Groups: Broadband Needed for Civic Engagement

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With the Internet becoming the major way for people to engage in civic debate, universal access to broadband is essential for a functioning democracy, a group of public-participation activists told the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Thursday.

The U.S. government and its citizens need more "public square" places where citizens can discuss and debate issues of the day, said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

"Everything in society, from our discourse to our commerce, is going to be through the vehicle of broadband as we move ahead," Ornstein said during an FCC workshop on broadband policy. "And if we move to a society of haves and have-nots in that regard, it simply is not appropriate for a functioning democracy or a vibrant economy."

The Internet has helped to fragment the U.S. population into small groups of same-thinking people, but it can also provide a forum for national debate on issues like health-care reform, Ornstein said. Political campaigns will move more and more to the Internet in coming years, he predicted.

"If citizens don't have that access, that means they're shut out of the most essential elements of the public sphere and the public debate," he said.

Ornstein was one of several speakers Thursday at the FCC broadband policy workshop on e-government and civic engagement, one of a series of meetings that the FCC is hosting as the agency develops a national broadband plan, due next February. The workshops run through Sept. 9.

Also on Sept. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a campaign reform lawsuit, in which conservative citizens rights group Citizens United is seeking to overturn 60-year-old limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns.

Ornstein, who has filed a brief in the case in opposition to Citizens United, said there's a significant possibility the Supreme Court will overturn the corporate limits on campaign spending, making individual citizens' access to the Internet and campaigns even more important, he said. U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign showed the power of small donations made over the Internet, he said.

A year before the last presidential election, Andrew Rasiej's 82-year-old father asked him to demonstrate how to send an e-mail to multiple people. Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a Web site and annual conference about politics and technology, discovered that his parents wanted to send an Obama video to 50 friends.

In the past, Rasiej's parents may have talked politics with friends at dinner, but they weren't active in campaigns, he said.

"In previous election cycles, my parents would not have picked up the phone, nor would they have sent letters to their friends offering their political leanings," Rasiej said. "They also wouldn't have stopped at campaign rallies, or knocked door to door to canvass for voters. Here they were, reaching 50 of their friends in one afternoon, that it would've taken them months to have reached the old-fashioned way."

Rasiej urged the FCC to look at ways to finance broadband for people who can't afford it. A broadband subscription can cost about $700 a year, and many people can't afford that, he said.

He also noted that many large newspapers are cutting back on coverage, particularly local news because of tough economic times. Broadband is needed for people to engage with bloggers and Web journalists stepping in to cover issues that traditional newspapers are no longer writing about, he said.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted that 40 percent of U.S. residents do not have broadband subscriptions, but that number rises to 60 percent for families that make less than US$50,000 a year.

"Broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of our generation," Genachowski said. "It is to us what railroads, electricity, highways and telephones were to previous generations -- a platform for commerce, for democratic engagement and for helping address major national challenges. One of the goals of these workshops is to illustrate clearly that access to broadband has real implications for real people, and elicit suggestions and big ideas for our national plan."

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