Coming together, pushing back

  Observations from the annual National Conference on Media Reform.

Jon Fox

During the past weekend I joined hundreds of privacy advocates, journalists, social activists, internet mavens, artists and people who simply care about the future of public discourse in America for the annual National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR) in Denver, Colorado. The three day event covered topics including corporate online snooping, the consolidation of public media, the negative impacts of Citizens United and the unbalancing of our public discourse.

Throughout the conference there were two reoccurring themes – the corrupting influence of money in politics and the systematic selling off of public goods at the expense of regular Americans. The NCMR drew particular attention to the harm unregulated telecommunication business are causing Americans, through poor services at higher prices. While corporate giants like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast bemoan government regulation and extol free market models, they consolidate their control over markets, stifle competition, and line up to take millions in government tax subsides. If that is not bad enough, corporations are using their 1st Amendment “rights” to stifle ours, limiting our access to broadband and trying to block online content.

Industry lobbyists have spent millions in preserving the oligopolies prevalent in America’s telecommunications industry. We see the effects of this everyday – with high prices, poor services, and little consumer choice. While most Americans can choose from either dial-up or cable internet connections, 19 million have no access to broadband internet at all. That’s four times the population of the city of Los Angles who are living in the 1990s as far as internet is concerned.

Over a decade of deregulation has eroded our public telecommunications infrastructure that once made America great. Instead of leading the world in broadband access we are falling behind; instead of encouraging young students to get online, local municipalities are prevented from providing their communities with the broadband internet they need; instead of encouraging competition for services, business are tightening control over their customers.

These topics could make for a very glum conference. However, panelists and participants from across the country shared their stories of success pushing back against powerful private interests and standing up for the public good. From the defeat of the Hollywood-backed online censorship SOPA bill; exposing corporate driven ALEC bills undermining local communities’ ability to provide for their own broadband needs; and bringing diverse groups together to get money out of politics. Oh, and there was also live music, spoken word, speakers corners, marching puppets and breakout sessions where activists came together to plan campaigns, share best-practices, and develop new tactics to face the challenges that lay ahead.

CALPIRG has been a part of many of the recent successes. CALPIRG was a driving force behind California legislators’ resolution against the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, our members voiced their disapproval of SOPA, and helped stop AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile (andcornering 50% of the U.S. wireless market).

Even with those significant victories there is still plenty more to be done, and CALPIRG is still at it. In just the first months of 2013 we have built up coalitions driving an update to California’s obsolete consumer privacy legislation through the Right to Know Act (AB 1291) which will give consumers the right to know what information on them business have collected and with whom they have shared that information. CALPIRG has also voiced our opposition to proposed CISPA legislation that would allow business to secretly share consumer’s personal data while doing away with all the consumer protections we have fought for and won over the past 40 years.

Since 2010 big business has spent a lot of money to gets its way. However, citizens have increasingly taken notice, pushed back, and won. Leaving the NCMR, I am encouraged by the energy, determination and creativity of the citizen groups who have come together to reclaim our democracy and work for a better future. Not a bad way to start a work week.




Jon Fox