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FCC comes to town: What’s the future of the Internet?

Minnesotans can get into that debate tonight at a public hearing in Minneapolis featuring two commissioners from the Federal Communications Commission.
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My introduction to the Internet came in the early 1990s when scientists at the University of Minnesota showed me their “gopher” system for accessing information on their computers. It was mind-boggling at the time to see that a few keystrokes enabled them to share documents with plugged-in colleagues across the world.

What’s mind-boggling now is how much this global scheme we call the Internet has revolutionized our work, our relationships and our ordinary day-to-day activities in just two decades. It connects me to my editors, my kids, my doctor, my bank, my sources, my insurance guy, etc. The list goes on and on.

The revolution is far from over. Its next steps hinge on a raging battle over what is billed as no less than the “future of the Internet.”

Minnesotans can get into the debate beginning tonight — Thursday, Aug. 19 — at a public hearing in Minneapolis featuring two commissioners from the Federal Communications Commission: Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn.

Michael Copps
Michael Copps

Also on the program is U.S. Sen. Al Franken. The Minnesota Democrat stepped forth recently as an outspoken advocate for “net neutrality” — in other words, an Internet where all information is equally available to users.

And next Tuesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is scheduled to speak at a broadband summit hosted by Minnesota’s other Democratic U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar. The stated purpose of the summit on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus is to discuss the need for making high-speed broadband available to all Minnesotans. A panel of community and business leaders from across the state is to weigh in with ideas.

Free speech
The FCC’s authority to regulate the Internet and institute a version of net neutrality has been limited by recent court decisions. And this month, media giants Verizon and Google unveiled a deal that would preserve some aspects of an open Internet while also leaving companies free to create some restricted premium networks on devices like mobile phones.

The hosts for Thursday’s hearing are far from neutral in this debate. The organizations — Free Press, Main Street Project and the Center for Media Justice — have fought hard for preserving a freely open Internet. They maintain that net neutrality is a matter of free speech and that it is at risk of being controlled by phone and cable giants.

Mignon Clyburn
Mignon Clyburn

“In Minnesota, the Internet has become an increasingly critical platform for jobs, education and health care,” Steven Renderos, an organizer at Main Street Project, said in a statement announcing the hearing.

“It is important that the FCC step up to preserve the open Internet because without it, we risk further marginalizing the communities that need it the most,” he said.

You can read more arguments on this side of the debate — and informed readers’ comment too — in this piece on MinnPost’s Community Voices section. For a different view, go to today’s Voices commentary here.

On the other side, arguments for the Google-Verizon approach stress that more competition, not more government regulation, will propel innovation into a future when we will find ever more uses for devices like smart phones.

“The Web works best when companies invest in its infrastructure,” L. Gordon Crovitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal. He is a former WSJ publisher who now advises media companies.

“An earlier generation of FCC regulators saw their role as protecting Ma Bell and its monopoly, prolonging the days of rotary dials and high consumer costs,” Crovitz said. “Today’s FCC should focus on increasing competition, not increasing regulation, as the better way to ensure an open Internet.”

Tonight’s hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. at South High School Auditorium, 3131 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis.

Next Tuesday’s summit is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, 3M Auditorium, 321 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.