Harold Feld on the Net as a Public Utility

For the last 125 years we have used the term "public utility" to describe a service so fundamental to our participation in society and our economic well being that we cannot leave them to the benevolence of corporations, the indifference of the market, or the kindness of kings.


Staff_photo-_HaroldPersonal Democracy Forum is next week, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. What follows are a few words from Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge. Feld will be speaking on the net as a public utility.

So, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, how does it relate to civic tech?

I focus on the intersection of law and policy in telecommunications and tech at the U.S. federal level. We work to ensure the availability of ubiquitous, affordable, and meaningful broadband access. By “meaningful,” I mean without either government or corporate intermediaries able to prohibit or unduly influence how others use broadband and other new technologies.

For example, we have been very involved in the net neutrality debate and pushed for reclassification of broadband as a Title II telecommunications service as early as January 2010. We are active in the effort to limit “patent trolls” and work to reform copyright law so that it cannot be used to strangle free speech.

You’ll be speaking at the conference on the subject of the net as a public utility. What still needs to be addressed in the wake of the net neutrality win? What isn’t getting enough attention?

We need to recognize the importance of what we have won, and how easily we can still lose it. To say that something is a “public utility” in the United States does not have anything to do with whether it is a monopoly or a regulated rate. For the last 125 years we have used the term “public utility” to describe a service so fundamental to our participation in society and our economic well being that we cannot leave them to the benevolence of corporations, the indifference of the market, or the kindness of kings. We must safeguard the right of all people to access under a rule of law. We do this with electricity, with transportation, with water, and with a very small number of other critical services.

The fundamental right to communicate is one of these services. We have that principle embedded in our Constitution, and it has been the cornerstone of telephone regulation for more than 100 years. As a result, 96 percent of the country have access to some kind of voice telephony service. We need to recognize that broadband falls in this same category: a service so essential that government has a responsibility to ensure that all people have affordable access.

Put another way, it is common to think that we care about classifying broadband as a Title II “telecommunications service” because that was the only way to ensure net neutrality. But it is really the other way around. We care about net neutrality so passionately because we recognize broadband has become essential in our lives. With that realization, we now have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has legally protected rights to enjoy the benefits of this fundamental service.

The theme of the conference this year is the future of civic tech. As briefly as you like: Where do you think civic tech is going, what do we have to look forward to, and what pitfalls should people working in this sector be aware of?

I think the future of civic tech lies in moving from scarcity to abundance. Corporate profit depends on scarcity, but to unlock the civic potential of technology requires ubiquity. I think our greatest pitfall is trying to measure success with the wrong numbers. It’s not about creating the next hot startup. It’s not about generating videos with millions of hits. Hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people able to talk in their own voices to each other is more critically important then the creation of a new entertainment colossus. When we see how people use these technologies to organize for social change, to learn new things, to open new worlds, and to express themselves freely to the world in their own voices, then we have truly accomplished something more important than “the next Google” or “next Netflix.”