How Winning Becomes Losing

It’s time for the friends of an Open Internet and of a communications ecosystem that serves the needs of democracy to make sure our issues are part of the 2016 campaign dialogue. These issues won’t get the visibility they deserve unless we work to put them there, and if we fail in this, we will have ourselves to blame for the policy decisions that are made once the elections are over.

It’s been a good run on some very big telecom and media issues at the Federal Communications Commission. Reformers welcomed historic victories on net neutrality, curtailing Joint Sales Agreement (JSA) loophole abuses, and progress on both the Lifeline and E-Rate programs to bring broadband to people and communities that cannot otherwise access or afford the high price of connectivity. And we saluted pushback from the FCC and the Department of Justice that caused Comcast to walk away from its ill-starred proposal to buy Time-Warner Cable, which would have created a behemoth that would have given the combined entity even more gatekeeper control over broadband and programming than Comcast already wields.

But here’s the rub. None of these issues has really gone away. The victories that were achieved, wonderful though they were, are just part of a struggle that is far from over—opening skirmishes in what is sure to be a lengthy and high-stakes battle over what kind of Internet, what kind of media, what kind of communications we will be relying on for decades to come.

Indeed, some of our hard-won victories are in peril right now. The net neutrality decision is threatened by multiple, proposed Congressional bills to reverse it and by appropriations “riders” to deny funding for its implementation. If Congress once again finds it impossible to pass department and agency funding bills (a sure bet), it will all come down to one gigantic catch-all funding measure or “continuing resolution” to keep government operating in spite of Congress’ inability to do its job. All sorts of mischief and mayhem will find its way into such a huge funding measure, and then the President will be faced with a choice of vetoing it, or signing it even though he opposes many of the extraneous legislative add-ons. It’s a hell of a way to run a government, but…it’s how we allow ours to be run.

Another example: those Joint Sales Agreements mentioned above. The Telecommunications Act established ownership limitations to prevent broadcast monopolies from supplanting local, diverse media. Some broadcasters found and exploited legal loopholes allowing them to utilize shell companies to skirt these limitations. These shells allow one station to control another, one result being homogenization of content—literally the same news programming on channels 5, 7, and 9. No more competition between news crews to get the story right. The shells also make news crews redundant, so they result in lay-offs and further decimation of journalism’s ranks.

Last year, the FCC closed one of these loopholes (others remain) and gave broadcasters two years to give up their shells. The change is already spurring women and minority broadcasters back to the business. But it also has sparked a nasty backlash by some established broadcasters to enact legislation to keep the shell game running. And they are even finding some supposedly progressive Democrats to help them. Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Charles Schumer (D-NY) have all signed on as co-sponsors. (Note: Schumer is set to be the next Democratic Leader in the U.S. Senate.) For insurance in case the stand-alone bill fails, broadcasters are backing appropriations riders that would stop JSA reform in its tracks.

So on these issues action is needed—and it’s needed now. Citizen action is what encouraged the FCC to take progressive steps in the first place. Preserving and protecting these reforms in the face of perfectly-predicable big-money opposition is a matter for now—not later. Public interest-minded citizens need to make sure those who represent us know they’re being watched and will be held accountable. It’s up to us—you and me—to raise these issues because, for sure, we can’t count on the corporate consolidators to tell the story.

Huge communications issues will also await those who are elected in 2016. Beyond net neutrality, what is the future of the Internet? What do citizens have a right to expect when it comes to the infrastructure that connects them to the twenty-first century world? Shouldn’t every citizen be able to access the broadband Internet because no one can be a fully-functioning citizen without it in this modern age? How will we make that happen? Should we sit idly by as a few industry moguls determine how they wish to use the Internet, or do we each have an interest in making sure it doesn’t travel down the same road that radio, television, and cable took toward industry consolidation and gatekeeper control by a few giant companies—some dare call them cabals. (It’s great the Comcast-TWC merger was stopped; but a raft of new merger proposals is already before the FCC, and the smart money is predicting approvals. Stay tuned to learn if the FCC is really serious about putting the brakes on merger-mania.)

Do we want to see local, diverse media and genuine investigative journalism as relics of a departed past, or do we want to make sure media provide us with the news and information we need in order to make intelligent decisions for the future of our country? Do we want a handful of powerful companies telling us where we can go and what we can do on the Internet, or do we want to ensure the openness and diversity that are the very genius of the technology?

These are issues that should be front-and-center in our national dialogue during the next year as elections approach. Sitting back and waiting to see who gets elected, on the assumption that we can raise these issues with our elected representatives after the smoke has cleared from the campaign battlefield is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment and defeat. If candidates are not confronted and questioned on these issues out on the hustings now, by the people who they are asking to re-elect them, they won’t see these as issues that matter once they get inside the Beltway Cocoon. Instead the elected will conclude that they can just take the easy route and go along with what the big money ISPs and media giants want without fear of backlash back home.

These issues won’t be covered unless they are pushed aggressively to the fore. It’s easier and cheaper for mass media and its talking heads to cover celebrity politics and to rehash, night after stultifying night, the same stories with the same talking heads filling the air with clouds of smoke and precious little light. Let’s be clear—most of America’s media do a lousy job when it comes to teeing up the issues and encouraging an uninhibited discussion about them. They have been given legislative and deregulatory comfort for far too long. But they won’t change of their own volition. They’ll change only when they realize people demand better. Democracy demands better.

So make your voices heard, in your communities and in Washington, DC. Question the candidates who are courting your vote. They should be asked where they stand on these issues, and why they vote the way they do.

I can attest first-hand that it makes a difference. I vividly recall the member of Congress who told me, on the eve of an important vote to overturn some really ill-considered FCC rules to loosen limits on media ownership, that he never knew this was an issue that voters back home cared about—until he went to a town hall meeting and constituents pressed him on it. Guess what? He came back to Washington and voted to overturn those rules. That’s what works. The 2016 elections won’t be worth a hoot unless you and I insist upon real dialogue about real issues and help make it happen.

By Michael Copps.