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Words from Charlie - Foreword to the 2017 Conference on Communications Policy Report

For the past 32 years, a group of leading experts and policy-makers in the communications field have gathered at the Aspen Institute for a three-day intensive discussion of key issues in American communications policy. In the summer of 2017 these leaders from government, business, academia and the non-profit sector addressed the impact of the new video environment, namely, the increasing use of broadband services to gain access to video programs, social networks and other media. This is a report of that conference written in a way aimed at framing issues, setting forth differing positions, and reporting group recommendations to bring positive change to the field.

As a backdrop to designing impactful policy recommendations, we asked participants to consider the principles laid out by current Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai in a speech made several months prior to the conference. Specifically, participants tried to bring to their recommendations elements of the four principles Pai laid out: the importance of digital empowerment, the need for ubiquitous Internet access, the power of competitive free markets and light-touch regulation.

But the meeting took place in mid-August 2017, just days after the horrors of racial confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia. The racial divide that afflicted the country made a strong impact on conferees, who normally look at rather technical communications policy issues. This year, the importance and immediacy of racial issues in the United States played an important role in focusing the group’s gaze on how to reduce divides, use the media to be more inclusive, and if possible, less confrontive.

This last point deserves elaboration. Participants in this conference, as in virtually all Aspen Institute events, ranged significantly in philosophical outlook, political affiliation, cultural perspective and personal experience. Yet, despite the current state of political confrontation in this country, the members of this gathering engaged in respectful, thoughtful dialogue on substantive controversial issues. That is to say, dialogue among people with diverse views and approaches can be civil, tolerant and dignified. And these individuals modeled that.

I am proud that this group of telecommunications experts and leaders went beyond their normal comfort zone to reflect on and address the racial and ideological divides in this country, and recommended measures for greater inclusion of all through communications media.

These are difficult and acrimonious times. But the dialogue at the Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy exemplified, I believe, the best in our system of advocacy and policy-making.

Finally, the conclusions that follow were drawn by the rapporteur to reflect the general sense of the group. However, not every participant is expected to agree with every statement. Nor do such statements necessarily reflect the views of their employers including the government agencies at the meeting.

I would like to acknowledge and thank the entities represented in this conference who have also contributed to the Communications and Society Program. They are Google, Microsoft, AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Verizon, Walt Disney Company, Charter, Dodge and Cox, Intel, National Association of Broadcasters, Netflix, New Street Research, T-Mobile, Ligado and Emmis.

I also want to thank John Horrigan, our rapporteur, for his clear and informative account of the conference discussions, and our 27 participants for their contributions to these complicated topics. Finally, I want to thank Dominique Harrison, Senior Project Manager of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, for managing the conference, and who, along with Managing Director Tricia Kelly, edited and produced this report.

Charles M. Firestone
Executive Director
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute
January 2018

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