Josh Breitbart’s plans for the future are both humble and huge: From his post as the first-ever senior broadband advisor at Mayor de Blasio’s office in New York City, he quietly sets up meetings between government planners and community organizers to wrest ever-evolving technologies of communication (high-speed wireless Internet, for example) away from pure private market control and secure them firmly in the hands of residents in working-class areas such as Red Hook, Mott Haven and Queensbridge.
Among the projects that Breitbart has initiated or supported is the city’s plan to spend $10 million to connect 16,000 residents at five public housing sites with free broadband service. But that’s not all: Residents also learn technical skills so that they can participate in operating and repairing their community’s networks.
“I don’t think of myself as someone who works in the tech sector, and I certainly don’t refer to myself as a technologist,” said Breitbart. “Instead of pursuing coding there was another space where I could contribute: the democratic governance of technology. The Internet is a real, physical thing, and that seems to be left out somewhere between law and code. There are actual materials and electromagnetic signals. We need democratic processes determining where we put those things and how we run them day-to-day, or how we oversee the institutions or corporations that run them day-to-day.”
Breitbart grew up in Park Slope, now one of Brooklyn’s most upscale neighborhoods. He was raised by an independent filmmaker father and reproductive justice activist mother.
“I think that for a variety of reasons, both through my the network of people, historical timing, partners and friends, as well as my personal race, gender, and education privilege, I have been able to form a career engaged in this effort, which I just think is incredible,” he said.
Breitbart’s interest in the politics of communications as a platform for social change date back to his media activist days during the late 1990s. Back in his twenties, Breitbart co-founded Rooftop Films, a local film festival in New York City, and he contributed to Clamor, an alternative culture, left-wing magazine. In the early 2000s the global social justice movement dovetailed with the rise of the Internet as a platform for independent media distribution. Breitbart helped build Indymedia, a network established by independent and alternative media organizations and activists in Seattle, Washington, in 1999 to provide grassroots coverage of counter-globalization protests and movements. In 2004, Breitbart was part of the team that organized New York City’s Indymedia Center during the Republican National Convention protests.
“It became clear,” said Breitbart, “that in the movements for media democracy and mass participation in media creation there were things that needed to evolve: issues of racial and economic justice, and sexism in technology and access. And although there was this incredible explosion of content creation and using the Internet as a distribution platform, without the ability to democratically control that infrastructure it was incredibly limiting.”
Since then, Breitbart has fought for community control of communications infrastructure — explicitly focusing on policy and the racial and economic justice implications of access and ownership of such technologies. As the Policy Director for the now-defunct People’s Production House — which trained low-wage workers, immigrants, and young people in journalism and media literacy in New York and Washington, DC — he focused on securing equitable Internet access and testified before city and state officials and federal agencies on mobile broadband, net neutrality, the digital television transition, and government transparency. He worked to expand access to broadband in Philadelphia and conducted an investigation into the failure of the city’s Wireless Philadelphia initiative. From 2010 to 2015, Breitbart worked in Washington, DC, with New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, where he coordinated researchers, organizers and technologists to work with community members and create public computer centers, broadband adoption programs, and wireless network deployments — often conducted in partnership with government agencies, research institutions, educators and entrepreneurs.
Taking on Internet policy, Breitbart said, is the “logical extension” of “being the media,” Indymedia’s famous motto.
“At the time there were no prohibitions, there were just these powerful gatekeepers,” he said of the Internet during those years. “Since then, there has been a long fight to achieve net neutrality, which is a key element of democratic control. It’s only partial, but it’s still tremendous that we did any of that.”
When, in 2013, it became apparent that Bill de Blasio, a progressive, would become the first Democratic mayor of New York City in 20 years, Breitbart was thrilled. Breitbart talked to everyone he knew who had worked in the city government and “started putting it out to the universe” that he was interested in a job on broadband policy at the Mayor’s office. Around the same time, civil rights attorney, Maya Wiley, published a story in The Nation that promoted a WiFi project in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that Breitbart, working with OTI, had helped with. After Wiley was appointed counsel to the Mayor and she was assigned the task of leading the city’s broadband strategy, Wiley looked to hire Breitbart.
“Maya said that basically she knew who I was and knew my involvement — along with others — in the Red Hook WiFi project,” Breitbart recalled. “I understood how that project worked, how cities could scale it up, and I also happened to be a native New Yorker who graduated with an Ivy League degree from New York and went to New York public schools. I had moved into a job at a think tank through connections I had made at Indymedia. I had lots of different kinds of privilege.”
“In the end, I feel like it comes back to having exemplary, visionary projects in the places where you want to achieve an impact,” referring to the Red Hook Wi-Fi example.
There is tremendous potential to create more equitable, universal and low-cost broadband systems right now, Breitbart added. There is also potential for epically-proportioned failures that could spiral out for decades to come.
“If you look at the history of the way that transportation infrastructure is built — highways in particular — there are a lot of negative examples,” said Breitbart. “We can learn from those mistakes.”
So far, in the US the “open wireless” movement that has set up community Wi-Fi in areas of some cities has largely been a “top-down” approach, dominated by “people with technological privilege who decide that they want to use that technological know-how and privilege to set up wireless access points for their neighbors,” according to Breitbart. “That dynamic is really challenging. That tends to be the kind of dynamic that drives gentrification or displacement, where you have young people with forms of privilege moving into communities that have inadequate infrastructure and low incomes.”
Projects like Red Hook Wi-Fi turn that approach on its head by supporting long-standing community organizations to take ownership and control of wireless networks. Red Hook Initiative, which led the Wi-Fi project that Breitbart worked on while with OTI, runs a job skills training program that pays young people to become “digital stewards” who install, maintain and promote the Wi-Fi network, which is free of charge to locals. The challenge for Breitbart is to figure out how to do that at city scale.
Ultimately, the goal is “not broadband for its own sake but part of a broader agenda of addressing some of the fundamental economic inequities in the city,” Breitbart said. “Just because you’ve gone out and purchased broadband access for somebody or a community it doesn’t mean you are going to achieve the political or social or economic transformation that broadband access can achieve. There’s got to be true participation from community members at various levels in that process. And we’re not talking about systems that were designed with that in mind — even before you get into the digital and Internet components of it.”
Breitbart perks up when he talks about working with community organizers and social justice activists to plot the future of the Internet. With a smile, he recounts his pitch at a typical encounter:
“I’m not here to try and tell you that the most important thing you’re going to work on this week is getting people access to Internet — but for ten minutes I need you to take all the brilliance that you have about community organizing, all the knowledge that you have about your community and the issues they face, and some awareness of the types of relationships that you’ve developed around all of that, and just put that brilliance to bear on what kind of processes we can use to connect all that to the infrastructure and tools and technologies that are going to be the underpinnings of the next 100 years of the cities that you’re living in.”
In recent years there have been a number of successful collaborations between city and federal governments and community media activists, Breitbart said. In Philadelphia, a network of community organizers and residents successfully pushed for a deal between their city and telecommunications giant, Comcast, to provide affordable and heavily discounted internet and cable to potentially hundreds of thousands of low-income people, raise pay for workers, contractors and subcontractors, and to invest far more heavily in educational and job opportunities for Philadelphia public school students and graduates. The “digital stewards” model being adapted at New York’s broadband sites, Breitbart said, was developed initially by Allied Media Project as part of the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Project (BTOP), to help bridge the technological divide and create jobs. The resulting Detroit Community Technology Project is responsible for scaling this work in both Detroit and New York.
The first thing funders can do, he said, is strengthen those networks of community groups and help them “gain political force” by funding political movements. Then, second, connect them with policy advocates like himself to engage community on technology issues.
“These types of citywide coalitions of organizations maintain a set of relationships among community-based or social justice organizations and provide a shared connection to the world of technology and telecommunications,” Breitbart said. “You increasingly see levels of government acknowledging the success and the importance of this approach to building technology and infrastructure as strategies for economic and community development.”