They Took Your Seat

On Monday this week, at Harvard, the FCC held a meeting on Comcast and Net Neutrality, a chance for the public to air its views over the issues.

Turns out a not so funny little thing happened on the way to the forum: Comcast tried to pack the meeting, going so far as paying people to come in and take up the spaces that could have been filled by concerned members of the public.

How big are the stakes in the so-called network neutrality debate now raging before Congress and federal regulators?

Consider this: One side in the debate actually went to the trouble of hiring people off the street to pack a Federal Communications Commission meeting yesterday--and effectively keep some of its opponents out of the room.

Broadband giant Comcast--the subject of the F.C.C. hearing on network neutrality at the Harvard Law School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts--acknowledged that it did exactly that.

Trying to lock out the public is a great example of why we need net neutrality. If the other side will use their money to restrict public access to a public meeting, how can we feel confident they won't use their power to restrict voices in the virtual world?

And the company's response to the revelation doesn't exactly assuage that worry:

A number of people in the audience wore yellow highlighter marking pens on their shirts or jackets; Karr said that was to identify them to Comcast employees coordinating the company's appearance at the event. Khoury acknowledged that Comcast coordinated the employees that it brought to the hearing.

"For the past week, Free Press has engaged in a much more extensive campaign to lobby people to attend the hearing on its behalf," Khoury said.

The official response from this industry giant is to say that paying people to pack a hearing is simply a tit-for-tat response to the efforts of a grassroots organization of activists trying to make their voices heard. This is an outlook where money can overwhelm public participation, and where speech is a commodity not a sacred right of democracy.

The commercial success of the Internet, the entrepreneurship it has unleashed, has been because of its free and open architecture. The explosion of innovation that created boosted our national productivity and added untold billions to our national economy. To try to restrict the Internet would hamper the innovation still to come.

But even more important is the potential of the freedom on the Internet to transform our civic conversation - an effort we're watching right before our eyes. It's not a coincidence that has been the vehicle for millions to organize around the campaign of a firm supporter of net neutrality and the benefits of free and open information exchange. Freedom on the Internet is a core value for progressives, and it holds the potential for enormous advances in empowering citizens to take control of the political destiny of our country. Efforts like this by Comcast simply put in stark relief the importance of the fight for those values.

I'll be watching closely the future actions of these large companies around these hearings, and I'll continue to fight for more broadband access to an open, information-neutral Internet.