Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Il.) is the lone Democrat on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee sponsoring the Barton-Hastert broadband media monopolization bill of 2006. A former “activist,” Rush now appears to be siding with his long-time “top contributors” SBC (# 4) and Verizon (#18). Rush’s support has enabled House Commerce Chair Joe Barton to claim his bill has bi-partisan backing, reports Broadcasting & Cable magazine. The Barton-Hastert-Rush bill weakens the ability of communities to ensure that the broadband digital media environment truly addresses issues of inclusion, discrimination, public service, and opportunity. SBC (now AT&T) has an important presence in Chicago, so it’s not suprising that they could readily “reach out and touch” a local pol. But it’s shameful that Rep. Rush has helped give political cover to big telecommunications lobbying interests. It should be noted that Rep. Rush has also received money from the cable lobby–but ultimately they also stand to benefit from the Barton giveaway bill (we will turn to the bill in our next post).
For too long, politicians on both sides of the aisle have allowed themseleves to be no more than puppets for the media lobby. The list of Democrats who–like Rep. Rush–have placed the interests of the media monopoly over their constituents–is a sad commentary in itself. But in the the case of Rep. Rush, he may be taking AT&T’s dollars–but it makes no sense.
Too many academics and scholars are part of the communications industry lobbying complex. In Congress and at the FCC, academic testimony and filings from scholars support the arguments of industry. Such scholarly contributions are meant to provide a patina of respectability for policy positions that ultimately undermine the interests of the broad public at large.
These scholars seldom reveal that either they or their academic institution have received handsome grants or other funding from the very interests that their research politically supports. They are treated with respect because our society still views academics as dispassionate and scientifically-focused investigators. But instead of being impressed with a Ph.D. or an academic appointment at a prestigious university, the first question policymakers should ask scholars is: â€œare either you or your institution receiving money from any of the vested commercial interests involved in this issue.â€
Take for example â€œsenior research fellowâ€ Dr. Jerry Ellig from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.â€ Dr. Ellig has recently testified before Congress and filed at the FCC on the issue of local cable franchising. The good doctor finds that local franchising is a wasteful practice, costs consumers billions â€œin higher prices,â€ is unnecessary, and that there should be stringent limits on the number of local public service channels provided a community.â€ Prof. Ellig cited the â€œcareful and independent analysis employing contemporary economic scholarshipâ€ he used in developing his submission to the FCC. Elligâ€™s work is, of course, highly beneficial to the telephone lobby. Right now AT&T, Verizon and others are working to destroy the role local government can play in any oversight of broadband communications.
But Prof. Ellig failed to acknowledge, in his written testimony and FCC filing, that his own Mercatus Center was the recent recipient (2005) of a $100,000 grant from SBC (now AT&T). He also did not acknowledge that SBC has also provided generous support to George Mason University itself. Nor did he list the other financial support Mercatus receives that links it to a variety of think-tanks and non-profit groups that also receive telephone industry support (and also advocate on its behalf). Perhaps the Prof. absent-mindly forgot to mention that his university was also the recipient of a generous gift from Verizon to build the â€œVerizon Auditoriumâ€ on its campus. Finally, perhaps too he should have added in a footnote that his Mercatus Centerâ€™s website highlights how â€œspecialâ€ donors can participate at the â€œexclusive Founders Circle Retreat held each spring.â€ Among the past events for this exclusive club was a talk by former Congressman J.C Watts, an advisor to SBC.
Thatâ€™s why policymakers should really insist on full disclosure. Professional academic organizations should enforce a code of conduct that requires scholars to be forthright about any financial ties. As an ever-growing number of astro-turf, front-groups, and â€œunaffiliatedâ€ scholars ply their trade in DC and elsewhere, one should ask: Pardon me. Please show me your funding.
The folks at USCâ€™s Annenberg Center have crafted some â€œprinciplesâ€ on network neutrality. We have to say at the outset we always have strong reservations about positions taken by academic institutions that take huge amounts of media and communications industry cash. Places like Annenberg/USC and UCLA are also always loath to really take on their Los Angeles show-biz industry neighbors. Perhaps thatâ€™s why their â€œprinciplesâ€ donâ€™t really adequately protect the Internetâ€™s future. We also wonder how they developed such proposals, as their website doesnâ€™t reveal who made up the â€œgroup of senior communications expertsâ€ who met to hash them out in February. We do see that one of the people at Annenberg crafting the principles is Simon Wilkie, who has been helping the folks at the Progress and Freedom Foundation turn over our media system to their communications monopolist supporters.
The good news is that Annenberg did come out in support of a â€œbasic accessâ€ broadband lane for the public. But at 1.25 Mb/s, itâ€™s insufficient to offer the public meaningful access to the emerging world of digital communications. We also believe that their suggestion that the public lane be re-evaluated every four years is inadequate. It’s likely whatever is originally recommended will become frozen in time, especially as the Bells and cable industry work their political magic in D.C. The public deserves an open lane where full-motion video and other multi-media content can be readily receivedâ€”that would be at least 3Mb/s. Any principle should call for regular, annual broadband speed â€œcheck-ups.â€ This way the public lane doesnâ€™t become a one-way street.
Annenbergâ€™s principles also failed to make clear that the public lane has to have instant access into TVâ€™s (IPTV) and mobile devices. Our digital media monopolists will use their last mile clout to transform these platforms into privatized playgrounds. We have to make sure that all service providers make it simple for users to get the digital content of their choice, and not use their control over portals and interfaces to discriminate. Annenberg would permit cable and phone companies to do whatever they pleased beyond the public lane, including â€œfree to determine all service parameters, including performance, pricing, and the prioritization of 3rd party traffic.â€ As the Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy and Co., â€œNot so fast.â€ Yet to be determined is a range of content essential for the lifeblood of our Republic–and that should be free from any gatekeeper. That might be electoral content, public safety information, news/journalistic services, educational programming, and beyond. We donâ€™t want to force such material only onto the public lane. The future of the broadband Internet requires an intensive public debate, including exposing the plans of the telephone/cable/ and other media giants to turn the digital medium into a data-collecting, ad-intensive, tollbooth. Annenbergâ€™s principles simply wonâ€™t get us there. I thinkâ€”as they say in LAâ€”they should be sent back to the writerâ€™s room.
PS: We do think highly of Annenbergâ€™s Norman Lear Centerâ€”funded by the long-time show-biz industry legend. Prof. Marty Kaplan has done good work there. Unfortunately, academic efforts such as Kaplanâ€™s are all too rare as universities seek large sums of cash from communications companies.
In a revealing comment last week, AT&T lobbyist honcho Jim Cicconi told journalists that the battle over network neutrality was â€œall about movies.â€ That AT&T would see it that way is understandable, since their â€œvisionâ€ for the future of the Internet is basically a souped-up version of pay television (with endless embedded â€œrich mediaâ€ interactive ads). The Bells and the cable industry want to control the pipeline into our computerized devices so they can reap the profits from such downloads. They believe that the proponents of network neutrality only want to also provide the public with video programming, including films. Reflecting their narrow view of our broadband futures, it was reported that AT&T and Verizon would be happy to offer others access if they receive enough bags of dough. CNetâ€™s Marguerite Reardon wrote that the two Bells â€œwould simply like to offer content companies, such as Google and Movielink, virtual pipes directly to consumers over their broadband connections that would allow these content companies to make sure users have a good experience accessing their content.â€
In other words, get ready for a multi-tiered, metered and toll-boothed Internet. Big companies with big bucks in the fast and direct lane. Everyone elseâ€”sorry, youâ€™re stuck on the Jersey Infopike.
But, of course, the real issue is whether the U.S. will have a democratic digital media system. We need an open pipeline not for Hollywood films, but for the never-ending bandwidth intensive content that will be an important part of our lives. From advocacy videos to streaming media about art; from broadband community health wikiâ€™s to new public affairs channels owned by persons of colorâ€”our broadband future will be diverse. But we must ensure that everyone has fair entry into the PC, the IPTV, and even mobile devices. We need a robust public lane for all, with guarantees that everyone can have ready access to content. The debate over network neutrality isnâ€™t about whether the Cable and Bell giants will block website access. Itâ€™s really over whether Americans will be treated fairlyâ€”so they can enjoy the bounty of content that can help enrich their families, communities and our democracy.
PS: Ironically, when lobbyist Cicconi represented the old AT&T (in 2001) he called on Congress to support safeguards that would require his boss today (the former SBC) and other Bells to operate open broadband networks. I suppose who ever pays the lobbyists piper gets to call the tune of the day.
The National Journal has published a list of media and communications-related lobbying registrations from July ’05 to March 16, 2006. It’s a useful reminder that hundreds of millions at least are being spent to buy favorable telecommunications legislation (or to prevent any real safeguards such as net neutrality that would open up monopolies to diversity and competition). Rupert Murdoch’s DirecTV satellite service has hired Greenberg Traurig to work on “media mergers.” Murdoch’s News Corp is also using Park Strategies Washington Group. The NAB has Venn Strategies. Microsoft is using the Stanton Park Group. Comcast is throwing its captive subscribers money around by hiring a bevy of firms: Arent Fox, Buchanan Ingersoll, Velasquez & Lausell (a firm specializing in “minority” outreach), the Nickles Group, and Plaster & Associates. But since Comcast wants to ensure it can have an unfettered “quadruple play”–voice, video, data, and wireless–perhaps it makes sense it has hired so many firms.
This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Our Congress is bought and sold like pork bellies. But the list is a useful reminder of the corrupt nature of communications policy-making in the U.S. The corporate media’s money and power distorts the debate–so there really isn’t any serious discussion about policies to protect and serve the average American.
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Tropos is a company known for its wireless networking technology. Its products are used in many wi-fi deployments. In an example of a self-serving and wrong-thinking display, Tropos president and CEO Ron Sege came out today against a network neutrality safeguard. Sege suggested that we should allow the cable and phone giants to offer â€œadvanced, prioritized services.â€ The trade-off he proposed would be for Congress to pass legislation creating more opportunities for municipal and other forms of wireless. He might have just asked them to pass the â€œTropos Big Bottom Line Act of 2006â€ instead. Segeâ€™s proposal would do little to ensure that the U.S. has a democratic and diverse broadband communications environment.
Troposâ€™s anti-net neutrality stance suggests they donâ€™t want to anger powerful communications industry players, such as AT&T. It also appears that Tropos supports a world where â€œprioritized servicesâ€ come to wireless. The company announced a deal this week with Allot Communications for its â€œNetEnforcerâ€ product. â€œNetEnforcerâ€ is just one of the score of products that enable broadband operators to know whatâ€™s in every packet. Itâ€™s a technology at the core of plans to turn the broadband Internet into a virtual tollbooth for both users and content providers.
Last Mondayâ€™s Washington Post editorial against a â€œnetwork neutralityâ€ policy illustrates one of the problems when media outlets have far-ranging business interests elsewhere. They usually fail to acknowledge and clearly explain their numerous conflicts of interestsâ€”conflicts that may have shaped their editorial position.
In dismissing the call for an open and non-discriminatory broadband Internet as merely the concerns of those interested in a â€œdemocratic utopia,â€ the Post sided with its big media phone and cable brethren. The Post did disclose, in an aside, that since it â€œowns both cable and Web sitesâ€ it had â€œcommercial interests on both sides of this issue.â€ But the Post wasnâ€™t really being honest with its readers. For example, the Post should have disclosed its parent company is part of the anti-network neutrality movement. The Post Co.â€™s cable T.V. division president sits on the board of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association; the NCTA is leading the charge against the passage of any network neutrality safeguard. Since it owns those cable systems and their broadband connections, the Post can make sure its content receives preferential treatment in those markets. Moreover, the Post-Newsweek string of TV stations have received (as a result of lobbying Congress), a free set of digital airwaves. The Post will be able to use its digital TV beachfront property to receive preferential broadband treatment in such key markets as Detroit, Houston, Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, and San Antonio. It will use this broadband power to help give its already successful web properties, such as Washington Post Interactive and Slate, the needed boost that others wonâ€™t likely have without network neutrality rules. (In its most recent [March 7, 2006] annual 10 k report to the SEC, the Post Co. called such Net safeguards a â€œregulatory burdenâ€).
The Post should also have acknowledged that it is politically supporting the rollback of the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership safeguard at the FCC. In a world without media ownership limits and protections for network neutrality, companies such as the Post know they will come out at the top of the media food chain.
Chairman Kevin Martin tenure at the FCC is going to be hazardous to the health of our democracy. Yesterday, Martin spoke at the telephone monopolist’s lovefest called TelecomNext. At the event, Martin signaled that he was going to permit the nation’s largest cable and phone companies to have greater control over the future of broadband communications in the U.S. Martin said that the country would “need to have a regulatory environment that allows companies to invest in their networks.” What that really means is that Martin has bought the lobbying line of the cable and telco giants that they have to create a “monetized” approach when providing the public broadband. That will be an online regime where there’s a fast Internet lane run by a Comcast or an AT&T, along with lots of digital toolbooths for both users and content providers. Martin’s distain for the public interest was evident this week when he granted Verizon’s request that it be exempted from the few remaining broadband safeguards on the FCC’s books. Now Verizon–and soon AT&T and others–will be able to ignore concerns over fair competition, consumer privacy, discriminatory treatment, and equitable access (universal service).
Martin also plans to soon push for further media ownership deregulation. Expect few owners of our most powerful media outlets both locally and nationally. Like his predecessor Michael Powell, Martin will largely ignore the facts, including the linkages between consolidation and the current crisis roiling our journalistic institutions. Martin has also helped fan the flames of censorship–and aided the political agenda of the White House–by offering “red state meat” in the form of fines on so-called indecent programming.
Martin’s siding with the “big boys and girls” of the digital media world isn’t surprising. Nor his allegiance to the Bush White House. But it does reveal a flaw. Many people have suggested that Mr. Martin is the opposite of former FCC chair Michael Powell. Martin is soft-spoken and is more unassuming than Powell. But Martin’s approach to policy suggests that–like Powell–he is out of touch with the needs of the public. Martin believes his worldview (and that of his political allies) trumps everyone elses. Like Mr. Powell, Mr. Martin will have to be sent packing—-off to a pricey, but undistinguished private sector career in communications.
Google has hired the DC-lobbying fixer firm Podesta Mattoon. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Google is working there with Joshua Hastert, the son of Speaker Dennis Hastert. Joshua “provides clients with a broad range of policy expertise â€“ from the defense and high-tech sectors to small business, copyright, and entertainment issues,” says his bio on the Podesta site. Google has now joined some of the most powerful media/communications conglomerates and trade associations in the country who also use Podesta Mattoon to advance their narrow special interests. They include Bell South, Clear Channel, GE, the National Association of Broadcasters, Newspaper Association of America, and the United States Telecom Association. Podesta Mattoon also represents the Washington Post Co, among many others.
Google’s use of Podesta Mattoon and its conglomerate clientele suggests that the search and advertising firm will likely end up siding with the interests of the country’s biggest companies. Expect deals behind the scenes, including on network neutrality. By hiring the son of the Speaker, Google has also sent a signal it’s happy to play along with the K Street Project plan and give work to well-placed GOP loyalists. But since Podesta Mattoon also combines the strong Democratic party linkages of its founder Anthony Podesta, Google’s search for one of Washington’s “well-connected” helps their lobbying agenda on both sides of the aisle.
Another revealing skirmish in what can be called the “network neutrality” wars. Comcast is using its power as a government-sanctioned broadband and cable TV monopoly to impose content restrictions on one of the world’s biggest media companies. One should hardly feel sorry for Disney/ABC. But, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine (“Comcast-Disney Fight Simmers,” 3/20/06), Comcast is using its clout to limit how Disney can distribute their programming “through the Internet, cellphones or other distribution schemes.” If the Bush FCC hadn’t awarded phone and cable conglomerates full control over broadband distribution in the U.S., Disney could probably reject Comcast’s digital squeeze play. But it can’t, especially if wants to maximize its TV and online distribution. This show-biz tiff should serve as a warning. Online content providers smaller than the “Mouse House” will likely face similar strong-arm treatment from cable and large telephone companies as Verizon.