A blog launched this month has teamed with a U.S. senator in an effort to write new broadband legislation, and so far participants have given the process high marks.
OpenLeft.com, a blog focused on liberal issues, has been hosting a wide-ranging discussion on broadband policy since Tuesday. Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and assistant majority leader in the Senate, has joined the discussion, saying he'll use the ideas from OpenLeft to craft broadband legislation.
The discussion hasn't been one-sided. Advocates of net neutrality rules have debated with opponents, and critics of spectrum auctions at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission have sparred with advocates of free-market auctions.
Through it all, the debate has sometimes been heated, but mostly civil. Durbin himself has entered the fray -- on Tuesday night, he stayed online longer than his scheduled 45 minutes, said Matt Stoller, a liberal activist, blogger and cofounder of OpenLeft.com.
"He ended up staying for an hour and a half because he liked it," Stoller said.
The senator fielded questions about media consolidation, net neutrality and the influence of lobbyists during the Tuesday night discussion. Asked about countering the influence of lobbyists, Durbin wrote: "The answer is partly to do what you're doing tonight -- get involved. And stay involved. Even if the fight doesn't go your way. That is one of the reasons the telecom lobby is so successful. If the bills they advocate don't pass or are amended in ways they don't like, they come back at it the next day. Or next week. Or next year. Net activists need to adopt that philosophy as well."
The online legislation-writing effort isn't designed to eliminate lobbyists, Stoller said, but to give other people voices into the process as well. OpenLeft plans to host more legislation-writing discussion, he said.
"What you're doing is putting people on a level playing field," he said. "You're [rewarding] people with good ideas."
Among the participants in the week's debate were Kent Nichols, producer of a comedy video series called AskANinja.com; Davey D, a journalist, radio programmer, and webmaster; and Wally Bowen, executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, a wireless ISP (Internet service provider), based in western North Carolina.
Bowen wrote that his business operates in the 900MHz unlicensed spectrum bands. "The signal can punch through heavy leaf cover, but it cannot penetrate buildings and it requires 'near line-of-sight'," he wrote. "Despite high demand for our services, we can only reach a fraction of the market due to the limitations of 900MHz. We desperately need access to unlicensed spectrum in the lower frequencies."
Among the most hotly debated issues was net neutrality. Advocates want Congress to pass a net neutrality law prohibiting large broadband providers from blocking or slowing Web content from competitors. Christopher Wolf, co-chairman of the Hands Off the Internet Coalition, an anti-net neutrality group, joined the discussion Wednesday night.
Wolf noted that so far, the FCC has taken action in the one case where an ISP has blocked Web content. "Why aren't these protections enough?" he wrote.
Several people commented, including Harold Feld, senior vice president of the advocacy group Media Access Project. "History shows trying to clean up messes after the fact (breaking up Ma Bell, trying to reverse cable market power) is very difficult, expensive, and not always effective," Feld wrote. "By contrast, putting some modest protections in place early is cheap and works much better."
OpenLeft will post draft legislation in a few weeks, Stoller said.
Durbin will use the information from OpenLeft in legislation he'll introduce in September or October, said Joe Shoemaker, Durbin's communications director. Durbin also plans to solicit comments from other Web sites, including the conservative RedState blog, Shoemaker said.
The debate on OpenLeft has been useful because Durbin has been able to hear the stories of Internet users, Shoemaker said. While Durbin doesn't plan to shut out lobbyists, complicated issues like broadband policy deserve more voices, he added.
"Once you get to that level of policy, you need broader input," Shoemaker said. "Ideas are exposed that he's not really heard of. [The debate this week] was a pretty useful back and forth."