Thursday, August 02, 2007

Net Neutrality, Media Consolidation, and the FCC

I'm at the YearlyKos convention in Chicago, live-blogging so as to avoid the exorbitant fees my hotel wants for their curiously named "Free Public WiFi" network. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a hotel that offers me a one-liter bottle of water for $7 wants $10 per day for Internet access, but I digress. I just sat in on a panel discussion featuring FCC Commissioner Michael Copps talking about a variety of telecommunications issues. Appropriately enough, he was talking about issues of corporate "toll booths" on the Internet and the threat they pose to the Internet and to citizen journalism in particular. He also talked about media consolidation, specifically including Rupert Murdoch's pending conquest of The Wall Street Journal.

If you want to see the future of a country with runaway media consolidation, just look backwards to the Soviet Union. There was one source of news, and it never strayed from the official government line. Rupert Murdoch isn't exactly Joseph Stalin, nor even Leonid Brezhnev. In fact, he isn't in the government at all. However, Fox News might as well be an extension of the Republican Party. Murdoch openly admitted a few weeks ago that Fox News slanted its coverage in the run-up to the Iraq War in favor of going to war; so much for "fair and balanced," not to mention "we report, you decide." The WSJ is already editorially a mouthpiece of the far right, so much so that I need to have my Rolaids handy whenever I venture to read their op-ed pages. However, the Journal maintains a clear separation between its news reporting (mostly of business issues) and its opinion pieces, with the former mostly untainted by the bias in the latter. After all, most people buy it to find out whether their stock portfolio is going to fly or sink. But Murdoch has a track record we and the Journal's readers should find quite alarming. When he bought The Times of London, he promised to stay at arms length from editorial decisions, but he didn't keep his word for very long; before the year was out, he had replaced the editor. The new editor resigned less than a year later, citing Murdoch's breach of his pledge to maintain the editorial independence of the paper. His other papers, and most especially Fox News on cable TV, show the unmistakable imprint of his worldview, not only in editorials, but often in "objective" news coverage.

The other issue of the day was network neutrality. It's not a very sexy term, but it's an important issue. The way things are now, with a de facto neutral network, I as a web surfer get to decide what I want to look at or what I want to download. I pay my ISP for the privilege, and it's between us whether that's on a flat monthly rate or with a meter ticking up each passing megabyte. Conversely, the person or company whose web pages I'm visiting pays their ISP for passing the data out into the Internet. The two ISPs share the cost of passing the data along the "backbone" connection between them. However, many of the ISPs, especially those owned by large telephone or cable companies, want a second bite. They want the owner of the web page to pay for the privilege of having their data carried to my browser, even though I'm already paying them for exactly that. If the site owner refuses to pay my ISP, the data may still reach me eventually, but at substantially reduced speed; in the case of high-bandwidth applications like streaming video, it may be unusable. I will thus have an incentive to switch to a different web site, either owned by my ISP or at least paying protection money to keep the ISP's electronic goons from dropping my data packets into a dark alley. At issue is whether or not I get to decide what web sites I visit. Whether I'm reading Daily Kos or downloading a new computer game or watching Al Jazeera or streaming a porn video, the choice should be mine, not my ISP's.

Unfortunately, the FCC Commissioners are appointed by the President, and the current Commission shows the influence of George W. Bush in much the same way that the Supreme Court now does. The Commission is a friend to big business interests, but not to ordinary citizens. Thankfully, we have at least one strong voice who can sometimes shame his fellow Commissioners into doing the right thing instead of the right-wing thing.

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