Every year, the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society (C&S) Program gathers a wide array of stakeholders for its annual communications policy conference, including consumer advocates, telecommunications and technology industry leaders, current and former government employees, and academic researchers. This year, thirty information and communication experts gathered to discuss the topic of “Next Generation Digital Infrastructure: Towards a New Regime for Promoting Investment, Competition and Consumer Protection,” and those in attendance represented a wide spectrum of industries, experiences and perspectives. This range of viewpoints spoke to the clear efforts and mission of the Aspen Institute to convene and foster dialogue among industry leaders, in an attempt to promote the public good through lively and rich discussions of complex issues.
As the 2018 Guest Scholar, I was invited to attend, observe, and participate in this year’s conference proceedings and witnessed such conversations and debates unfold firsthand. This year in particular, it felt as if the topics of algorithms and emerging technologies, data privacy and cybersecurity, and the persistence of rural and urban digital divides were salient issues. As I reflect on the experience a month later, I am left pondering the conference and its lessons in relation to two key themes and takeaways:
- Consumers, citizens, and civil rights as frames for policy issues. Put simply, there was an audible penchant during conference discussions to focus on the business-related and economic implications of issues – e.g., how communications policy, investments, and regulation (by the NTIA, FCC, and FTC) could be leveraged to foster competition and consumer protection. However, there was one striking moment within discussions whereby someone in the room called attention to the potential importance of framing issues as “citizen” protection (vs. “consumer”) within an era whereby media and technology are discussed as potential threats to democracy. This novel articulation of issues, or so they purported and the consumer advocates in the room agreed, could significantly shape what concerns arose and the solutions hereto forth within policy conversations. For instance, when considering rural broadband investment incentives, discussions might unfold differently when they are shaped by facts and figures regarding the economic costs and demand projections of such rural deployment – i.e., it’s very costly to deploy these infrastructures and low-density populations have low demands for them – vis-à-vis the social implications of the increasing, and persistent, rural digital divides within an increasingly digital era.
Moreover, to demonstrate the utility of framing information and communication issues as “citizen” vs. “consumer” concerns, the case of data infrastructures as the next frontier for communication policy issues is a particularly informative example, although the debates regarding data privacy and regulation at this year’s conference were among the most highly contested topics. From the stance of a consumer advocate, the frame of “citizen issues” is especially useful for policy conversations because consumer data privacy concerns will not be preceded by corporate interests for higher profit margins – and the use of technological applications by consumers will not imply consent to any and all use cases of commercial data collection, especially when citizens and consumers alike are unsure about whether technology companies can be trusted to secure and protect their data without regulation and third-party avenues for redress. (For example, refer to the recent news updates about data breaches at Facebook, among other cases.)
Even then, and so the aforementioned colleague noted, the frame of “citizens” does not fully capture the concerns of community members who are not considered “citizens” (e.g., recent immigrants, children, prisoners denied citizenship rights, etc.), while it does move discussions toward productive ends. Expanding on this, another attendee called attention to the limits of “civil rights” as a frame of policy issues due to its inability to capture the concerns and issues of immigrants and other subcommunities who are ill-defined and underemphasized within extant policy. These astute deconstructions of policy frames are important to further unpack and contemplate their implications, particularly in relation to considering how we communicate about key issues and constituents.
- The need to further integrate citizens, consumers, and advocates within discussion. On a related note, during one of my working group’s discussions (for the Competition and Consumer Protection group), in an effort to focus our conversations, an industry executive asked pointedly: “What do consumers want?” This simple but profound question provoked many claims about what consumers want in products and services, and there was some agreement regarding key concerns such as affordability, multiple provider options, and quality services, for instance. However, there was no consensus regarding more complex issues and concerns, such as data privacy and regulation (e.g., whether and how the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, should factor into US policy), and debates ensued as to whether and how various representatives in the room had enough evidence for their claims about consumer demands. Furthermore, due to the relative minority representation of community and consumer advocates – i.e., they only constituted one-fifth of the room whereas the number of corporate representatives was double this amount – there were limited opportunities for rich discussions about consumer needs and concerns, and the needs of diverse communities across the United States apart from corporate interests. Admittedly, it is no easy endeavor gathering a group that can balance being small enough to have a productive conversation and also be representative and deeply informed about both scholarship and the real world.
In closing, issues of communication policy, technology, and democracy are increasingly complex in the current climate, and the rationale for divergent stances to issues are dynamic, complex, and multi-pronged. Thus, I understand and greatly appreciate the tremendous amount of labor and time it entails to effect change within the communications policy sphere and truly foster the public good while engaging a wide array of stakeholders – especially after observing conversations at Aspen. However, current and future policy conversations about these issues would benefit from, first, reflecting on how participants frame issues as “consumer” (vs. “citizen” or “civil rights”) with primarily economic concerns and argumentation. The topics for discussion and solutions generated will be directly shaped by the framing of issues. In addition, though the Aspen Institute has made great strides to engage a wide array of stakeholders from multiple sectors, there remains much ground to cover in terms of developing a more grounded and real-world sense of consumer concerns, and a sense of these issues in relation to diverse community needs. These issues are of particular importance in building up a new regime of digital infrastructures that are uplifting for all community members.
Matthew Bui is the 2018 Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy Guest Scholar. The Communications and Society Program sponsors the guest scholarship initiative to give students of color the opportunity to foster their professional and academic career in the field of media and technology policy.
Bui is currently a doctoral student and Graduate Fellow at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg School for Communication.
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the view of the Aspen Institute.