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Communications Inequality Comes Home to Roost

Posted on May 25, 2017

By Mark Lloyd

  The Federal Communications Commission building in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

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The equal ability to share information of concern to the public is among the rights that form the bedrock of our nation. In deciding what to share and what to view, all members of the public need to be reasonably free from surveillance. And as important as international and national affairs are, we remain a country where a vast amount of power, and a vast amount of what needs to be discussed, resides in state and local governments. Local governance, and what we learn as citizens through communicating about and participating in it, is vital to our federal system. These pillars—information equality, freedom from surveillance and localism—constitute long-standing tenets of our republic.

The Republican Party is in the process of dismantling these democratic foundations. The GOP, now in control of the Federal Communications Commission, is proposing to roll back the rules protecting fair access to an open internet.

The Republican-controlled Congress and the president have already tossed aside privacy protections that help guard against government and corporate surveillance. The Republican chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, is proposing to eliminate the requirement that local broadcasters actually operate in the communities they are licensed to serve.

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There was a time, not so long ago, when few could tell the difference between Republican and Democratic policy experts regarding the confusing and seemingly technical considerations of communications policy. That time has passed. And it is time all of us wake up to the now deeply partisan nature of the legislators and regulators who determine who gets to speak to whom and at what cost.

This should not come as a surprise. If clean air and banking and energy regulation can become infected by the disease of right-wing lockstep, why would our communications policies be considered immune?

Signs of this increasing partisanship over communications policy go back to the Reagan years, when the Republican FCC Chairman Mark Fowler wondered why television should be treated any differently than toasters. There once was a requirement that local broadcasters ask a diverse group of local leaders what important issues should be covered in their community. The broadcasters were then required to report quarterly to the FCC how the station programming was addressing those issues.

The Reagan Republicans got rid of that stipulation in 1984. They also made it more difficult to challenge a broadcaster’s license while making it easier to get a license renewed and extending license terms. In the meantime, they stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine and determined that the National Association of Broadcasters’ code of conduct was a violation of antitrust law. The U.S. has never recovered from this dramatic break from a bipartisan understanding of public interest law.

The early hope that cable TV would solve the “vast wasteland” of broadcast was revealed to be a cruel joke after a few years, but those hopes were soon replaced by even greater hopes for the new commercial internet. The current confused conflict over what some call net neutrality is only the most recent sign that partisanship has destroyed any realistic democratic hopes for the internet.

It remains to be seen whether Republican Party loyalist Pai will succeed in once again limiting FCC oversight of broadband, but he is sending a clear signal to internet service providers that they may do what they will and the nation’s guardian of the public interest will look the other way.

And no, the Democrats have not done a great job of advancing the public interest. It took far too long for Democrats to step up and reverse the lie that advanced telecommunications services (i.e., “broadband”) were really not telecommunications services, while they did little to break the monopolies of the internet service providers. Democrats, going back to Carter and Clinton, have allowed the increasing consolidation of broadcasting. And they have watched silently as public media was starved into near irrelevance.

While the elite are worried about slow internet service, red-state Americans remain stuck in media deserts with little information about what their local elected leaders are doing, and blue-state Americans are saturated with commercials and crime stories. All of us are overwhelmed by the angry rhetoric and lies from newspapers, radio, TV, cable, online sources and social media dominated by the right.


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