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The Underestimated Mignon Clyburn

Before Mignon Clyburn joined the Federal Communications Commission last July, she hadn’t spent more than two weeks in a row outside of her native South Carolina. But that didn't stop some in Washington from thinking they had her figured out.

Because she is the daughter of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and a long-time public utilities commissioner in the state capital of Columbia, lobbyists and a few public interest advocates speculated she’d favor the Bell companies on policy decisions. They said she had a steep learning curve and suspected her seat at the FCC was a political stepping stone.

Clyburn, 47, admits she has a lot to learn on the complexities of telecommunications and high-tech policy. But so far, she’s proven her critics wrong on one crucial vote on net neutrality. And above everything, she wants people to know that she’s not to be underestimated.

“What troubled me coming to D.C. were the assumptions about who I was and what I was going to do,” Clyburn said during an interview Tuesday at her office. “That was unfair.”

There is much at stake and her true test will be on details of the net neutrality proposal and on the issues she will champion during her tenure. She’s a crucial third Democratic vote in a five-member agency that’s at the center of vexing regulatory decisions that will set the course on how consumers use the Web. Regulations could also tilt fortunes for Internet carriers and companies creating content. Telecommunications and cable service providers have fought against new policies like net neutrality, an issue supported by President Obama, that would prevent them from blocking or slowing any legal content or services on their Internet networks. A fresh face at the agency with little experience in communications policy, Clyburn’s still somewhat of a wild card.

Beyond the assumptions about her policy leanings, what has caught Mignon off guard has been an aggressive lobbying offensive leading up to the vote on proposed net neutrality rules earlier in the month.

She received dozens of hateful messages from “a wide brush” of people concerned with the telecom policy, many questioning her competence. She received “borderline soft threats” by some people whom she declined to identify, “trying to imply a particular direction would wreak havoc of all kinds back at home and here.”

She wouldn’t elaborate on the nature of those threats. Though raised in a politically powerful family, she wasn’t prepared for such tactics on the first major policy issue before the new commission and just months into her new job.

Instead of recoiling, the steel of the petite Southerner emerged. “That’s when you see a different side of Mignon that isn’t tempered,” she said.

In her speech at the FCC meeting last Oct. 22 to vote on Chairman Julius Genachowski’s proposal for Internet access rules, she said she wanted to make clear her decisions would be based on "data and reasoned conversation."

“Unfortunately, some parties seem to prefer radioactive rhetoric and unseemly and unbecoming tactics. Such an approach may yield headlines, but will not yield positive results with me,” she said in her speech.

In the end all five commissioners voted to at least pursue a long rule-making process to come up with a net neutrality policy that would prevent them from also giving preference to their Internet services over their competitors. The carriers say they need flexiblity to manage traffic congestion to prevent service from slowing to a crawl. The two Republican commissioners, Robert M. McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker have said they will agree to pursuing the regulatory process but don’t agree that there is a need for regulation.

Yet the true weight of any final rules will lie in crucial details. To what degree will wireless service providers be treated differently? How will the FCC define traffic management that prevents anticompetitive practices? How will the agency treat managed services, such as dedicated and secure bandwidth for telemedicine or video services? And will the rules extend beyond carriers to include content companies such as Google?

It’s unclear how Clyburn will vote on those narrow pieces of the policy. She's expressed strong support for Genachowski, but telecom industry executives are searching for clues to her thinking on specific slices of the controversial debate.

Clyburn notes that she’s long sided with the underdog. As a publisher of a small newspaper, she’s experienced the challenges of breaking into an industry dominated by powerful and better-funded media firms.

Right out of the University of South Carolina, where she studied business and finance, Clyburn took over her family’s Charleston newspaper. For 14 years, she ran The Coastal Times, a tiny weekly publication dedicated to covering minority communities.

For part of that time she was a one-person operation. That meant reporting on city council meetings, shooting her own photos, laying out the pages and delivering the paper to doorsteps around town in her 1992 GMC Jimmy.

Clyburn logged more than 300,000 miles on the Jimmy, which still sits in the driveway of her Charleston home. But up against much bigger newspapers with better operations and funding, her paper didn’t survive.

“When I sit here and look at the big picture and big policy issues, I don’t lose sight of the fact that we need to take into account all kinds of voices and concerns, especially those that aren’t as loud as the others,” Clyburn said.

Her first meeting at the FCC was with public interest and civil rights groups and advocates for people with disabilities. She said she’s long fought for underserved communities, particularly in rural areas. She sees “fair rules of the road” as key for entrepreneurs and underserved communities to get access to the Web.

As for her approach to the job, she said she’ll stay true to her Southern roots.

“Instead of hollering, I’ll listen,” she said. “And that’s the best way to be heard by me too.”

By Cecilia Kang  |  November 4, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Broadband , Consumers , Digital Divide , Mobile , Net Neutrality  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Mob Wars beware: Cisco's got its game on
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Again, Cecilia Kang takes space, in the middle of an article, to push "network neutrality" regulation -- showing her extreme bias. Also note that, in this blog, she has preferentially profiled only Commissioners who have issued statements suggesting that they favor such regulation. The Post needs an unbiased, critical voice, not an unthinking cheerleader for the regulatory agenda of one company (Google).

Posted by: squirma | November 4, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse


You are a broken record. When will you get it through your balding head that there are millions of people who have no relationship to Google that support net neutrality? There are other companies that support net neutrality!

While you always accuse everyone who even indicates the slightest support for net neutrality as being in the tank for Google, when will you admit to the fact that you have personally taken money from several companies and their associations that oppose this policy.

That's right folks, Brett has been paid by companies to ensure he keeps up his smear campaign. Classy Brett.

Posted by: amabala | November 4, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

The concept of Net Neutrality, in its unabashed form, was meant to ensure that ISPs provided the promised service you pay for every month.

That means that if they offer you 1.5Mb/s you should be getting 1.5Mb/s all day long without any caps or delaying your packets out to the world.

The problem shows up at this point because ISPs do not want to guarantee what you are paying for because it would mean cutting into their profits quite a bit.... Something shareholders dont like to see happen.

This is being done under the guise of "managing bandwidth" which effectively delays or outright blocks certain communications in favor of other ones (determined by the ISP, NOT YOU)

So when you stand back and look at the problem of not getting what you pay for, you can begin to see the problem with paying for a service that gives you preferential speeds or treatment to use certain "services" such as video streaming and gaming.

The ISPs of course, make more money on their end. YOU on the other hand are now "nudged" into using certain technologies or services because they are "cheaper" or "faster" than the others...

In the end, the Internet (under a bastardized government regulatory system) will only hamper innovation and future technologies by promoting one thing over another.


Had they implemented this system of "control" from the very beginning, we wouldn't even have an internet to speak of, only the DARPANet and ONLY if you were part of academia or DoD.

If they actually keep this bill as pristine as intended from the very beginning, it will be a GREAT thing for consumers and innovation. But seeing those involved froth at the mouth for more control over you and me and what we do online (preferential packet treatment) I seriously doubt that Net Neutrality in its current form or ANY FORM during this type of power-grab government action, will only end up as yet another means to ruin what was once a great avenue for personal expression and innovation.

/end of rant

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | November 4, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

The remarks from "Ama Bala," above, are false and slanderous. The fact is that I have never taken money from anyone for my advocacy. In fact, I haven't even been reimbursed for travel to a speaking engagement -- of any kind -- in more than a year.

I am pointing out the well worn money trail between Google and advocates of "network neutrality" -- and it's quite amazing how many of them Google is funding! -- for the benefit of the customers of my rural Internet provider and of the public in general. My customers get what they pay for -- and more. "Network neutrality" regulation would be devastating to consumer choice and the quality of Internet service, and would raise the price of Internet service and hobble innovation. As the world's first wireless ISP -- and after more than 17 years I continue to serve rural customers who have no other terrestrial options for high speed Internet -- I certainly cannot and will not stand idly by as a greedy corporation marshals "astroturf" lobbyists to destroy what I have built so as to perpetuate its monopoly.

The coverage of the issue in this blog and in Ms. Kang's articles in the Post has been grossly biased. Ms. Kang has violated the fundamental tenets of journalistic ethics (and, quite possibly, the new FTC rules regarding blogger disclosure) by failing to note in every posting and article that her blog is directly supported by Google (note the ads on this page), and that a substantial portion of every paycheck she receives likewise comes from Google. Not every supporter of this agenda is in the pay of Google (some are simply misinformed about the issue), but Ms. Kang (and, quite possibly Mr. "Bala") provably is.

Brett Glass
Owner and Founder, LARIAT
The world's first wireless ISP (WISP)

Posted by: squirma | November 4, 2009 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Bala?

I'm a woman, you sexist pig.

And oh the irony, you accusing Ms. Kang of having a "substantial portion of every paycheck" she earns as being paid by Google. You obviously know as little about how the newspaper and advertising industry works as you know about how to run a network. What a hack.

Google Adsense places ads on websites -- those ads are paid for by the companies who are advertising -- Google acts as a middle man, taking a cut. In this sense, the checks you cut your employees from Bank of Wyoming mean that your employees work for the bank, not you.

What a dope. And people, Brett is on the take, he's just too ashamed to admit it.

Posted by: amabala | November 5, 2009 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Oh, I see: I am a "sexist pig" because I guess, supposedly incorrectly, the gender of what is most likely a pseudonym. And I obviously must be "on the take" because I dare to speak out and expose unethical behavior and corruption. Sure.

In any event, it is simply a fact that a substantial portion of every paycheck received by Cecilia Kang comes from Google. Yes, Google collects money from others to place advertising; that's how it makes its huge profits. But it is the one that pays the Post, which in turn pays Cecilia.

And in many cases those ads are actually for Google itself. Ever notice how many of them are for the "Open Internet Coalition," one of Google's "astroturf" lobbying groups? (Hint: this group is funded and controlled by Google and lobbies for regulation and legislation favored by Google.)

It's time to clear the air here -- and a good way to start is to expose some of the money trails.

--Brett Glass

Posted by: squirma | November 5, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

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