Kevin Martin Is Dangerous to our Democracy’s Health

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 – 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.