Making Rights Real

There was a revealing and “need to have” discussion about voting rights, civil rights, and media rights at the Council on Foundations conference here in Washington this week. The program, envisioned by public interest champion Charles Benton, brought home for all to understand that these rights are inextricably linked and march forward together—or not at all. A distinguished list of speakers, including incoming NAACP President Cornell Brooks and Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland told moving stories about how the denial of fundamental rights is hobbling our democracy.

It’s really no longer possible to deny the connectivity among these issues: making voting a guaranteed and enforceable right, opening the doors of equal opportunity to every American, and having a media that informs citizens about the obstacles that are holding them and their country back. These are issues that Common Cause, where I am currently spending considerable time, has championed since John Gardner conceived the organization, and I am happy that our new chief executive, Miles Rapoport, is following in those footsteps with a visionary and ambitious rights agenda.

My beat, as regular readers of this blog know, is media. It’s the place where so many “rights” issues meet. The starkly-diminished state of our media has had seriously negative consequences on our nation’s ability to guarantee citizens their fundamental rights. The causes are several, but I put at the top of the list (1) the consolidation of our communications infrastructure into fewer and fewer hands and (2) the absence of even elemental public interest oversight by government, especially the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) where I served from 2001 to 2012. This double-barreled assault on the media has brought with it shuttered newsrooms, a near-death experience for deep-dive investigative journalism, and a media that no longer holds power accountable. The failure to hold power accountable results from media amassing too much power onto itself. Power and accountability don’t go together.

Media’s direction should have been clear for all to see when Comcast and NBC-Universal merged a few years ago. This was an unprecedented combination of content and distribution; it was traditional media and new media; it was broadcast and the broadband Internet. Long story short, sparing you the details of the armies of lobbyists and wheelbarrows of money that went into Comcast getting its deal through, the FCC approved it—my lone vote to the contrary notwithstanding. Now comes a new $45 billion deal to combine Comcast with Time Warner Cable, the industry’s second-largest player, with smart money betting the Commission will find a way to approve this one, too—absent some real pushback from consumers and from citizens across the land.

There can be no real Internet Freedom—no Internet rights, if you will—down the road we are traveling. The elephantine Comcast foot-print will dramatically extend its reach, consumer prices will surely rise, and Comcast will have a hammerlock over 40% of the broadband market. Verizon and AT&T take up most of the rest. The power of these few telecom and Internet giants to block, slow down, or otherwise impede content they do not approve can only compound in such an environment.

An advocacy message the big boys don’t like? Good luck getting that out. A public interest group they would just as soon silence? Silence it will be. A foundation or philanthropy they take issue with? You get the picture: fast lanes for their 1% business and political allies, while the 99% are consigned to the slow lane. Get may be closer than you think.

What is coming to pass is what many people didn’t expect. The dynamic, opportunity-creating technology of the broadband Internet is heading pell-mell down the same road of consolidation and gatekeeper control that wrought havoc on radio, television and cable. When some of us began to sound the alarm over a decade ago, the mainstream reaction was not to worry: there was no way this exciting new Internet technology could be interfered with. It was too free-spirited, too dynamic, to be subject to old laws of the marketplace, we were told. This was paradigm-smashing; the exuberance was, thank you, altogether rational. The situation was made infinitely worse by FCC regulators who encouraged evermore consolidation even as they deregulated away competition and consumer protections. Worse, these regulators refused even to broach a discussion of public interest oversight of the new telecom and media ecosystem in which we live and communicate.

I told the Council on Foundations audience that I feel “the urgency of now” as never before. The FCC is poised in the next several months to make decisions that will chart the course of our communications ecosystem for years to come. Both the so-called “network neutrality” and the outrageous Comcast-Time Warner Cable proceedings will be decided before the end of the year. Ensuring that the Internet will open the door to opportunity for the many rather than become the playground of the few requires immediate and decisive action. We cannot kick the can down the road yet again while gatekeepers further entrench themselves and government fiddles over some milquetoast version of an Open Internet. Every passing month without clear and enforceable rules makes Internet protection less likely. We have been talking about Internet Freedom for almost a decade now. Yet all we have to show is a more entrenched and consumer-unfriendly communications ecosystem than we had a decade ago.

Now is the time—maybe our last for a long while—to confront these choices and safeguard democracy-sustaining communications that will advance the common good. Chronically-overworked and under-funded public interest groups are marshaling their limited resources and the results are beginning to show. Already, more than 3 million Americans from all walks of life have taken a stand for Internet Freedom and so-called Title II FCC classification of broadband. Because of this citizen pressure, the FCC’s proposed new “net neutrality” framework is already “less bad” than it was a month ago. Last week, enough concerned web users spoke out that the FCC’s website buckled under the traffic!

I told the Council on Foundations folks, just as I tell every audience, that these issues require more media, more civic dialogue, more grassroots action, and more foundational support. These philanthropies are interested in a myriad of good causes: improving education, healthcare, energy, climate, making government work better, and opening the doors to equal opportunity, to name but a few. They are beginning to realize, I believe, that their many laudable goals cannot be achieved in a media environment where special interests can shunt their issues aside and where citizens are denied ready access to the work they are doing. If their stories don’t get told because of journalistic shortfalls, their programs won’t get very far. That translates into lost opportunities for our country. Foundations have done many good things in the media sphere, but they have gone through difficult times along with the rest of us in the past few years. It pains me to see the outrageous resources of those who inflict such damage on our democratic discourse while at the same time so many good efforts and public interest organizations struggle to hold on and, sometimes, have to manage declining resources.

The Internet Freedom battle comes to a head this fall when the FCC votes on its proposed rules. But that won’t be the final round—nowhere near it. The issues surrounding our Internet’s future go beyond just so-called “net neutrality” to putting the brakes on incessant industry consolidation that brings a new merger or acquisition nearly every week. They go to guaranteeing online democracy, developing resource-rich online journalism, nourishing viable civic dialogues, and spreading digital and media literacy to every school and home across the land.

I have been at this for many years now. I intend to keep at it. Not because I enjoy the battle—although it has its moments—but because I still believe we can build communications that refresh the well-springs of our democracy. The right to vigorous, independent media is real, it is Constitutional, and it is the prerequisite of good voting outcomes. Reigning Supreme Court doctrine continues to hold that the purpose of the First Amendment is to encourage an uninhibited marketplace of ideas wherein truth may ultimately prevail. Both the marketplace and the truth have been twisted beyond recognition.

Last but certainly not least, I hope we all look at this as a civil rights issue, because without access to affordable high-speed broadband and an Open Internet, no Twenty-first century American stands a chance at full opportunity in our economy, our society, our polity. This just may be the civil rights issue that all other civil rights issues depend upon.

By Michael Copps.