Public Knowledge: The Guardians of Net Neutrality

by Bailey Edelstein

If you ask Michael Weinberg, the Vice President of Public Knowledge, a Washington advocacy group focused on technology policy issues, how to land a job like his, he would suggest you find a way to that career without spending three years at law school. At Public Knowledge, Weinberg exercises both his legal and interpersonal communication skills.

“Part of what I do [at Public Knowledge] is very legal in nature, I write briefs and filings with agencies and argue on behalf of those ideas with agencies,” said Weinberg. “But a big part of what I do is outreach and trying to communicate to the press and to users and to everyday people why the issues that we at Public Knowledge care about are important to them.”

A photo of Michael Weinberg, VP of Public Knowledge. Photo by Bailey Edelstein

Vice President of Public Knowledge, Michael Weinberg in the organization’s office near DuPont Circle in Washington, DC. Photo by Bailey Edelstein

Weinberg began his career at Public Knowledge as an intern while he attended The George Washington University School of Law. He said his steps towards a legal education were fueled by the desire to help innovators be able to freely use and share their technological developments with the world.

“I saw all of these people doing really interesting, innovative things and solving hard technical problems,” Weinberg said. “Then there was always some legal reason why you couldn’t do it.”

Weinberg worked his way to the steps of Capitol Hill with Public Knowledge, sharing their mission to educate consumers about technology policy and advocate in the name of creative innovation at the crux of the Digital Age.

“What I do at Public Knowledge is try to find ways to create spaces [in the technology policy realm] for [the protection of] new technologies and new applications,” said Weinberg. “Our job is to get in there, talk to policy-makers, members of congress and administration on behalf of the viewpoints we think are important.”

One of Public Knowledge’s most recent viewpoints involves net neutrality, or the goal to maintain the Internet as a space free of restrictions by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The issue made headlines on Feb. 26 when the Federal Communications Commission passed a set of rules to ensure consumers a free and open Internet.

“One of [Public Knowledge’s] key priorities [on the net neutrality issue] is making sure that people have open and accessible networks so that they can use them to express themselves and do whatever they want in as free a manner as possible,” Weinberg said. “Net neutrality really distills a lot of [these freedoms of expression], especially in the telecommunications space.”

Public Knowledge began in the late ‘90s around the time when Napster, the peer-to-peer music file-sharing website launched and copyright law, regulations and reform became leading issues. Policy-makers and professionals in the telecommunications field familiar with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which governs how online copyright works, wondered who was going to advocate about these copyright issues on behalf of consumers and users of technologies like Napster that are dependent upon the Internet to operate.

“Public Knowledge was founded in 2001 by Gigi Sohn to be that user voice [and advocate on their behalf] in Washington,” Weinberg said.

For Weinberg, one of the most exciting parts about his job is the opportunity to fulfill multiple responsibilities in Public Knowledge’s approach to issues relevant to their missions. Weinberg said Public Knowledge hosts an occasional podcast related to the organization’s most current endeavors as “a way to try and connect with people in a different way.”

“[We are] trying to find ways to translate what’s happening inside of Washington to [technology users and consumers] who are impacted but may not be totally [interested in] understanding what happened [at the hearings on Capitol Hill],” Weinberg said.

To illustrate the benefits that will result from refining net neutrality rules, Weinberg described an analogy of the role and function of modern-day technologies such as the telephone and the Internet with roads.

“The important part is that they are a platform upon which so much is built,” Weinberg said. “When you think about net neutrality and Internet you think, ‘Oh, well there are all these companies that are creating new services, and they create jobs.’ And I think that’s really important, but it is also a place where communities go to find each other.”

While high-traffic websites like Amazon, Netflix or Google are part of the net neutrality equation, Weinberg stresses how the new set of rules also protects the lesser-known websites unique to an individual user’s Bookmarks tab such as Do-It-Yourself “DIY” crafting sites or even a niche sporting website or forum.

“[These lesser-known] sites don’t get a million hits an hour but they’re part of what forms the really rich fabric of the Internet for an individual,” Weinberg said. “It’s usually those websites that can work and compete for time against the biggest websites that is a huge part of what net neutrality is about.”

While some advocates of net neutrality disagree with the rules passed by the FCC at the Feb. 26 hearing, Public Knowledge aligned with Chairman Wheeler’s proposals to secure an open internet to prevent ISPs from blocking access to sites and to prohibit paid prioritization for faster broadband speeds.

“[The net neutrality win is] going to be one that we [Public Knowledge] look back on a long time in the future and say ‘that was a great win for us and our allies and especially a real turning point in Internet Activism,’” said Weinberg. “[Feb. 26] was a big day for the FCC to say, ‘We want to do this and we want to do it right,’”

Public Knowledge plans to remain on the front lines of the net neutrality debate, remaining in an active duty to continue to protect internet freedom. If there is a challenge in court or Congress uses the Congressional Review Act to overturn the FCC’s rules, or we see a re-write of the Communications Act, which was enacted before the Internet was born, Public Knowledge will remain the liaison communicating to the public through the press and their allies wherever the support of their legal professionals is needed.

“[Net neutrality] is a great win, and there’s a lot going on,” Weinberg said. “But one of our jobs now is to take this great win and defend it and make sure that all the energy that got it locked in doesn’t disappear.”

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