The Internet Is Not A Tuna Sandwich

In recent years, law professor Susan Crawford has developed a reputation as one of the foremost thinkers on how technology and digital media, and our public-policy responses to them, help shape our modern lives. After the election of Barack Obama, Crawford went inside the administration, first to co-lead the transition team and help the incoming president understand the Federal Communications Commission, and later to serve as the National Economic Council's coordinator on tech-policy issues. After a year, Crawford returned to teaching and is now at New York City's Cardozo Law School.

TAP talked with Crawford about the ongoing policy debate over net neutrality, why broadband Internet matters, and what's gone wrong with the building of a progressive-media reform movement.

We've talked before about the idea that there are political values that are implied by the Internet, by a shared networked space, like the idea that when people are given an equal chance to compete they tend to do amazing things. Net neutrality has, you can argue, quickly become fairly central to the way that American progressives, or liberals, or whatever you want to call them, think about their own political values. But you don't see things really happening in the same way when it comes to copyright, or access to broadband, or some of the other issues you work on. Is that a fair assessment?

Well, I think the Internet burst on the scene in a way that was surprising to a lot of industries, in a way that they didn't anticipate. [But] some of the recent battles in copyright and network access have been fought in a pretty mature environment, where content industries and carriers have become vitally aware of the potentially destructive power of the Internet to their existing business models. And they've very carefully lined up all their forces to oppose the disruption.

I'm thinking of something like where you took Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to task recently for saying, "I make websites," as a way of dodging the discussion of tech-policy issues like net neutrality or broadband access. But if he decides to get politically engaged, what's the avenue for him? 

Yeah, and this is a great frustration of mine. There isn't a clear avenue for people who want to get engaged with a tiny sliver of their time in, let's say, either the copyright battles or the network-access battles. Our existing public [policy] and tech advocates are doing the best that they can. But they have extraordinarily limited resources. And they don't have an easy way to harness all this enormous energy.

I'm not saying it's an intractable problem. One thing I try to do in my work all the time is to persuade people that there really is a problem that needs to be addressed. That's what I was trying to do with that Jimmy Wales remark. We're getting to an era of extraordinarily concentrated network access, with just a few cable players dominating access in this country. It really is a return to the days of Ma Bell, but without any regulatory constraint on what that actor can do.

And we don't have adequate institutions or laws or processes that make it apparent, evident, and easy for people to interact with the existing system.

How do you mean? So the system of public commenting at the FCC isn't welcoming to anyone who isn't a professional advocate, like the folks at Free Press?

That's right. But it's not only that. Those public advocates are under-resourced and under-recognized. So they get a lot of lip service from the policy-makers, who will say, "Well, we've heard from Group X or Group Y, and we considered their arguments," and then they dismiss them. But, you know, there are hundreds of thousands of small businesses and entrepreneurs and even rock-ribbed Republicans who we would think would be quite upset about the absence of a level playing field for network access, and they aren't being mobilized. They aren't connected to those public-advocacy groups.

That raises a question. When we have these technology debates, and with neutrality in particular, you have the public advocates and the telecom-industry interests talking in completely different terms. You're talking about social and cultural impacts, while industry is telling stories about the billions of dollars worth of economic activity that the United States is going to lose.

Right. And so the real problem is the need for the tech side to recapture the concept that there are intangible public, social goods that would be enhanced by a completely different approach to the communications marketplace.

Right now, these services are being treated like a tuna sandwich or any other service. It's not even clear that there's a need for an FCC if all we're going to talk about is economic growth and consumer protection. There should be much larger public interests at stake, taking into account the large public interest in having a neutral substrate -- that's a terrible word, but we've got nobody now who can articulate that argument well. So we're crying wolf on a lot of issues, and we're not getting listened to.

Something I found fascinating about Google and Verizon's joint proposal on net neutrality was that the reaction of groups like Free Press and MoveOn had to do with the nuts and bolts of the policy proposed, rather than over the fact that we live in a media environment where two corporations can issue a proposal [and] there is a good chance of it becoming the framework for the debate moving forward.

Right. It shows what it's like to operate in D.C. Stakeholders play incredibly important roles. You're always counting noses to see who you've got on your side. It's sort of appalling, actually, to think that a couple of companies can frame what the policy bullet points are going to be for the entire country. But it's quite realistic. That is what it feels like when you're inside.

On that point, Larry Summers, your old boss on the National Economic Council, gave a speech in June on the Obama administration's plan to reclaim some wireless radio spectrum. He kept returning to a mantra: "public investment, private action." I know Larry Summers is an economist. But he seemed so utterly focused on the idea that what Obama is proposing is simply about spurring greater private-sector activity, rather than on the sort of intangible social benefits of these technologies.

Yeah . . . I think you're hearing in that speech the same kinds of debates we have on the outside playing out inside the administration. There's sort of an internal tension in that speech.

You've mentioned that, especially having served a year in the White House, you have a deepened sympathy for what someone like FCC Chair Julius Genachowski faces. Can you offer insight into what obstacles he faces?

Well, the asymmetry is just so apparent. Companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, and the National Cable Association have never fired a lobbyist in recent years. They keep them all on. They are able to be very persuasive with arguments, with contributions, with lining up economists in ways that aren't met by any other effective arguments. So, I'm sympathetic.

You're the Supreme Dictator of Crawfordlandia. What does the ideal media landscape look like? Do I own a television? Does television even exist? What does the Internet look like?

The ideal is widespread high-speed Internet access for everyone. It just becomes part of the furniture, like electricity. There are interesting, diverse, competitive markets, ones that allow for subscription services so that [carriers] can support themselves, but that also allow for ad-supported services to emerge. User generation of content continues at a huge clip and gets ever more interesting.

I'd like to see a media landscape of the future that is like the city of New York. It's constantly amusing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes hard to take. But it's always dense and full of human interest.

You may also like