Ellen S. Miller Co-Founder and Executive Director The Sunlight Foundation 1818 N Street, NW Suite 410 Washington, DC 20036 June 8, 2009 Comment on GN Docket No. 09-51 -- In the Matter of A National Broadband Plan for Our Future To the Commission: The Sunlight Foundation welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Commissionâ€™s development of a national broadband plan. The Sunlight Foundation was founded in 2006 with the non-partisan mission of using the power of the internet to make information about the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens. Through our projects and grant-making, Sunlight catalyzes political transparency and fosters openness and accountability in government. Accordingly, our comments will primarily address questions raised in the broadband Notice of Inquiry regarding civic participation in paragraphs 70 and 71. We also briefly address transparency in the rulemaking process itself (paragraph 9), the definition of broadband (paragraph 18), open networks principles (paragraph 47), and privacy issues (paragraphs 59 and 66). Introduction The internet represents a qualitative change in the way we can communicate with one another, with tremendous implications for our democracy. We have merged marketplaces, meeting places, and civic spaces in an infinitely scaleable way. As a result, we can educate ourselves on policy issues, have direct contact with policymakers, and organize around shared interests in ways unprecedented in human history. The opportunities for collaboration are virtually endless. The internet affords our representative democracy increasing opportunities for a sustainably high level of civic engagement. However, internet-enabled civic engagement still faces hurdles. Users must: (1) Possess a minimum level of technological sophistication; (2) Possess sufficient financial resources to afford a device to connect to the internet and pay for the data transmission; and (3) Be able to communicate by methods such as typing and reading as contrasted with speaking and listening. (This is also a comparatively slower method of communication.) Advancing technology, combined with innovation and competition, is working to significantly lower these hurdles. The minimum level of technological sophistication required to use the internet is diminishing, especially with the increasing prevalence of smart phones and simplified user interfaces. Competition is driving down some of the costs of connecting to the internet, although much more can be done in this area. Finally, the increasing prevalence of video and, to a lesser extent, voice-recognition technology is reducing the minimum educational level necessary for users to effectively communicate.
At the same time, the internet can significantly reduce three major communication constraints that are inherent in physical world communications: (1) How many people can fit in a given space; (2) The number of people who can speak at once; and (3) The costs of duplicating and sharing information. The consequence of reducing these constraints is that people can more easily collaborate with one another at virtually no cost on projects of immense proportions. Wikipedia, Ebay, Google Apps, and CraigsList provide but a few of many examples of internet-enabled collaboration. Abundant bandwidth promotes communications in ways that come naturally to people: speaking and listening. It also creates a feedback loop that prompts the invention of applications to take advantage of every increasing bandwidth. However, even with "sufficient" bandwidth, all users must be able to access the internet. The FCC needs to ensure that persons with the least financial means and those living in rural areas have access high speed internet service as well. All users must be able to afford the internet connection itself as well as the hardware and software necessary to make use of the connection. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 38% of rural Americans have broadband access at home, as compared to 57% of urban residents. And although 55% of Americans have broadband access at home, only 25% of Americans with annual household incomes of $20,000 have access. (See http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2008/ PIP_Broadband_2008.pdf) More should be done. As the internet has become better able to replicate traditional ways of accessing information -- such as television, radio, newspapers, movies, and land line telephones -- these older means of communication are being superseded. The internet's power lies in that it is omnimedia: it provides all the traditional means of communications and facilitates many more. These changes in how (and what) we can communicate, and the speed with which we can do so, will profoundly reshape our democracy. Universal broadband access, ever-increasing bandwidth, and respect for the basic principles underpinning the internet, such as privacy and network neutrality, will result in greater civic involvement in our democracy and stronger connections to one another. This comment addresses the following issues: civic participation, transparency in the rulemaking process itself, the definition of broadband, network neutrality principles, and privacy. Questions posed in the NOI are indicated by italics. Civic Participation Questions Raised in the NOI In Paragraphs 70-71 How to interpret and implement the Recovery Act requirement to formulate a "plan for use of broadband infrastructure and services in advancing . . . civic participation?" The FCC should interpret the ARRA directive to formulate a broadband plan to include a mandate to work with all kinds of communications providers to provide broadband access to
all users at affordable costs. The formulation of the plan should go beyond typical notice and comment rulemaking to include people who have traditionally lacked the time or political expertise to be involved. One factor the FCC should use to evaluate universal broadband access is the rate with which users can transmit and receive information. The agency should publish periodic reports on broadband penetration and transmission rates, including evaluations and rankings of broadband service providers. In addition, over time, the FCC should increase the transmission rate used as a benchmark to evaluate whether a user can be classified as having access to broadband. Because universal broadband access is thus a moving target, the FCC should interpret this rule as providing an ongoing authority to revisit its broadband regulatory regime on a regular basis. The FCC should create a citizen review board to assist the agency in refining its plan. That review board should include persons and organizations beyond those traditionally considered interested in broadband policy, such as government transparency groups. How can the goals of open and accessible government aimed at increasing public awareness and participation in government be amplified by access to broadband? Increasing access to broadband helps achieve the twin goals of open and accessible government by fostering civic engagement and improved government transparency. Broadband makes it easier for members of the public to find information online. When they find information that is relevant to them, they are more likely to become engaged with the government. When they do not find the information they are looking for, they're more likely to ask the government to make it available. Transparency allows people to know what the government is up to, particularly as it formulates policy. It allows the general public to provide a counterweight to special interests, who often have the inside track to policymaking. Involving the public necessarily increases civic engagement, promotes government responsiveness to all of its constituents, and often reduces corruption as well. It also helps bring to light conflicts of interest. Broadband facilitates the transfer of that information. Ultimately, governments have an obligation to make information available to the public, and in our internet age, that means that information must be placed online in real time. What is the role of social networking tools? New media tools, including social networking tools, play a special role in advancing civic participation. For example, the Sunlight Foundation developed OpenCongress.org, which allows users to follow federal legislation, the actions of members of Congress, donations to elected officials, and learn about how government functions. OpenCongress aggregates blog entries and news reports, providing additional depth on particular topics. Members of Congress are using tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to interact with citizens. The House of Representatives recently amended its rules to encourage representatives to use these tools. Moreover, senators, such as Senator Claire McCaskill, use twitter and "tweet" multiple times each day to stay in touch with constituents. (See http://clairecmc.tumblr.com/post/100898280/why-i-tweet).
Both of the major party presidential candidates used online social networking tools to share their views on policy and get people involved in the political process. The result was the highest presidential election turnout in American history. Special interest blogs, such as ScotusBlog.com and blog.sunlightfoundation.com, provide enormous amounts of expert information on subjects that are of great interest to many people but often do not receive sufficient in-depth news coverage. The comments sections on blogs help act as a check on the reporting, keeping the news coverage honest and relevant. Many of the concerns expressed regarding the use of new media are overblown. However, there are legitimate concerns associated with the ongoing transformation of newspapers, a conventional source of information, as new media supplants their revenue model. It is unclear what revenue models will support the creation of news content in the future, particularly investigative reporting. However, a lack of clarity as to what will happen next is not a criticism of new media. Moreover, even if we were to wish to do so, it is impossible to close Pandora's box and undo the internet. All we can do is make sure that the new media is not artificially constrained in its ability to take on watchdog roles. There is a constant push towards greater transparency in government, including innovative methods for direct public access to government and participation in decision making. How can broadband infrastructure and services improve citizen access to (1) Local News, (2) National news, (3) Information, (4) Dialog with government, (5) Dialog with citizens, (6) Transactional efficiency, (7) Participation in government. What are the positive and negative effects of disintermediation? Broadband infrastructure plays a crucial role in all of these areas. Because the above section discussed social networking tools, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Blogs, and custom sites that draw on public data, I will include those items by reference here. Print and online reporters use information released by the government and others and made available online to help keep politicians accountable. For example, reports by the Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison have provided a wealth of information on earmark requests by Members of Congress. (See http://realtime.sunlightprojects.org/) Many web site developers are creating "mash-ups," which blend different kinds of data together in ways that are useful to the public. For example, developers have linked Google maps with local services, allowing users to type in addresses and find everything from local schools and libraries to restaurants and metro stops. (See http://ilive.at/) Local news coverage has become pervasive on the internet. Communities use listservs to learn about local happenings. (See, e.g., http://www.on-the-pike.com/CHCA/) Local news reporting or aggregating sites, such as dcist.com and everyblock.com, provide extensive coverage as well. And as web broadcasting technology, such as Qik.com, becomes more prevalent, there is also emerging local video coverage of breaking news events. National news coverage, general information, and dialog with the government all make use of the tools described above. In terms of transactional efficiency, a fast reliable internet connection provides a wealth of information to citizens. For example, instead of having to travel to the department of motor vehicles, a citizen can renew a drivers' license online. Research on local property values can occur without a trip to the records office. Information about how to interact with the government is now being made available online in ways that would often take days of phone
calls to discover. Citizens can speak with one another about common issues and give advice to one another regarding how to resolve problems via chat rooms, blogs, wikis, and other means. All of these promote civic engagement. The greatest effect of this disintermediation process is the empowerment of citizens to learn about the operations of government. Citizens can now directly achieve their goals by gathering actionable data, and hold officials accountable. The difficulties encountered by citizens in responding to minor but persistent problems -- often known as a collective action dilemma -- is thus significantly diminished. Does access to broadband increase the ability of the average citizen to be heard by the government or other citizens; if so, how can it be advanced? As connections to the internet became faster and more reliable, more programs were built to take advantage. From DarpaNet to "Bulletin Board Systems" to the early days of the web, increased resources have led to increased interactions. New programs, such as the forthcoming Google Wave, will only increase these interactions further. (See http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/05/went-walkabout-brought-back-googlewave.html). Broadband increases the ability of the average citizen to be heard by the government. The YouTube presidential debates provide just one example of this. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CNN-YouTube_presidential_debates). President Obama's "Open Government Brainstorm" is another. (See http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/ Transparency-Governance/) As elected officials and government agencies interact online with the public more and more often, the underpinning technological support for these means of communication must be ever increased. Making the internet faster, more reliable, and increasingly available will encourage this positive feedback loop. Discuss the benefits of video streaming or video conferencing of government meetings to enable participation by those who cannot attend in person. Open meetings that occur only in physical space (i.e., without an online component) pose significant participation barriers. People must travel to attend the meeting. Other scheduling obligations can preclude attendance. Rooms may be difficult to reserve, hard to find, and often have limited seating. By contrast, video streaming and video conferencing eliminate all of these problems. Permitting people to interact from the comfort of their own homes lowers the barrier for engagement. This allows more people to be involved in governmental processes, resulting in better and more democratic outcomes. Decision makers can hear more perspectives, gather more information, and arrive at significantly superior results. Moreover, issue experts who would otherwise be unable to attend these meetings can participate from a remote location. The world's foremost experts can be available to the smallest town hall meeting. Geography ceases to be a limiting factor. In addition, video streaming of government meetings allows for "time shifting." That is, a person who cannot attend in real time can watch the proceedings afterward. He or she can then participate in discussion groups or provide feedback. This allows greater participation than has ever been possible before.
Are there other applications of broadband technology that can improve civic participation; how can that be encouraged? As broadband providers start to replace traditional media providers, it may be useful to think of them as providing a public service. Current communications companies provide public services: the cable companies, for example, provide C-SPAN and public access television; the broadcast networks provide newscasts. Perhaps there should be a similar requirement for broadband providers. FCC Plan for Broadband Infrastructure And Services: A Point About Transparency in the Broadband Rulemaking Process Identified in Paragraph 9 The FCC should take more direct steps to produce the greatest possible transparency in its process of formulating a broadband plan. The notice and comment rulemaking process itself helps provide sunlight on the making of policy, but more can be done. Agency hearings on this issue should be broadcast online, a special web site should be developed, and outreach should be performed to communities that traditionally are not part of the rulemaking process. Information on the FCC website is not enough. Particular focus should be placed on involving citizens who are most affected by the digital divide. In addition, the FCC should publicly disclose all lobbying contacts made regarding subsidies or licenses arising from or related to the build-out of the national broadband plan. The lobbying disclosure requirements should be modeled after President Obama's revised stimulus lobbying rules. All information concerning lobbying contacts should be made available in an online searchable downloadable database that is updated in real-time. Definition of Broadband Discussed in Paragraph 18 As time passes, the FCC should increase its definition of the information transmission rate that constitutes broadband access. As capacity is increased, the government should work to find ways to further increase that capacity. The history of the internet has shown that making more data available faster and at lower costs has created a powerful positive feedback loop that has benefited society. Open Networks Principles Raised in Paragraph 47 All data packets should be treated the same in terms of delivery. Industry should not be able to decide which information can get through faster, and which information will be slowed down. Doing otherwise would work to entrench inferior products and services that are able to purchase faster connections to users. Privacy Questions Raised In Paragraphs 59, 66, and 70-71 Neither the government nor industry should monitor people's communications without a court order. This includes the substance of the communications and the identities of those engaging in the communications. Citizens are increasingly using the internet to associate with one another, particularly regarding political issues. Their willingness to do so may be inappropriately (and perhaps unconstitutionally) chilled if they believe the government is monitoring their private communications. In addition, industry, which has its own interests that are not always aligned with users, may use its access to private user information to undermine the citizenry's political goals as well, share that information with other commercial entities, or share the information with the government.
The best response is to provide at least the same protections that are afforded to citizens in the physical world to online communications. Because communications on the internet are more easily searchable and sortable, it is worth considering greater privacy restrictions. It is true that companies may need to keep track of who is connected to the internet, and with whom they are communicating. In those instances, they should be encouraged (if not required) to delete that information after a short period of time, absent a lawful government warrant requiring otherwise. Information retention policies should be clearly stated and strictly limited. The failure to do so will act as a brake on the maximization of the use of broadband technology. Conclusion The Sunlight Foundation appreciates the opportunity to comment on these issues and would welcome the opportunity to engage in further dialog. Universal inexpensive broadband access would provide our representative democracy increasing opportunities for a sustainably high level of civic engagement. Sincerely yours, Ellen S. Miller
Published on Jun 16, 2009
On June 8, 2009, the Sunlight Foundation submitted a comment to the FCC regarding docket number 09-51, in the matter of a national broadband...