|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 15||March 10, 1997|
In his detailed examination of the impact of electronic networking on society, www.netaction.org/bollier/, David Bollier argues that the convergence of various communications media gives the public interest community an unprecedented opportunity to advance its agenda. This potential was initially exploited early on by civil libertarians, who used the Internet in creative ways to organize opposition to the Communications Decency Act (CDA) provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Although efforts to defeat the CDA were ultimately unsuccessful, the online outreach and organizing strategies pioneered by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), www.aclu.org, Voters Telecommunications Watch (VTW), www.vtw.org, and other groups clearly demonstrated the Internet's potential as an advocacy tool.
In the last issue of NetAction Notes, I described how grassroots human rights organizations are using the Internet to organize a global demonstration against police brutality. In this issue, I offer three examples of how the Internet is being used to engage a broader constituency in the development of public policy.
The policy issues include federal review of corporate mergers, general principles for filtering software and rating systems, and control of Internet content in public libraries.
Participating in Government Policy Making
The Federal Communications Commission is the agency responsible for the nation's telecommunications policy, so it's not surprising that the FCC has been somewhat ahead of the curve in making it possible for citizens to weigh in online regarding regulatory policy issues. Nor is it surprising, given the Libertarian leanings in cyberspace, that the FCC received an unprecedented 80,000 E-mail messages in a recent four-day period in response to an invitation to comment on whether Internet service providers should pay access charges to local phone companies for use of the local telephone network. According to some reports, the E-mail comments came in so fast and furious that the volume caused a temporary computer crash.
Getting other federal and state agencies to allow online participation in public policymaking -- and then getting citizens to take advantage of those opportunities -- will probably be more of a challenge. But activists are working on it.
At Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology (CPT), James Love is asking activists and public interest groups to support CPT's request to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to reduce the level of secrecy surrounding reviews of proposed mergers, and to use the Internet to promote more public comment on pending mergers. CPT hopes to convince the FTC to accept comments on mergers by electronic mail, and to list contact information for mergers on the FTC Web page, http://www.cptech.org/.
In a recent issue of Information Policy Notes, CPT's electronic newsletter, Love wrote: "We think this will truly change the way the FTC (and the Department of Justice) evaluate mergers, as the Internet is changing the role of the public in FCC proceedings. Despite the publicity surrounding mergers, the FTC and DOJ (Department of Justice) are quite secretive about merger reviews."
To add your name to the FTC sign-on letter, send the following information to :
Phone (for verification)
Participating in Public Interest Policy Making
Not all policy making is done by government. The Internet also empowers public interest groups to open up their own policy making processes to broader input.
For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is circulating a discussion draft of its Public Interest Principles for Online Filtration, Ratings and Labelling Systems.
Software designed to filter Internet content, and rating and labelling systems, have become increasingly controversial issues in cyberspace. Many civil libertarians are concerned because some of the filtering systems being marketed to parents as tools to prevent their children from accessing pornographic Web sites are also set up to deny users access to politically-oriented Web sites.
In addition, content providers are concerned about their ability to challenge inappropriate blockage of their sites, or inaccurate ratings or labels.
In drafting a set of principles on this issue, EFF is seeking to balance the concerns of parents, content providers, software marketers, and advocates concerned with privacy and censorship issues. Opening up the process to broad public participation is likely to ensure that the final set of principles have broad support.
Comments are being accepted through March 31. The draft is on EFF's Web page, www.eff.org/pub/Net_info/Tools/Ratings_filters/eff_filter.principles (NOTE: this URL is no longer valid as of 05/23/2001). Comments and questions should be forwarded by E-mail to Stanton McCandish at , with "Filter Draft" in the subject line.
Online Policy Briefings
Whether policy decisions are made by government officials, public interest advocates, or ordinary citizens, sound public policy is dependent on informed policy makers. The Internet literally brings information to our fingertips.
Free speech advocate Jonathan Wallace recently wrote a briefing paper on libraries and filtering software. The paper was written in response to the growing controversy over plans by library officials in some communities to install filtering software on public library computers that access the Internet.
Wallace identifies First Amendment legal precedents under which the purchase of filtering software by public libraries is illegal. He prepared the briefing paper so that other free speech advocates could use the information in conversations with librarians and other local decision makers. The briefing paper provides free speech advocates with three "talking points" that can be used to educate librarians and other public officials.
First, he explains that most advocates of the use of blocking software by libraries have forgotten that the public library is a branch of government, and therefore subject to First Amendment rules. While libraries have discretion in determining what materials to acquire, the First Amendment prevents government from removing materials from library shelves based on official disapproval of content.
His second point is that government rules that classify speech on the basis of how acceptible the content is (in libraries or elsewhere) are inherently suspect, since such rules may not be vague or overbroad, and must conform to existing legal parameters laid out by the Supreme Court.
His third point is that a library may not delegate to a private organization, such as the publisher of blocking software, the discretion to determine what library users may see.
Wallace's briefing paper is at www.spectacle.org/cs/library.html. If requested, Wallace will provide an E-mail version of the briefing paper in Word or ASCII format. Requests for E-mail copies should be sent to him at .
Residents of states served by Pacific Bell and Southwestern Bell Corporation (SBC) may be interested a White Paper prepared for the Telecommunications Policy Forum. Entitled "Staking Out the Public Interest," the paper examines the public interest issues arising from the planned merger of Pacific Telesis and Southwestern Bell Corporation.
The White Paper concludes that $2 billion is a fair and minimal estimate of the benefits that would accrue to Pacific Telesis and SBC from the merger, and under California law, half of that amount should be returned to consumers. The California Telecommunications Policy Forum recommends that $500 million, or half of the $1 billion, be refunded to consumers when the merger is approved, and the other $500 million be earmarked for programs that would help wire low-income school districts and libraries, build community technology centers, create an independent consumer education program in California, and provide computer science and telecommunications scholarships for low-income students.
The complete document is at http://www.ucan.org/law_policy/teledocs/whte_1.html, and an electronic petition in support of the Forum's recommendations is located at ucan.org/ucan/news/e-petition.html.
Forum members are also asking supporters to send a fax to the California Public Utilities Commission before March 12, stating support for the recommendations. Letters should be faxed to 415-703-1758, and addressed to:Chairman P. Gregory Conlon
NetAction is pleased to have Glenn Manishin join the Advisory Board. Glenn is an attorney and partner with Blumenfeld & Cohen - Technology Law Group in Washington, D.C. His practice is concentrated in litigation and counseling in communications and technology policy, antitrust and legislative affairs. He represents a number of World Wide Web developers and Internet-centric companies, including Netscape, Oracle, Juno and MCI, and has been highly involved with Internet regulatory issues at the FCC, including universal service, access charges, standards and Internet telephony. He led the lobbying on behalf of a coalition of high-technology companies in securing an amendment to the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Cal.), that limits the FCC's standards-setting powers in computer-related markets.
Glenn has extensive experience on telecommunications issues. He argued the recent 8th Circuit case on FCC interconnection and pricing rule on behalf of the Consumer Federation of America, and has served as general counsel to the International Telecard Association and the Interexchange Carriers Industry Association. He was a partner with Jenner & Block and outside antitrust counsel to MCI from 1985-90. Earlier, he served as an attorney with the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Justice Department in 1982-85, where he led the government's initial antitrust investigations in cable television system mergers, acquisitions and overbuilds and proposed a standard for cable system regulation eventually incorporated into the 1992 Cable Act and the 1996 Telecom Act.
Glenn has written and lectured frequently on Internet, antitrust and regulatory issues. His publications include articles on convergence of the communications and computer industries, the Modified Final Judgment (MFJ) governing the divestiture of AT&T, the role of the First Amendment in cable television and the impact of 1980s banking deregulation on antitrust market analysis.
Blumenfeld & Cohen specializies in competition and policy advocacy for high-technology enterprises. Formed to meet the distinctive needs of competitive telecommunications entities in the post-divestiture environment, the firm regularly works on all aspects of federal and state telecommunications regulation, legislative policy and competitive relations, on behalf of clients ranging from Fortune 100 companies to early stage and start-up ventures.
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Copyright 1997 by The Tides Center/NetAction. All rights reserved. Material may be reposted or reproduced for non-commercial use provided NetAction is cited as the source.
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