Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Live from Chicago: Commissioner Copps speaks about media consolidation

I'm currently listening to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps talk about media consolidation, broadband access, net neutrality, and related issues of critical importance at a YearlyKos panel discussion led by FreePress. The Commissioner was warmly welcomed by those YearlyKos attendees in the room (which is packed full). Here is the text of his remarks:
Thank you, Free Press, for organizing another great citizens' action forum here in Chicago. I've watched Free Press grow during the years I've been at the FCC, and I don't know of any group that has fought harder or made so great an impact in so short a time. I'm proud of them and I am proud to be here.

I'm proud… but I'm worried, too. I'm worried that America is playing Russian roulette with broadband and the Internet and also with our more traditional media-television, radio and newspapers. In harnessing the potential of broadband and getting it out to all our citizens, America has been reduced to little more than a Third World country.

In TV and radio, we've corporatized the public interest and turned over control of what is supposed to be a democratic media to an ever-smaller number of powerful business titans. Newspapers, meanwhile, run around like Chicken Little, shouting "the sky is falling" and the only way to turn things around is more of the media consolidation that got them-and us-into so much trouble in the first place. I am deeply concerned about the direction we're heading and I am here to ask your help to bring our media home to democracy.

The broadband and media threats are joined at the hip. If you care about a free and open Internet, you should also care about free and open discussion in the traditional media, particularly over the public airwaves. In both cases, the danger is that a small number of corporate gatekeepers are limiting the public's access to information. Ultimately, our democracy is not based on technology.

It is based on information. And while the Internet may be the best information distribution mechanism yet devised by man, the reality remains that most people still get most of their news and information from television. And in a democracy, that's important. Just like Willie Sutton robbed banks "because that's where the money is," we need to be concerned about traditional media because - at least for now - "that's where the people are."

The upcoming Kos event is, of course, primarily about the Internet as a tool for grassroots organizing and creating political change. And I'd like to spend the first part of our short time together talking about broadband and the Internet and the threats they face from those who think there's nothing wrong with the 'net that a little less freedom can't solve.
I've also come here to talk about the traditional media and the similar obstacles it faces. But the real reason I am here is to ask your help in a national crusade to get our country back on course. It's a fight we must make and a fight we can still win.

Let's start with broadband and the Internet. A few years ago, I gave a speech that asked: Is the Internet as we know it dying? Some folks thought it was something of an unusual question to be asking at the time, but look at what's happened since then. In 2005, the Commission decided to reclassify broadband transmission facilities as Title I "information services" rather than Title II "telecommunications services." To the uninitiated this sounds like semantics.

But it had real consequences. That's because the nondiscrimination obligations and the consumer protections that attach to telecommunications traffic and were vital to keeping the Internet open in the dial-up era no longer apply to broadband services.

The FCC in effect says to the people: "See all these wonderful new services and technologies? Well, we're going to make sure that when these tools of twenty-first century communications come to you, they will be bereft of the protections and safeguards and public interest oversight that people fought and won for plain old telephone service in the twentieth century." Some of my colleagues call that progress and they sing hallelujahs to "a light regulatory touch." I call it risky business for America's future and an abdication of public interest oversight.

When the Commission set off on this course, I asked my colleagues to at least adopt an Internet Policy Statement. It wasn't revolutionary-in fact, it was pretty basic.
We managed to get it accepted and, as a result, the Commission now has a public document that summarizes the basic rights of Internet end-users. This Internet Policy Statement states that consumers are entitled to: (1) access content; (2) run applications and services; (3) connect devices to the network; and (4) enjoy competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

The Policy Statement sends a cautionary signal to network owners who may want to set up tollbooths or restrict lanes by limiting what you can do with your broadband connection. So far, so good. Act I ended on almost a hopeful note. And it was good news two days ago when the Commission voted to apply two of these principles-the rights to connect devices and to run applications-to at least a portion of the 700 MHz spectrum that will be auctioned later this year.

But settling for half-really far less than half-of an open Internet is not where we need to be. The majority turned down wholesale open access-a huge loss. And we still have not confronted the issue of whether a few broadband behemoths will be ceded gatekeeper control over the public's access to the full bounty of the Internet. We have a choice to make.
Down one road lies a FCC committed to honor and preserve the fundamental openness that made the Internet so great-a place of freedom and choice where anyone with a good idea and a little tech-savvy can create an idea or business with global impact.

On this road the FCC would adopt policies to ensure that the Internet remains a dynamic place for creating economic and educational opportunity, a fierce economic engine for innovation and entrepreneurship, and a tool for the sustenance and growth of democracy across the land.

Down the other road lies a FCC that, while it celebrates the Internet, sits idly by as broadband providers amass the power and technical ability to dictate where you can go and what you can do on the Internet. This FCC would see no public interest harms when providers set up gated communities and toll booths on the Internet, altering the openness that has characterized this medium and endangering the principle of non-discrimination. Make no mistake-the practical effect of what is being proposed by some network operators is to invert the democratic genius of the Internet. And these folks have friends in high places.

If we had a competitive broadband market, the government's role could be very different. In a truly competitive market, by all means the government could step aside and let a thousand flowers bloom. I have no doubt that open platforms would win out in a fair fight. But consumers face a powerful telco-cable duopoly. Actually, the duopoly is usually the best-case scenario because so many consumers remain hostage to a single broadband provider. And nearly 10% have no broadband provider at all.

The concentrated providers increasingly have the ability-and many think the business incentive-to build networks with traffic management policies that could restrict how we use the Internet. I remember enough of the American history I used to teach to know that if someone has both the technical capacity and the commercial incentive to control something, they're going to try. That doesn't make them bad people-but it can lead to some really bad results.

To me, broadband is the great network and infrastructure challenge of our time. If you course back through the annals of our nation's past, you'll find that just about every formative era has had its own major network challenge.

Even as the first settlers moved inland, they realized they had to be able to get their produce and products to market, so we found ways-the people and their government working together-to build the infrastructure to make that happen.

America built roads and turnpikes and harbors and canals and soon regional railroads. Then we industrialized and became a great continental power with a crying need to lay a railway grid across the land, and there came the saga of the Transcontinental railroads. Closer to our own era, in the Eisenhower years, the need was to tie city to suburb to nation so we developed the national Interstate Highway network. Even in basic telecom, we found ways to get phone service out to almost all our people.

In all of these great infrastructure build-outs, there was a critical role for government, business and local community organizations to work together toward a great national objective. It's the American Story. It's how we grew as a country. It's the only way we'll continue to grow.

Fast forward to 2007 and contemplate how we're doing in meeting this generation's great network challenge-building the roads and highways and pipes of the broadband era to all our people.

Well, unfortunately, America's record on broadband is so poor that every citizen should be totally outraged. The OECD recently ranked the United States 15th in broadband penetration, down from 12th in 2006. Some are trying to find fault with this study now-although isn't it curious that these same folks found no fault with OECD methodology when it ranked the United States Number 4 in 2001? I wonder why.

And Free Press recently did a wonderful study tearing to absolute shreds the arguments of those naysayers who do, I think, protest too much. Even if you don't like one study, there are other recent ones that have us at 11th, 12th, or 24th. The ITU puts us right behind Estonia and tied with Slovenia.

By any measure, our citizens are getting too little broadband at too high a price. Asian and Europeans consumers get home connections of 25 to 100 megabits per second. Meanwhile, you have an FCC that still calls 200 kilobits "broadband." 200 kilobits? How 1997! I bet that our counterparts in Korea and Japan have a chuckle over that one!

And we still measure broadband penetration by a zip code model that says if there is one subscriber in a zip code getting broadband, ergo, everyone can be counted as getting it.
Coming out of the airport, I saw somebody getting into a brand new Mercedes - I guess that means everyone in Chicago has a brand new Mercedes. The long and short of it is that consumers in the U.S. end up paying many multiples for connections that are one-twentieth the speed.

Maybe we should study what our friends abroad are doing. We don't have to mimic their policies. I recognize that we have different cultures and different population densities. But if the argument is that we're behind only because all the countries beating us live in high-rise apartments, I don't buy it. Norway, Sweden, Finland, our Canadian neighbors-they're all beating us in broadband and they have lower population densities than we do.

Maybe it's because they did some other things differently. Who knows-maybe each one decided to have a national broadband strategy for so important a national challenge? So, yes, I think there just might be some lessons to be learned from others. The sad fact is that your country and mine is the only industrial power on the face of the earth that doesn't have a national broadband strategy.

Now let's connect the dots I mentioned earlier. Let's talk about media and what's happening there. An important change in media over the past decade-rivaling even the new technologies and platforms that are rushing toward us-has been the alarming increase in media consolidation. Media consolidation is not some future threat-it is present reality. Fewer big media companies own more properties. They own television, radio, newspapers and cable-cable systems and cable channels. They own the production. They own the distribution. They're putting the screws to creativity itself.

Right now, the FCC is again examining its media ownership rules. Four years ago, the Commission tried to eliminate important rules that were designed to foster media diversity, localism and competition. The FCC plunged ahead, over the objections of Commissioner Adelstein and me - and passed stunning rules to allow one big media company to own, in a single community, up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the only daily newspaper, even the Internet service provider. A lot of people across America didn't like that very much.

Three million of them wrote the FCC to protest. When I came to the Commission I didn't think 3 million Americans even knew the FCC existed! Congress reacted and then the courts sent our misguided handiwork back to us with instructions to try again and get it right this time.

So we - you - prevented the new rules from taking effect and staved off a further round of consolidation. That was good. It showed that citizen action can still work, even today. But now we're back at square one with the Commission having opened a new proceeding that could usher in bad proposals one more time. We need to defeat any bad new proposals and go on from there to revisit the bad old rules still on the books that got us into this mess in
the first place.

But back to my point: remember I said this was related to the broadband and Internet issues. So it is. Consider the debate over network neutrality-or, better, over Internet Freedom - and you'll quickly realize it is a high voltage rail of the media consolidation debate.

For a while, a lot of folks thought the Internet was the antidote to media consolidation. The truth is that the Internet itself is heading down the same road as media. The more concentrated that the ownership of distribution grows - whether it's broadcast or broadband - the more we put ourselves at risk. The network consolidators in media and broadband are both fusing content and conduit. By controlling both, they can keep competing voices out-with far-reaching consequences for the economy, for culture and entertainment, for the credibility of the news and for the vitality of the civic dialogue that supports our democracy.

So even if you rarely watch TV or read a newspaper, even if you wouldn't shed a tear if "old media" disappeared tomorrow, I hope you'll see that these phenomena are blood-related.
Upfront I said I came to ask for your help. We need a full-court press now. You're the first folks I've told this to, but in the last couple of days, I'm beginning to smell something fishy at the FCC. A media ownership process that was proceeding altogether leisurely - with hearings every couple of months and expert studies being compiled in the groves of academe - seems all of a sudden headed for a faster track.

We all know there are major mergers pending, but I'm beginning to wonder if there might just be an intention to come with major new media ownership rules sooner rather than later-that's "sooner" as before we get too far into an election year when such rules might not be the best way to win the hearts, minds and votes of the American people.

Just a thought….but media ownership studies were put out this week with a really short time-frame for comments. Ditto for a proceeding on diversity that has to be completed before the FCC votes on media rules changes. My advice is: Be prepared.

Those who care about the vision I've been outlining today should not sit passively by while the huge potential of both new technologies and older platforms is frittered away. The country needs you-it needs the Netroots community, and everyone else you can bring along, to jump into the fray and fight like your future depends upon it-because it does.

The way you win - the only way - is to take this story not just to Capitol Hill, but all across America; bring home to as many people as you can what is at stake and enlist allies across the land. Talk about it. Write about it. Blog about it. If you can sing, sing about it. Your story will be music to democracy's ears. You and I have it in our power, if we work like never before, to make media freedom and information freedom and innovation freedom live for another day and generation. And if we fight this battle well, in the end we can celebrate media of, by and for the American people. Media democracy. Let me ask you: Doesn't that sound good to you?
Yesterday Copps strongly criticized the Dow Jones/News Corp. deal, releasing a statement calling for FCC involvement:
"It's interesting to hear the 'experts' claim the transaction faces no regulatory hurdles. Not so fast! This deal means more media consolidation and fewer independent voices, and it specifically impacts the local market in New York City."
Copps is correct that the FCC has an obligation to consider the public interest and not turn a blind eye to transactions like this - instead of the ho-hum, see no evil, hear no evil, observe no evil approach the commission currently uses as he put it.

<< Home