid people to attend the hearing at Harvard and appear supportive of the company, it blasted e-mails with photos and video of some hired stand-ins sleeping in the front rows. The video was viewed 60,000 times on YouTube.

Members of Free Press "are people in their 20s and 30s who are active in politics, who have grown up on the Net, who have come to learn and appreciate the value of the Net and want to preserve it," said Richard Whitt, the Washington telecom and media counsel for Google.

If the issues are new to Washington, so is Scott's understated style.

The son of a Methodist minister, Scott is no bombast. He doesn't interrupt people. When he speaks -- whether it's about media ownership or low-power radio -- he does so with a studied economy of words, and in a voice that makes people crane to hear him.

"Ben Scott and his people are bringing thoughtful, knowledgeable arguments and doing their homework," said Blair Levin, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. "And they never are saying they want you do something 'because we said so.' "

Scott's kindred spirit at the FCC might be Democratic commissioner Michael J. Copps, also a student of history who recently read a biography on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Scott and Copps recently bonded over the book, drawing comparisons between the New Deal and net neutrality. At another meeting that day, Scott and the other Democratic commissioner, Jonathan S. Adelstein, held forth on legal definitions and case law for net neutrality.

Scott understands that effectiveness lies in the ability to cater the message to the right audience.

"Ultimately power is transacted on a personal level," he said, "and ultimately people make decisions based on conversations with people that they trust."

Catherine Bohigian, chief of the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning, said Scott keeps discussions going by advocating without aggression.

"You are able to talk about issues and don't have personalities that get in the way," she said. "We've been on the other side with him on some issues; but being a nice guy, you want to work with him."

It's not that Free Press's approach doesn't occasionally backfire.

On Valentine's Day, as part of an e-mail campaign, Free Press posted an fictional online video of FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin in a hotel room with big corporate lobbyists.

"Let's just say I didn't get calls back from the chairman's office for a couple weeks," Scott said.

Eventually Scott was forgiven, and Martin consulted him about a net neutrality hearing scheduled for next month at Stanford University.

"There have been times I might have agreed or disagreed with the position he's taken, but his ability to mobilize at the grass-roots level and advocate and communicate effectively has certainly had an influence at the commission," Martin said of Scott.

At Scott's urging, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) wrote a bill in June to expand the number of low-power radio stations on the FM dial -- an issue that had languished for a long time.

After low-power advocates Pete "Petri Dish" Tridish and Hannah Sassaman approached Scott three years ago to craft their message and go against the powerful National Association of Broadcasters, Doyle took up their cause.

"What people don't know is that getting a bill like this together requires a lot of hard work. It's laborious, and a lot of people don't want to do it," Doyle said. "But Ben and his people are coming prepared and with all the facts and figures and willing to do the hard work and that makes us on the committee really take notice."

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