Will we have communications rights?

At its best, the media encourages and supports our free speech rights, giving us opportunities both to speak and to hear speech from a wide range of others. Recent developments in Internet and wireless technology have dramatically increased many people's (though not everyone's) access to self-publishing, broadcasting, and participation in large-scale public conversations.

Unfortunately, our elected officials, who we have entrusted to safeguard the openness of our media systems, often favor the private commercial interests of media megacorporations instead of serving public accountability and democratic communications values. This imbalance places America's democracy, culture, and economy at risk.

This fall, our communications rights and our "uninhibited marketplace of ideas" are being threatened by two sets of proposed policy changes backed by a few wealthy media and communications corporations, and opposed by hundreds of public interest groups from across the political spectrum and millions of ordinary
citizens. Senator Ted Stevens is pushing a telecommunications bill which, among other things, would wipe away the "net neutrality" protections which guarantee the Internet's role as a content-neutral level field of conversation. Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin will try (again) to weaken or abolish the media ownership caps which help protect diversity of opinion by guarding against information monopolies.

Read on to find out more about the related issues of media ownership and net neutrality--and how we can take action to help protect our free speech, our culture, and our communications rights.

Net Neutrality

What is "net neutrality?"

Net neutrality is the basic principle that Internet users, not service providers, should be in control of what they are able to view or download. Until now, the Internet has always workedaccording to this neutrality principle: all "bits" are created equal.

Net neutrality protects our free speech rights by making sure that the public can view the smallest blog just as easily as the largest corporate web site. It prevents powerful Internet companies like AT&T from rigging the playing field for only the highestpaying big business sites.

But Internet providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress to get rid of net neutrality. If Congress doesn't take action to implement meaningful net neutrality provisions, phone and cable behemoths will be able to squeeze the "tubes" through which our Internet flows, deciding what we can and can't see, at what speed, and at what premium cost. The free, open and competitive Internet we are used to will become a thing of the past.

Myths and facts about net neutrality:

Myth: Internet carriers have no intention of favoring particular websites over others.

Fact: Network owners have stated their intent to build business models based on discrimination. In fact, the top executives of nearly every major telephone company have stated clearly in the pages of BusinessWeek, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post that they intend to discriminate or degrade the content and services of their competitors who don't pay for a spot in the fast lane.

Myth: Net neutrality is not needed to protect internet consumers' online experience.

Fact: Up to this point, the consumer has been the ultimate decision-maker online; the network owners simply transmitted data over the wires, regardless of its content, and without a middleman. But without net neutrality, the Internet will look more like cable TV. Network owners will decide which channels, content and applications are available; consumers will have to choose from their menu. Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success.

Myth: Net neutrality is bad for the US economy.

Fact: Opposition to net neutrality is anti-business, anti-innovation and anti-consumer. The principal beneficiaries of a non-neutral Internet would be a few massive telecom companies, and almost nobody else. Currently, the Internet allows small businesses to compete directly with huge ones. Net neutrality ensures that innovators can start small and dream big about being the next EBay or Google without facing insurmountable hurdles.

Without net neutrality, startups and entrepreneurs will be muscled out of the marketplace by big corporations that pay for a top spot on the Web. Writing net neutrality into law would preserve the freedoms we currently enjoy on the Internet. For all their talk
about "deregulation," the cable and telephone giants don't want real competition--they want the game rigged so they always win.

What is the legal status of Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality has not been written into our laws yet. However, it has become a major issue as Congress considers new telecommunications laws. In May, the House of Representatives passed a telecom bill that does not include adequate net neutrality protections.

On June 28, the Senate Commerce Committee passed its own telecom bill, S. 2686. A pro-net neutrality amendment backed by Senator Cantwell and others was (barely) voted down. Now, Internet freedom advocates must work to ensure that their Senators vote to stop this bill from passing this fall.

MEDIA OWNERSHIP

Why is "media ownership" an issue?

In past decades, the US government placed sensible limits on the number of newspapers, radio and TV stations which a single company could own nationally, or within a particular market. These rules support democratic values by helping ensure the public has access to multiple voices and opinions in a diverse media culture. Since the Reagan administration, however, these rules have been under attack by corporate media owners who wish to expand without regulatory checks and balances. After the industry-supported
Telecommunications Act of 1996 abolished limits on national radio ownership, hundreds of radio stations were gobbled up by increasingly large owners. Clear Channel ballooned from 40 stations
to over 1200; local ownership became rare, and minority ownership nearly extinct. Concentrated ownership encourages owners to enact cost-saving measures such as shrinking or abolishing news departments, “voice-tracking” fake local DJs, reducing the number of independent voices on the air.

What is the status of media ownership now?

As late as 1983, 50 companies owned the majority of all U.S news media. By 1990, this number had dwindled down to fewer than two dozen. Now - largely thanks to the enormous deregulation the 1996 Telecommunications Act provided - that number has fallen to six. Media consolidation continues today at an astonishing pace, and media companies are pushing for further de-regulation.

Myths and facts about media ownership:

Myth: The media's only "agenda" is informing its consumers.

Fact: The media's most deliberate and systematic bias is almost entirely unaddressed: the media's corporate bias. 51 of the world's 100 largest economic entities are corporations, meaning that the majority of the world's major economies are businesses whose primary
accountability is to their shareholders. As some of the world's largest corporations. Media corporations’ self-interest--to expand, increase profits, quash competition, and lower costs-- trumps other considerations.

Myth: There is enough diversity of opinion in the media, and especially in blogs on the Internet, that regulation is unnecessary.

Fact: While Internet news consumption is growing, it is still dwarfed by cable and broadcast news consumption. Plus, Internet news readers are mostly relying on online counterparts to large broadcast outlets or newspapers. High-speed Internet access remains unfortunately linked to class indicators such as income and educational level; the Telecom bill currently being considered in the Senate will reinforce, rather than change this situation. Finally, if we lose Net Neutrality protections, the Internet will no longer be the infinitely free "marketplace of ideas" we are used to.

Myth: Media just gives the people what they want, otherwise they'll change the channel.

Fact: In their quest for high returns, media conglomerates frequently sacrifice content for profit. For example, Radio conglomerate Clear Channel saves enormous amounts of money by standardizing program formats--and consolidating staff--for its 1225 stations. Local listeners have almost no ability to influence what they hear on local stations.

Myth: Large media businesses can report news just as well as smaller ones, if not better.

Fact: Not surprisingly, big media companies’ economic motivations often work against their public service obligations and the journalistic values of TV news departments. Local news--even lightweight or badly produced local news--is more expensive than video news releases or network filler. In fact, in 2004 the FCC produced a study confirming a distinct correlation between local ownership and more local news. Unfortunately, the FCC leadership at the time ordered that study destroyed, and it was only leaked two years later.

TAKING ACTION FOR MEDIA DEMOCRACY AND COMMUNICATIONS RIGHTS

I’m just one person. How can I make a difference?

The FCC leadership failed in its 2003 attempt to roll back media ownership rules. Why? Only because millions of Americans got organized and contacted the FCC and their elected officials, saying NO to more media monopoly. We can make a difference, and together we will make a difference. Here are several concrete steps you can take:

Submit comments to the FCC.

Visit stopbigmedia.org and use the online form to to tell the FCC: big media is big enough already. Then tell your friends and co-workers to do the same!

Talk to the FCC in person, in Seattle.

Later this fall, FCC Commissoners will hold a media ownership hearing in Seattle, giving us a rare opportunity to tell thm in person how locally accountable media and independent media are important to our communities. Watch reclaimthemedia.org for details!

Tell your Senators we need net neutrality!

In Washington, Senator Maria Cantwell supports net neutrality, but Patty Murray is still on the fence. Call the capitol switchboard at 800.839.5276, ask for your Senator’s office and tell her to vote NO on HR. 5252, the bad telecommunications bill.

Sign on to the Bill of Media Rights and stay
informed!

The Bill of Media Rights is a strong, simple statement about the kind of media our democracy and culture need to stay healthy. Read the document and sign on, and you’ll receive periodic email updates and opportunities to take action!

Reclaim the Media intern Eva Holman contributed research and writing to this introduction.

Download a printable version here (pdf).

article originally published at .

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey