The internet we live with is our own creation—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Maybe we got the internet we deserved when we allowed government, largely responsible for inventing it, to surrender any meaningful oversight of how it would best serve the common good, or when industry decided that this life-changing technology belonged under its control and competition-killing monopolization. Or maybe we, its users, have been remiss in not fully understanding the downsides of the net and how to make proper use of its awesome capabilities (more on this below). The bottom line is that what could and should have been a liberating locomotive of democratization instead jumped the rails and half its cars went off the track. The wreckage includes our paranoid politics, our stunted civic dialogue, and our seriously diminished democracy.
The good news is the country seems to be awakening, slowly to be sure, to the reality that something has gone amiss. Just as there are various interpretations about what went wrong, so are there various proposals being offered as fixes. Some are good, many not so much.
Redeeming the democratic promise of the internet and building it into the town-square of our civic conversation should be an urgent national priority. We cannot allow misinformation and disinformation to constitute the meat of our political dialogue, undermining our campaigns and elections, and wreaking incalculable damage on our already hemorrhaging polity.
There are no magic cures for this malady. Some say we need only to fix Section 230, an arcane part of the Telecommunications Act, with the purpose of striking a better balance between internet platforms and third-party content providers as to who is liable for what users receive. Unfortunately, this has degraded into yet another politically polarizing issue, with advocates on each side too often looking only for political gain. Section 230 needs mature and considered change, but to look for this on its own to solve the internet’s deeper information ills is looking for what cannot be.
With a new Administration come to power in Washington, DC, chances for real internet reform have greatly, and thankfully, increased. A progressive Federal Communications Commission can bring back net neutrality rules that were eliminated under the regressive Trump-era FCC. A more forward-looking Congress can enact consumer privacy protections to stop the wholesale misuse of our personal data. New funding to build high-speed broadband infrastructure to the many rural, inner city, and Tribal lands that lack it can now finally be made available. Significantly more funding will be needed, but the omens for deployment and adoption have improved. Net neutrality, broadband for everyone, privacy protection—these are all urgent needs, and we look to the Biden Administration to make them happen.
None of these reforms, however, individually or collectively, can do as much to democratize the internet and strengthen our nation as something I haven’t mentioned above. That something is digital literacy. Digital literacy is the key component of democratizing the internet. A digitally-literate person has the technical skills to navigate the internet. A digitally-literate person is also media literate, with the ability to critically evaluate the content received and consumed online. Unless we train ourselves, and particularly our children, how to understand and use the internet, it can never realize its vast potential to serve the common good. We must be a digitally literate people. We are not that now.
It’s as an immense challenge as we confront today. I’ll say it again: it’s as an immense challenge as we confront today. There are some things we can do right now; others are longer-term.
There are those who have been aware of our national shortfall in digital literacy for years. Groups like the News Literacy Project and many others have contributed valuable work on multiple fronts. In fact, a lot of work has been done by many groups—schools, public interest organizations, private sector enterprises, local governments. It was a priority of mine while I served as FCC commissioner (2001 thru 2011), trying to encourage more coordination among all the initiatives and materials that were out there. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much material already existed, but a major problem was that Group A in one place had no idea of what Group B was doing in another. I wanted to see an initiative from the top to bring all the private and public sector groups together to develop a clearing-house of best ideas and then to coordinate a program that would utilize the materials that had already been conceived and place them into a national digital literacy program. Either the White House, the Department of Education, or the FCC could convene such a group.
My idea was to build from these many resources a K-12 online literacy curriculum. There would be something there for every grade level, from a basic introduction to the internet, to learning how to use its beginner and then advanced tools, to employing its research capabilities, and—hugely important for purposes of this essay—to impart the know-how for students to identify trustworthy sites and how to differentiate real information from the misinformation and disinformation that have so weakened our nation.
A public-private partnership could put the best of what was available into an online K-12 curriculum and make it available to schools around the country. Schools could use it or refuse it as they saw fit, so it would not be seen by the disinclined as some sort of Big Brother program being rammed down their throats. My thought was that we could thereby avoid some of the jurisdictional knots that have so often tied the Department of Education’s hands in its work. In fact, local educators could tailor the material to fit local needs. My guess is that most schools and school boards would jump at the chance to use it. I believe we could get this going within the next year or two if we set our minds to it.
Longer-term, comprehensive digital literacy will demand even more. Teachers will need to be trained for this as an integral part of their own education, although I would note that the COVID pandemic clearly demonstrates that our educators are already capable of doing amazing things online. Also, time will have to be made in the daily curriculum to accommodate this added student education, and we all know how crowded class schedules already are with the demands of STEM and other initiatives. A comprehensive digital literacy framework will need close coordination among trusted community leaders, local journalists, civil society, and other stakeholders.
Meanwhile we must develop a model for factual news and real journalism to flourish online. There is no such model now. While there are some sites that perform excellent deep-dive investigative journalism, they are few and far between. There has been no increase in online journalism jobs that begins to approach the number of newsroom jobs lost by newspapers and broadcast over the past twenty years. If we cannot devise a commercial solution to this, we will need to look at meaningful public support, because we cannot sustain our country without the robust news and information citizens must have to make intelligent decisions for our future.
We need to be a digitally literate and media literate people. Our goal should be that every American possess the skills necessary to discern trustworthy from untrustworthy information, fact from opinion, news from infotainment, and real information from misinformation, all derived from a resource-rich media. It is tough slogging to make sense of the barrage of material crowding our computer screens and warping our politics. For some, the easiest route is to pick the opinion narrative that best suits their ideologies, look at nothing else, and shout it from the roof-tops. But if we are serious about overcoming the mountain of obstacles that our kids and our country confront, we must make digital literacy a truly key priority. There is no time to waste.
Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC’s Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of “the public interest”; outreach to what he calls “non-traditional stakeholders” in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation’s media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Learn more about Commissioner Copps in The Media Democracy Agenda: The Strategy and Legacy of FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps
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