Will The Free And Open Internet Soon Be Cable-ized?

michael coppsMichael Copps is a former FCC Commissioner who has been a champion of media policy in the public interest.  Some have called him the  Howard Beal of the FCC – mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  He is currently the  media director at Common Cause and is taking his public interest campaign to the people.

You can listen to a 17-minute radio interview where he lays out his case that all (yes, he said all) of the nation’s dilemmas can be solved if we have media policy – including internet policy – with the public interest in mind.  Below is some text from the program.


Seismic change comes from the grassroots up and we need to start a national dialogue about our news and media infrastructure.

We have dumbed down civic dialogue and have made bad decisions for the future of the country. We need a dialogue informed by facts not opinion..driven by hard journalism not bloviation…this is vital to our future.

FCC cannot guarantee outcomes but we must start taking steps toward reform. We must stop saying yes to every merger and acquisition that comes before the commission.  Instead of eviscerating the public interest guidelines that we used to have for licenses,  we have to start having guidelines. We have to say no to mergers.

This is not just about traditional media.  My fear is that the internet is going down the very same road the traditional media went down with more and more consolidation. Most of the news on the internet,  90-95%,  is still coming from the newspaper and television newsroom but there is so much less of it because they have been so eviscerated. Thousands of reporters are walking the streets looking for jobs when they should be walking the beat investigating stories.

It would be so tragic when you have something so expansive and dynamic as broadband and the internet, to let that be cable-ized, to let that be populated by tool booth operators and gatekeepers. It would be a denial of one of the greatest opportunities we have.  We have this one media eco-system and it is part traditional media and partly new media, which does not have a model for sustained investigative journalism yet. We have to fix both of those and we have to encourage the public interest on both of those.

Can the FCC help?

You can’t get into dictating content but you can have some public interest obligations…Since the lack now is investigative news, when that license comes up you can say, how much are you doing on news now, compared to what you did last time?  It is 8 years now between license renewals, which is ridiculous; it used to be 3.  It’s called post card renewal.  No guidelines.  We used to have guidelines, such as, are you reaching out and talking to members of your diverse community about the programming they’d like to see?  We used to require this.  Now the owners no longer live in the community, they live thousands of miles away and they have no idea what the community wants.

Fairness Doctrine

We still have section 315.  The FCC has it still within its province to act tomorrow, without any further legislative authority, to have some public interest guidelines – newscentric, diversity oriented, make sure every station has a public safety plan, reasonable things like that.  In return for getting a license to use the people’s airwaves – and always remember that there is not a spectrum in this country that is owned by anybody other than the people of the United States…it is a public resource – and stations are licensed to be good stewards of it –  if they serve the  public interest, convenience and necessity, a term which occurs 112 times in the Communications Act.  We have to start being serious about that.  The media is  a precious resource because that’s where our national conversation and our civic dialogue occurs.  If we can’t figure out how to make that serve the public interest amidst all of the crying problems this country has, we are shooting ourselves in the face.

Political advertising

Most of the money raised in the course of the campaign goes back to the media. I think people are frustrated by these anonymous super-ads that are brought to you by “purple mountain majesty or amber waves of grain or committee for mom and apple pie”…and you don’t have a clue if that’s a chemical company refusing to clean up a toxic dump site or who is sponsoring that ad…

I am convinced that the FCC has the authority to dig much deeper and demand fuller disclosure of ads.  There is a specific part of the Telecommunications Act, Section 317 – Sponsorshp Identification –  that says that people have the right to be fully and fairly informed about who is trying to persuade them.   I have been pushing the FCC to assert this authority…specifically for network television, radio and cable.  We don’t need congress to pass a new bill.  The FCC has that authority and it’s a no brainer, why don’t we give that a try.

People understand that something is amiss.  They also understand that something is wrong with the news when we hear more about a campaign from the ad than local news.  I aim to use that as an issue to engage in a national dialogue on the future of our news and media infrastructure and the future of our civic dialogue.

Court case coming up on net neutrality which would establish toll lanes

…very important case, probably decided by summer.  Will internet freedom survive? If the court doesn’t agree with the FCC,  we need to clarify that internet transmission falls squarely under the rubrick of Telecommunications, Title 2, where obligations are clear and understandable rather than the nebulous world of Title 3.  It’s vitally important.  We have this opportunity that can address all of the problems this country has.  To allow it to be cable-ized would be a tragedy of historic proportions. (11:14)

Can the market do all of this?  

Government and private sector have always partnered.   We’re lagging in the central infrastructure of the 21st century. How do we get out of the hole if we don’t have the infrastructure to support it?  How does a small rural business owner start up with only dial up?  How about a kid in the inner city or rural community, how to do research for school with dial up?  Just as important as highways and railroads. Without investment we’re not going to have productivity, won’t live up to our potential.

Where is President Obama on this issue?

President Obama has talked about broadband, infrastructure, net neutrality. He has said it but you have to make it a fight.  On some of the media issues he has talked about as a candidate.  He has written letters to the FCC and has talked about the need for less media consolidation and reassertion of the public interest.  My feeling is that now this is his final term, they were important commitments that were made and they go to the heart of some of the dilemmas facing our country.  It’s time to move forward on those commitments.

Soon the FCC will be talking about auctioning off old TV spectrum to internet

We need more spectrum for wireless. There will be a transition.  You have to have a balanced approach.  If this ends up as an exercise that simply takes large swaths of broadcast spectrum for big broadcasters and turns it over to big telecom carriers, duopoloy carriers – that’s not in the public interest. You can’t just turn over all of the megahertz without having a plan to make sure that women and minorities have a piece of the action.

Telecommunications Act 78 years ago said to

“make available as far as  possible to all of the people of the United States without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex, rapid, efficient, nationwide and worldwide wire and  radio communications, adequate facilites at reasonable charges.” 

That’s the FCC’s mission.

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One Response to Will The Free And Open Internet Soon Be Cable-ized?

  1. dave bradley says:

    Michael Copps is once more right on the money. And he is also a very lonely voice in the wilderness. The internet must stay free. Also America must also get its news from more than a few sources all of whom have the corporate bottom line as their first concern.

    reporting on corporate media is one of the most important things that can be done.


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