The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) has long served as part of the political support system for the telecom and media industries. While many view CDT as a privacy group, a great deal of what the organization does benefits its corporate supportersâ€”which have been some of the biggest media and data collection companies in the country. They have included Axciom, Doubleclick, Time Warner, AT&T, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google and Intel.
Now, CDT has joined forces with one of the key corporate funded groups that has been leading the charge against network neutrality: the Progress and Freedom Foundation. PFF, co-founded by Newt Gingrich, is also supported by numerous corporate media/telecom interests, including Murdochâ€™s News Corp. (Fox), AT&T, BellSouth, Comcast, Clear Channel, GE/NBC, Google and Microsoft.
Yesterday, the two groups jointly filed amicus briefs in federal courts supporting News Corp./Fox and NBCâ€™s efforts to undermine the ability of the FCC to regulate communications. The TV networks are fighting the FCCâ€™s recent decisions on broadcast indecency. But the CDT/PFF filing wasnâ€™t only about over-turning the FCCâ€™s foolhardy and inappropriate efforts on so-called indecent content. The message CDT and PFF gave to the courts was they should rein in any effort by the FCC to ensure that the public interest be served in the digital media era. The filing claims that convergence of various media, including the Internet, make any policy role for the FCC related to diversity of content a threat to free speech itself. A very convenient argument that must warm the hearts of both CDTâ€™s and PFFâ€™s corporate funders, because they are precisely the companies who wish to avoid having a public interest regulatory regime in broadband.
Missing from the brief is any discussion of the regulatory areas for broadband (including PC, mobile, and digital TV [IPTV] platforms) that will require federal policy, including a key role for the FCC. Among them, ensuring an open, non-discriminatory content distribution policy for the Internetâ€”network neutrality. Other rules that will require FCC action in the broadband era include ensuring â€œfreeâ€ and â€œequalâ€ time for political speech; diversity of content ownership, including by women and persons of color; localism; public service; privacy; and advertising regulation. There will need to be ad safeguards, for example, protecting children from interactive marketing that promotes obesity as well as with prescription drug ads targeting seniors via immersive â€œone-to-one” media techniques.
CDT and PFF argue that the new media environment provides the public with greater choice, another reason they urge the courts to limit FCC authority. But whatâ€™s really happening with digital media is that we are facing a system where the â€œchoicesâ€ are being meaningfully reduced by the market. Wherever the public goes, the forces of conglomerate media and advertising will confront them. Consider, for example, News Corp.â€˜s MySpace now running Fox programming. (Itâ€™s interestingly, by the way, that neither CDT nor PFF told the courts that they have a financial relationship with some of the interests involved in the indecency debate).
We have long opposed FCC efforts to â€œregulateâ€ indecency, including being critical of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps (whom we otherwise strongly admire). The indecency effort by the FCC has helped let it become vulnerable to this attack by the media conglomerates, and their supporters, who have a longstanding political agenda aimed at sweeping away all regulation and safeguards. Fox, NBC, Viacom, Disney and the rest want a U.S. media system where they can own as many media outlets as they want, not have to do any public service, nor worry about regulators concerned about threats to privacy and interactive marketing abuses.
The emerging broadband era in the U.S. will see us face further consolidation of ownership of media outlets, including the Internet, as well as an increase in overall commercialization. The cry that Wall Street has for broadband is â€œmonetization.â€ But our electronic media system must also serve democracyâ€”not just the interests of those who want to make money. Civic participation, public interest civic media, and safeguards from content and services designed to manipulate us must be addressed. There is a role for the FCC in all this. (We shouldnâ€™t throw-out as â€œbathwaterâ€ the potential of our broadband media to serve democracy and a role for the FCC because we are upset about it catering to zealous social conservatives who donâ€™t like some programming).
Finally, shame on CDT for joining up with PFF. PFF is an opponent of the network neutrality policy for the Internet. It has also long opposed any meaningful role for the FCC. But, perhaps that’s the point. If PFF gets it way, its backers–and many of CDT’s–will be free to do as they please, regardless of the consequences to our democracy.