It's an admittedly tough road to get people's attention piqued on a wonky issue like net neutrality. After all, with the exception of a few news blips compliments of Google over the summer, the issue has largely been the domain of media justice advocates and policy experts. But at a town hall meeting late on Tuesday, residents in Albuquerque, New Mexico helped shift that narrative.
Nearly 400 people gathered at the city's National Hispanic Cultural Center to discuss the future of the Internet. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, one of two vocal proponents of net neutrality currently on the commission that's set to decide its future, said that the issue isn't just about widening consumer access, but strengthening democracy.
"Right now we're not getting the news our democracy needs to sustain itself," Copps told the crowd, explaining that his commission needed to do a better job of standing up to corporate interests.
But it in the end, it wasn't Copps who stole the show. It was the artists.
Sara Jerome wrote for The Hill that poetry seemed to be one of the themes of the night. The meeting began with a pueblo Native American song, and was capped off by a screening of a "Free the Air" counter ad to Verizon (Full disclosure: my partner helped produce the video and works for Media Literacy Project). And when it came time for public testimonies, several slam poets got up the mic. Jerome highlighted one poem, and you can watch others at the end of Tuesday's webcast of the event.
"It was intentional," said Andrea Quijada, executive director of Media Literacy Project, about the night's focus on the arts. "We don't see a distinction between arts and culture and organizing, and a lot of times they're separated.
"Reclaiming culture is the most effective tool of resistance that our communities have relied on for survival, " she added.
The town hall was organized by local and national advocacy groups including Media Literacy Project, the Center for Media Justice, and Free Press. It was the second town hall in less than six months in which activists brought together residents and commissioners from the FCC to discuss net neutrality, a process that would formalize rules that prevent Internet service providers from interfering with Web traffic. The first such meeting was held in Minnesota in August, on the heels of news that Google and Verizon had released a questionable policy framework of their own.
Tuesday's meeting focused on broadband among Native users, who remain among the least connected groups in the country. The New Mexico Independent reported in 2009 that in a state that's mostly rural, only 57 percent of residents have Internet at all, compared to nearly 63 percent nationally. When it comes to the number of home-based broadband connections, the state ranks 40th nationwide, according to Census numbers from 2007.
A report (PDF) by the Rural Internet and Broadband Policy Group from 2009 noted that in isolated communities like much of New Mexico, access to unfiltered information is especially important because many homes generally lack consistent access to all media, not just broadband.
In the weeks following Tuesday's town hall, advocates will be urging the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet under the Telecommunications Act, the first and most crucial step in formalizing net neutrality rules.