Tuesday, December 15, 2009

my work at Free Press

i sometimes get asked a simple question that has no simple answer: what do i do? the short(-ish) answer is, i'm a Policy Counsel for Free Press, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that does lobbying and grassroots work in support of media and telecommunications policy issues. we work on a broad range of issues, from preserving the open Internet, to fixing broken markets in media, television, wireless, and Internet access services, to developing and supporting a better system for public media and for journalism. that much, everyone reading this probably already knows. i'm a lawyer, but i don't have clients, and i don't sue anyone - and although i don't think my friends or family doubt my contributions, they may rightly wonder just what exactly those contributions are.

my generic duties are the same as those of most lawyers and policy people in D.C. - i read, i write, and i talk to people. why does that help? let me give you a little more detail:
  1. i read, a lot. the more i read, the more i can understand the positions of the other political players in DC, and the more i am aware of the general climate and culture. this helps me know where to push, how to push, and who to push on (not necessarily in that order) when i write (see #2) and when i lobby (see # 3). reading about outside-DC events, like developments in technology, also helps me shape my (and Free Press's) positions on what the right policy should be.
  2. i write, a good bit. i write comments and portions of comments to be submitted to the FCC; sporadic letters to the FCC and to the Hill; occasional white papers for a range of audiences; and sporadic blog posts. i sometimes write with colleagues from my organization, sometimes with colleagues from other organizations, and sometimes solo. my writings are sometimes more legal in nature (e.g. comments on Public, Educational, and Government cable content), sometimes technical (e.g. white papers on Deep Packet Inspection and Application Bias), sometimes more rhetorical or philosophical (e.g. a Free My Phone blog post on my vision for wireless services), and sometimes a mix of all of the above (e.g. initial and reply comments on truth-in-billing). i think of my writings as the most directly valuable contributions i can make, because they contribute to the conversation as a vehicle for the policy outcomes that Free Press supports.
  3. i lobby - sometimes. usually at the FCC, explaining Free Press's positions and trying to win staffers over; once in a while on the Hill. i do not lobby often enough to have to be a registered lobbyist, which i personally consider fortunate, because that entails a lot of paperwork that i frankly don't want to do. but when i do lobby, i have a chance to sit down face-to-face with a decisionmaker, to whom i can explain and defend my position, and from whom i can learn more about the political climate and the right pressure points (see #1) to help me guide future writing and lobbying.
  4. i go to a lot of meetings. a lot of people are working towards the same goals, and i try to spend lots of time talking to them about what our shared goals are, and how we can work together to divide up the load or at least support each other to get there. a lot of other people are working against my goals, and i meet with them sometimes too, either to find a middle ground or to pull them over to my side. some of those people working with me are in public interest organizations, some are at businesses, and some work for the federal government - and the same is true of the people who work against me. meetings are almost as important as reading and lobbying for gauging political environments and identifying pressure points.
  5. sometimes i also go to conferences, either to attend or to present - like Supernova in San Francisco in the first week of December, where i spoke on a panel about broadband in a lineup that included representatives from Comcast and Verizon, a heavily deregulatory former FCC commissioner, and one fellow public interest person (but i'm used to being outnumbered). conferences can be a couple different things - they can be part of the advocacy process, to push an issue, or they can be educational, to help develop my understanding of the right policy outcome.
i suppose the next question is, how does my work help the broader goal? over the long haul, my writings and lobbyings and meetings can help produce a favorable FCC order or a favorable bill, or at least help avoid unfavorable orders and bills; that's generally the tangible target result. but, these are the rare phenomena - it's like when you're playing tug-of-war against another team and they finally fall over or the knot crosses your line. continuing the metaphor, most of what i do is pull like hell on the rope and hope the knot moves a few inches closer to my side, knowing it might take weeks before i can tell. FCC comments and white papers and lobbying meetings mostly lead to news articles, which lead to FCC investigations and open proceedings (generally questions from the FCC directed to industry), which reveal more information about how messed up our media and telecom ecosystem has become; that then leads to more news articles and an ever-growing momentum which is fueled by more comments and white papers and even more news articles. that's the big-picture, months-in-development story of how the rope gets moved.

i consider myself very fortunate to be where i am - i have a dynamic, interesting job with a lot of new things to learn and a lot of fantastic people to work with. sometimes i also feel like i'm a little bit crazy, going to work every day with 300 hundred pound juggernauts staring down at me from the other side of the rope (the industry lawyers and lobbyists, and their astroturf allies). but i can't imagine doing anything else. i really believe we need to change things, so i plan to pull on that rope as hard as i can for as long as i can, and i am proud that the people around me are pulling every bit as hard, or harder.

(and, if you want to contribute, here's a link.)


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