Ten years after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, digital technologies are rapidly reshaping the country’s communications system. It will be the most powerful media environment ever created–always “on” with connections via PCs, digital TVs and an array of mobile devices, delivering a torrent of personalized, interactive and virtual content, much of it coming from the nation’s most powerful traditional and new media companies (e.g., AT&T, Comcast, Google, Microsoft). The next several years are critical to insure that the promise of what we now experience online–and its vast potential to help build a just civil society–is fulfilled. With Congress poised to pass legislation that rewrites key parts of the Telecom Act, the following ten action items should be on any media reform agenda.
1. Media Ownership
The GOP-controlled FCC wants to eliminate key media ownership restrictions affecting TV and radio stations, cable systems and newspapers. Expect fewer owners of our most powerful outlets and a further decrease in journalism budgets.
Action: Join the new “Stopbigmedia” coalition (www.stopbigmedia.com) to promote diversity of media ownership and content. Also, work against the renomination of FCC chair Kevin Martin.
Sprawling new media powerhouses are emerging, in which offline and digital content and distribution, advertising and marketing are tied to the same multinational giants. For example, the pending AT&T and BellSouth merger will create a colossus spanning voice, broadband and video.
Action: Join with Media Access Project (www.mediaaccess.org) to fight the AT&T/BellSouth merger. Push for new laws to restore our trust in antitrust.
3. Network Neutrality
We can’t permit the Internet to come under the control of phone and cable companies, like Comcast and AT&T, that want to transform it into a toll road, with fast lanes for corporate media and a digital dirt road for everyone else.
Action: Join the “strange bedfellows” coalition, which includes MoveOn.org, the American Library Association and the Christian Coalition, pressing Congress to pass “network neutrality” rules to protect the principles of nondiscrimination and open access. Join Save the Internet (www.savetheinternet.com).
4. Spectrum Management
The wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) has been an unprecedented success, with more than 35,000 hot spots (many of them free) operating in the United States. But for the wireless broadband revolution to continue, it needs new unlicensed spectrum. Big communications companies, including broadcasters, want to keep for themselves what should be the public’s airwaves.
Action: Urge the FCC to set aside additional spectrum for unlicensed use and support legislation currently in Congress that will make unused TV spectrum available for Wi-Fi applications. The New America Foundation (www.newamerica.net) has been leading the charge for enlightened spectrum management.
5. Community Broadband
Municipal wireless systems represent the most promising alternative to the two-fisted stranglehold that cable and telephone companies currently have over the broadband Internet. Fourteen states, acting at the behest of the cable and telco lobbies, have passed laws limiting these efforts, and others are considering such restrictions.
Action: Urge your Representatives to support federal legislation (e.g., the municipal broadband provision in the otherwise objectionable Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement [COPE] Act) that will restore the right of cities to undertake their own broadband projects. See Free Press’s Community Internet page (www.freepress.net/communityinternet/=US).
As the recent furor over NSA access to millions of private telephone records makes clear, we need to update privacy protections for the digital age. Such protections should extend into the commercial arena too, where new data-collection and -mining technologies, coupled with personalized marketing campaigns, represent a new threat to our personal privacy.
Action: Call for a thorough overhaul of existing privacy regulations, beginning with a requirement for “affirmative consent” before personal data can be collected, and covering the latest developments in digital data collection and analysis. See the EPIC website (www.epic.org).
7. Intellectual Property
Just as privacy protection must move from the analog to the digital domain, so must copyright law reflect the reality of networked computers and other personal devices. Congress’s initial effort in this regard, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, went way overboard in its desire to protect content owners (namely, the entertainment industry), and the principle of “fair use” suffered accordingly.
Action: Urge your Representative to reject the Bush-backed Intellectual Property Protection Act (which compounds the DMCA’s excesses) in favor of legislation that preserves fair use. See www.publicknowledge.org.
8. Universal Digital Service
Millions of Americans still lack basic Internet, let alone broadband. We need new approaches to achieving “universal service,” the policy that sought to make telephone service affordable for low-income and rural Americans.
Action: Call for Congress to expand the Universal Service Fund in the digital era, and support efforts to bridge the digital divide through municipal Wi-Fi and community networking projects.
9. Diverse Broadband Content
The phone industry is building a new system that will deliver interactive TV programming and broadband content (e.g., Verizon’s FiOS and AT&T’s Project Lightspeed). Cable is also expanding its network offerings. Progressive media must make sure their content is on these networks. We must also build and expand new media services, including digital TV programming channels, broadband websites and mobile networks.
Action: Urge phone and cable companies to open their system to progressive, alternative and diversely owned content. Funders must support an independent digital infrastructure.
10. Minority Ownership
African-Americans, Hispanics and others have fared poorly in the media business, owning only a handful of radio and TV stations. Most of the cable outlets aimed at minorities are owned by corporate giants (e.g., Viacom now owns BET and Comcast controls the new TV One service for African-Americans).
Action: Civil rights groups need to take a more adversarial approach to the media monopoly–seeking minority ownership of local and national broadband outlets.