Bad Telecom Connections

Most of national press reported in awe how the sweeping Telecommunications Act will revolutionize our lives for the better. Having seen the face of God and lost their critical distance (or hoping to take the easy way out of covering a complicated story), editors and reporters kept giving us variations on the same theme:"Telecom Vote Signals Competitive Free-for-All," trumpeted the Wall Street Journal."Bill Promises Phone, Cable Competition," read the San Francisco Examiner front-page head."Congress Eases Telecom Rules: Phone, Cable TV Industries Would Be Opened Up," said the San Francisco Chronicle on its front-page banner.There are two problems with that coverage, put out by papers whose owners have an exceeding financial interest in making America love the so-called telecom reform:Problem 1: They chose not to front-page the real story, which is the scandal of Washington selling out to the corporate titans who stand to benefit from the decreased competition this bill guarantees -- at the expense of the consumer.Problem 2: The papers relegated most dissenting voices speaking out against the glory of this brave new telecom world to either their business sections or the Siberia of one or two jumps off the front page.The bottom line is that the legislation could have been written by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley -- but only at their most grimly imaginative.Legions of lobbyists and lawyers for the companies that theoretically had the most to lose in this "deregulation" essentially were allowed to write the legislation's specific language. Under the guise of breeding healthy competition, this bill gives the big-money players -- Pacific Bell and the Baby Bells, TCI and MCI -- carte blanche to make up their own rules in the high-stakes telecom poker game. That means centralization of power, homogenization of information, and increased chance of censorship. Look for less competition, more megamergers, and higher prices for local telephone, cable, and other services.But you would've had a hard time finding that out in the coverage of the bill. And what you wouldn't have been able to find was much analysis of the social implications of the legislation. Thanks to amendments tacked onto the bill, it carries some life-and-death consequences.Perhaps the most bitterly fought battle in Washington since the House approved the bill February 1 was over inclusion of language that pro-choice advocates say is a stunning example of how archconservative Republicans are surreptitiously sneaking an agenda of censorship and anti-abortion into legislation.The morning the bill went before the House, the New York Daily News reported that Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois had attached a provision to the legislation that would ban the exchange of any information about abortion over the Internet. By including restrictions on obscene language as dictated in the 90-year-old Comstock Act, according to Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) and other pro-choice leaders, even the most basic discussions about the pros and cons of having an abortion would be illegal to send or receive on the computer network.Hyde press aide Sam Strathman is adamant that adding the Comstock Act was not his boss's idea but came from the Clinton administration, is being used for political gain by pro-choice forces, and is moot anyway because Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. "This is all a bunch of garbage," he said from Washington this week.But James Wagner of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) responded: "We intend to seek a freestanding bill to strike this provision. If this was a normal time in Congress, we might be less concerned. But these aren't normal times, and this language threatens to be an impediment to free speech and a backdoor way to take away a woman's right to freely choose."A major economic problem with the bill is the certain increase in a vast array of costs, discriminating against low-income families. "Instead of promoting head-to-head competition between cable, telephone, and other communications companies, the bill allows mergers and corporate combination that will drive up cable rates and undercut competition," says Gene Kimmelman, co-director of Consumers Union's Washington office. He says cable rates will increase by $5 to $7 a month, with smaller communities hit first and hardest.Says Consumer Federation of America telecommunications policy director Bradley Stillman: "If cable and telephone companies own a piece of each other, they are not going to compete. We are seriously concerned that this bill will allow the telecommunications and information barons of the 20th century to consolidate their power in the next century. Regulation is the second-best consumer protection after effective competition. But this bill could leave consumers with neither, which is the worst possible outcome."That sound you hear is Orwell and Huxley rolling over in their graves, outdone by the reality of a '90s world.

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