Impoverishing Democracy

July 22, 2010 |
The freedoms of opinion and expression are essential human rights, necessary for the integrity of our democracy — that's how we know that our information economy works to ensure liberty and justice for all. If private interests actively restrict these basic human rights, the survival of our democracy is at stake.
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Thomas Jefferson once observed, "Information is the currency of democracy."

That's never been more true than it is today. We live, after all, in an information age, one that's seen a virtual explosion in new sources of information -- ranging from newspapers and TV to talk radio, cable news, millions upon millions of blogs, even billboards.

Today, particularly on the Web, openness is supposed to be the watchword when it comes to communication.

But, oddly enough, rules that govern much of our information currency are being written by regulatory agencies and lawmakers in closed private meetings, accountable to no one. Three recent examples:

  • The Los Angeles Times reported on the "redaction" of filings to the Federal Communications Commission by Comcast/NBCU in their move to merge the largest broadband media provider with one of the largest content producers. The full page of blacked-out text makes a clear statement about the information you will not see.
  • The Federal Communications Commission disclosed that they are convening closed, private meetings to broker a policy deal regarding future regulation of Internet service in the U.S.
  • Congressional leadership staff began convening closed-door meetings to outline plans for an overhaul of U.S. communications law. The public is not invited -- until after the agenda has been set.

Secret meetings and redacted filings may serve private interests, which can be expected to look out for their own needs, even if it comes at the expense of the public good.

But the real question is why federal communications agencies, and congressional committees charged with overseeing federal communications laws, are acquiescing to this. Why let laws and regulations governing the marketplace of ideas be secretly informed by private interests that are not enamored of democracy?

The freedoms of opinion and expression are essential human rights, necessary for the integrity of our democracy -- that's how we know that our information economy works to ensure liberty and justice for all. If private interests actively restrict these basic human rights, the survival of our democracy is at stake.

Indeed, when information is withheld or restricted to secret meetings behind closed doors, a divide is created separating the info-haves from the info-have-nots. Excuses for hiding or destroying information currency can range from "proprietary interests" to "national security." But the result is that actors with money and power have privileged access, while citizens are often excluded.

The bottom line is that information scarcity impoverishes democracy.

In the public policy realm, laws and regulations are written based on the best information available. When discussions are held in secret behind closed doors, the invariable outcome is poorer than a fully informed, open policy deliberation. In a democracy, more information creates a healthier, richer marketplace of ideas.

Thoughtful investments are being made by groups such as the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, the Media and Democracy Coalition and the Alliance for Communications Democracy. Many bright folks are minting high-quality information currency with robust analysis to elevate the policy discussion. So, when the secrecy and closed meetings do finally open, there will be a great deal of new information available to fill knowledge gaps and enrich the policy discourse.

In the meantime, in times like these, we'd do well to also value James Madison's generous contribution: "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

You can take that to the bank.

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