Memo to Heritage’s James Gattuso: The era of trickle down media economics is over

For too long, conservative media and communications advocates have supported a policy regime that has failed the public. Just give (fill in all or your favorites) the broadcasters, the cable companies, the phone companies, the technology companies a “free” rein, and all of our needs for a diverse, competitive, and democratic system will flourish. Technology, if left unfettered, will fulfill its potential (see his blog entry at Technology Liberation Front). Like the trickle-down economists, Mr. Gattuso and colleagues have held sway with many politicians and FCC commissioners. But—media history has proved them wrong. That’s why we are not going to let them do to the Internet what they have done to commercial broadcasting and cable communications.

Just leave us alone, eliminate all public interest policies, and the technology will fulfill its democratic potential. That’s what commercial radio said in the early 1930’s. Broadcast TV echoed it during the 1950’s. Cable used it to win “deregulation” in 1984. Consequently, we have a homegenous system of broadcasting and cable where there is no real diversity, little in-depth journalism, barely any competition. Such a laissez-faire media environment has harmed the country, principally through undermining the potential for serious journalism.

The rhetoric of Mr. Gattuso and many of his anti-network neutrality allies is wrapped around a decades old critique of communications policy. In their world—the public are just consumers. They are not citizens or other active members of the community. They espouse that the interests of the network provider should be paramount. We believe it’s the interests of everyone: teachers, parents, children, journalists, the poor and countless others that must be taken into account when conceptualizing policy for communications. Democratic expression—not corporate profits—must come first. The market will still have plenty of room (and will do even better if it treats people fairly and helps build a stronger U.S.)

I am amazed that many so-called experts ignore what’s really going on in the commercial marketplace—let alone behind the scenes in the policy sphere.
First, there are clear plans to change the way the Internet works. It’s not about generating revenues to build out the network. It’s about greed—money for a few telecom giants. At the expense of a communications system that serves all—for other commercial giants, small businesses, non-profit corporations, and the average Jane and Joe. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast want to seize what they are already calling their “pipes” to give themselves the monopolistic advantages they have lost as a result of technological change.

We all know that competition law—and the FCC—are not effective tools to protect either competition or [more importantly] public discourse. Conservatives have railed against government for years—esp. the FCC. Now they are saying, don’t worry, if there are problems—our bloated, corrupt and ineffective governmental institutions can take care of you. I don’t believe in buying the digital equivalent to the Brooklyn Bridge—nor should conservative media advocates argue for one.

The cable and phone lobby have used their collective political power to gain dominant control over U.S. broadband distribution. They went to the FCC and wiped out competition via other ISPs (there were thousands in the U.S. during the dial-up era). Phone and cable companies have lobbied side-by-side to prevent municipal or non-profit competition. They deliberately eliminated the policy requiring non-discriminatory treatment of content—a sure sign in my view they intend to discriminate (but come to our website to read white papers and other documents that show how such discrimination online will be done).

Both the cable and phone industry have the same business model—a souped up broadband video on demand kind of service filled with data collection, interactive ads, and other elements from our popular culture. They don’t need the network to differentiate—because they are the same. The vision they have for the future of the Internet is television. We deserve better.

Net neutral rules would enable new entrepreneurs to emerge and help protect free speech. Yes, Mr. Gattuso. It would lead to lobbying and lawsuits. The big cable and telephone companies will do anything to control the future of the U.S. media marketplace. But with net neutral rules, other voices will have a better chance to be heard. Voices—we hope—interested in building a better democracy and an Internet that serves all equitably.

PS: I’m sorry that Mr. Gattuso doesn’t like our pointing out some of Heritage’s funders that raise a potential policy conflict over network neutrality. But disclosure is very important. So when AT&T is a premium sponsor of Heritage—it behooves Mr. Gattuso to say so clearly. He also should have identified where Prof. Yoo—whom he quotes/cities frequently—gets some of his money as he attacks network neutrality (the cable lobby).

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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