FCC testimony on media ownership: Kathy Gill

[I am Kathy Gill from the Department of Communications] at the University of Washington. But, like the president, I am here today as a citizen. Thank you for the opportunity to speak briefly about my concerns about the increasing concentration of media ownership in America.

A lot of other people have already talked about the oligopolistic nature of the market. But, we also have to realize that this comes along with something called lack of transparency in ownership. For example […] was using one channel, Fox, to promote another business in the hopes of making higher profits. Now, it kind of backfired on them, but the intent was there. We can be pretty sure that when the Harper Collins person came on the air, no one said ‘And, oh by the way, we own this company.’

The key issue that I am concerned with today, though, is that of the digital commons which has only been briefly and gently mentioned so far. The current Congress considered but – thankfully – did not pass legislation that would have radically changed the relationship between local government and cable firms. Now, one of the arguments for this, of course, was efficiency. This is always the argument for consolidation. The bill (HR5252: The Communications Opportunity Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006) would have set up a national franchise for cable companies replacing the current system of locally negotiated contracts. It would have pre-empted state and local consumer protection laws, pre-empted local government authority over municipal rights-of-way, and pre-empted state laws prohibiting local government from offering certain services to provide internet access – and that is all from the Congressional Budget Office.

Now, some of the controversy around this bill came about because efforts designed to ensure that the network underlying the internet retains a common carrier ethic. So, imagine for a moment that your cell phone provider is Cingular and your closest friend has only a landline provided by Qwest (that is our local phone company in case you didn’t know that). Currently, because of common carrier regulations, each telephone provider has to treat each incoming call the same as though they were on the same network. This neutrality was mandated by Congress because telephone networks were – and at least still are for the time being – considered important public infrastructure.

But, the proposals being promoted in Congress today by [telecommunications] and cable firms like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time-Warner (which is also the nation’s largest media company) are laying the groundwork for dismantling this network neutrality for the internet. Now, as a rallying call, this is a horrible name. And, what we really should be saying is that we are resisting network discrimination. This issue – who will control how data move across the internet – is of vital importance.

There has been a lot of talk tonight about public airways, but we are in a transition between public networks and private ones. He who controls the channel has the power to privilege certain voices and data and to deny others. When you consider that one player alone (Time Warner) appears in the top five in both media ownership and broadband ownership… I think we should all pay close attention to this issue.

This digital commons is also important because one of the cries that you will hear and that you have heard to dismantle the prohibitions on media consolidation is that there is this great big ‘Wild West’ of competition out there on the internet. When we are talking about connectivity... that is not the case. Lawrence Lessig talked to Financial Times last month, where he said ‘We have fewer competitors offering broadband connectivity today in the United States than we did eight years ago’. The U.S. ranks 16th in the world with citizens who have access to broadband. And those are inflated data.

The market of ideas in a functioning democracy rests solidly on the vision of Jefferson and Adam Smith. This is the antithesis of the vision of consolidation exhibited by media giants like Fox or Time Warner, Verizon, or Comcast. Please resist all forms of network discrimination and network consolidation.

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