When Google announced it would bestow a 1-gigabit fiber network on one or more U.S. communities, the company set off a wave of public enthusiasm, as over 1000 cities competed to attract Google’s largess. In contrast, when the Federal Communications Commission announced that it wanted to bring 100-megabit broadband to 100 million American homes, it set off merely a sad little ripple of public indifference. Contrasting the two reactions provides a case study in the politics of popular policymaking.
The public’s response to Google’s plans ranged from delightfully silly stunts to movingly earnest appeals. Most famously, Topeka renamed itself Google, Kansas (and Google, on April 1, honored the effort by renaming itself Topeka for a day), but the variations were rich and creative. To help their towns compete, mayors in northern states jumped into frozen lakes while mayors in southern states jumped into shark tanks. An Oregon microbrewery produced a “Gigabit IPA” for the occasion, and citizens in Greenville, SC gathered in a park to spell out “Google” in light sticks:
This competition for Googlish affections might be dismissed as an especially theatrical “politics of supplication,” a demeaning beg-a-thon in which the fame whores of reality TV meet the eternal desire to get something for nothing. After all, these campaigns have little to do with policy as understood by the official regulatory apparatus. They are trivial diversions to the “real” work done in Washington.
But what if we take these Google Fiber campaigns seriously as a kind of popular policymaking? They reveal what people can do when asked to imagine themselves as empowered stakeholders in policy decisions. In articulating why their communities deserve the fiber, citizens were required to identify local needs and construct local civic identities, assess the impact of infrastructure options and organize coordinated responses. In other words, they had to become policymakers.
And unlike what writers on localism often tell us, this grassroots policymaking was not restricted to local elites; the campaigns were truly popular in participation, as even the sample above begins to demonstrate.
In contrast, how should we assess the National Broadband Plan? Instead of calling for popular policy production, the NBP was an invitation for insider political posturing. Instead of inspiring rap videos, it inspired … comments. Lots of comments. The Commission boasts of 23,000 comments on its public notices, 1,500 comments to its blog, etc. And check out this inspiring statement: “Public comment on the plan does not end here. … The public will continue to have opportunities [to comment] all along this path.” Hoorah, more comments!
If we want Americans to think creatively about media policy in a networked society, perhaps the place to start is the difference between wonks posting blog comments and mayors swimming with sharks. I want more of the latter.
The FCC means well, and this particular commission grasps the need for public involvement better than previous ones. But there’s a structural imbalance built into the process, a divide that makes decreasing sense between policymakers and the “policymade,” i.e. those citizens whose lives will be shaped by compromises devised elsewhere. The FCC seems only able to imagine the public as Providers of Comments, all of which will be politely considered until, at the end of the day, they write the rules. The FCC is saying, “Your call is very important to us.” Go ahead and leave your message at the beep; in the meantime, we all know that Julius Genachowski picks up when Ivan Seidenberg rings.
What alternative roles might official policymakers imagine for the public? Put another way, what might the politics of popular policymaking prove to be? They must be distinct from the politics of “capture,” of officialness, and of insiderdom. They must build on–not remain loftily above–the public’s creative energy, competitive spirit, and taste for fun. Google can provide a model here: the FCC has to choose those first 100 million homes somehow, and if officials can re-imagine popular policymaking in the process, they might shift not just the tone but the outcomes of policy debates. After all, when the public doesn’t bother commenting, but simply acts, the official policy world gets nervous, and making powerful incumbents nervous is always in the public interest.