Jeffrey Chester

Under the Radar, Big Media Internet Giants Get Massive Access to Everything About You

Editor's note: The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series. 

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The War Against Google

Fearful of the growing dominance of Google, some of the country's most powerful media companies are seeking to rein in the digital giant. Viacom's $1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit against Google's YouTube and the recent deal between NBC Universal and News Corp./Fox to establish a rival online video site have made the headlines. But this is just the beginning of a larger effort designed to weaken and undermine Google. The stakes are high, not only for Google and the other media conglomerates but for the future of the broadband medium and the public interest.

Privately, a number of media giants have been exploring ways to limit Google's growing clout in the advertising marketplace. Among the options, insiders say, is a possible federal antitrust case, similar to the 1998 case brought against Microsoft. Another avenue is possible actions against Google at the Federal Trade Commission over the company's interactive data-collection apparatus.

Representatives from Google's growing list of competitors say that unless checked now, Google will ultimately control most of the interactive advertising revenues for broadband. Industry insiders understand that control over ad revenues will give Google tremendous clout over the future of content online, since it will have the resources to fund whatever it desires. Consequently, Viacom's legal action against Google is less about copyright infringement over clips from The Daily Show appearing on YouTube than about cutting the search and advertising behemoth down to size.

Currently, Google garners nearly half of all US online searches. The company has also aggressively expanded its advertising services into newspapers, radio, television and mobile communications. As commerce, communications, entertainment and information further merge online, companies that control both the most popular sites and the interactive targeted-marketing (and data-collecting) apparatus will dominate.

The media industry now finds itself in a critical period of transition, which will determine what the financial relationships will be among the major content providers (such as Viacom), mobile and cable systems (such as Verizon) and advertising powerhouses (Google). Viacom chief Sumner Redstone knows firsthand how legal action can humble potential competitors. He successfully took on cable TV baron John Malone more than a decade ago in another well-known entertainment industry lawsuit. As with the case against Malone, Viacom's legal action against Google is not just about humbling a rival but also about getting the best deal for splitting revenues.

Time Warner, Viacom, Fox, Google and the others are really arguing about the role that interactive advertising will play in determining the future of digital content and its distribution: Who gets the lion's share of revenues from ad and content sales? How much access can advertisers have to our personal data? How much advertising can they send our way? To what extent can media giants control the monetization of our eyeballs and our psyches? This is also everything about pleasing the biggest deep-pocketed advertisers, who don't want to see their ads adjacent to videos that might undermine their message. Google has already implemented a technology fix to prevent unwanted content from appearing on YouTube and other sites. Its "advanced content identification architecture" is designed to insure major program producers and advertisers that it can identify and remove any problematic content.

There is real danger that the media buzz around disputes like the Viacom suit and the new NBC-Fox online venture will obscure real concerns about privacy and other rights we have as consumers of online content. As media powerhouses seek to make the new digital landscape a better environment for large advertisers, those who care about the potential of broadband to serve the public interest should be engaged in the debate. We should not leave decisions about how digital content is paid for and distributed just to Google and its ever-growing list of corporate competitors.

Will Google Take the Internet Over the Cliff?



Under the radar of all but the most savvy Internet users, powerful commercial forces are rapidly creating a digital media system for the United States that threatens to undermine our ability to create a civil and just society. The takeover of YouTube by Google announced October 9 and the 2005 buyout by Rupert Murdoch of MySpace are not just about mega-deals for new media. They are the leading edge of a powerful interactive system that is being designed to serve the interests of some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet.






Aware that social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube are attracting the key youth audience, and aiming to maintain their influence over future generations of consumers, marketers are aggressively seizing the initiative. Leveraging existing relationships with Yahoo!, Microsoft, the phone and cable companies, Google and the other large players, the advertising industry are developing an array of immersive online experiences--like MTV's Virtual Laguna Beach and Studio.com's Go Deep--that seamlessly blend relationships with products and brands.



Advertisers are harnessing technology that targets and follows Internet users on their journeys through cyberspace, collecting data and tracking behavior. Virtual software marketing tools will be deployed across the digital landscape so that wherever we go, whatever we do do--e-mail, instant messaging, mobile communications or searches--we will be immersed in enticing content for the lifelong sell: Witness the work of Oddcast, a New York-based immersive media company, whose "conversational character products" represent a new medium for marketing to get inside consumers' heads.



YouTube capitalizes on the growing proclivity of Internet users to be creators of information as well as consumers. And as the network television and cable audiences age, advertisers are increasingly aware that "user-created content"--be it a cute kitty video or clips from The Daily Show--are key to attracting young audiences. But as the Goo-Tube model develops, behind each video will be a powerful connection to an ad, targeted to the user's online behavior, as well as the stealth collection of personal data. As Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive, noted about his company's acquisition of MySpace, "the digital gold inside of MySpace wasn't the number of users, but the information they're providing." [Google, it should be noted, now also represents the interests of Rupert Murdoch's US empire. In August Google became Fox's principal online advertising agent for MySpace, Fox TV and Fox Interactive.]




Given this emerging marketing model, the US broadband infrastructure may well become one giant "brandwashing" machine. The most powerful communications system ever developed by humans is increasingly being put in the service of selling, commercialization and commodification. And it will lead to an inherently conservative and narcissistic political culture, in which the interests of the self and the consumption of products are the primary, most visible, media messages. And unless we begin to challenge it now, the emerging digital culture will seriously challenge our ability to effectively communicate, inform and organize.



A handful of companies now dominate much of the US new-media market. Five corporations--Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon and Qwest--control the wires and cable lines delivering us broadband, digital TV and, soon, much wireless service. The viral "Singing Puppy" campaign from Nokia is an early warning that soon even our phone calls will become platforms for commercials. A few other major players--especially Google, News Corp., Viacom and Microsoft--have done the necessary deals to strategically grow their broadband content businesses (buying gaming sites and other programming to insure they ensnare the key youth market). Even if the pending update to the Communications Act of 1996 preserves the core principle of network neutrality, the voices of these most powerful media companies are likely to be the loudest.




More mergers in coming years will continue the consolidation of old media giants with the new. It's only a matter of time before a handful of companies will own TV, radio and newspaper properties along with key online services. This further interferes with the ability of mainstream news media to serve as an effective watchdog on government and big business.




Though the Internet was originally envisioned to serve the public interest, there is no guarantee it will continue to do so. Like radio, broadcast TV and cable, it will continue to be shaped by politics, telecommunication policies and the market. Web activists envision a medium that will always support social change and can serve as a platform to distribute diverse points of view. But if the economic relationships between the old and new media are allowed to dominate online culture, what guarantees do we have that the Internet will continue to be the "people's" medium? Events are moving quickly; media and telecommunications giants already have a powerful hold on members of Congress; regardless of which party is in power, it is unlikely our elected officials will deliver a federal policy that that puts the needs of citizens ahead of corporations.




That's why I suggest that progressives begin to get real--and get smart--about digital media. While we have a few reliable outlets--Democracy Now!, Alternet, Huffington Post and The Nation--the progressive community lacks a reliable well-connected broadband infrastructure that will deliver an array of news and cultural content to national and community audiences. I'm not talking about the wires and connections but about building a coalition of tech-savvy content providers that will deliver to PCs, TVs and cellphones a flow of alternative news and information challenging the status quo.



Imagine progressive organizations making smart deals with a variety of providers to carry this content deep in the heart of the digital distribution system. Imagine nimble, creative enterprises willing to experiment with new business models. Imagine having the courage to go beyond foundation grants and pledge drives and becoming adept at paying your own way. Imagine developing socially responsible advertising that respects personal privacy, is transparent about how data is collected and used, allows consumers to opt out of immersive experiences, fosters independent identity, builds community and supports social justice.



Foundations and the so-called Democracy Alliance have the potential to be the economic engines for such experiments and do the organizing necessary to patch together a content-challenge to the status quo.




As YouTube, Google, MySpace and immersive media marketing reshape the digital landscape, we need to be sure that public interest remains in the picture. And as tech-savvy progressive media find their place in that landscape, we must work together to build an online culture that not only pitches products but works for equity, social justice and the riches of a civil society.

Save the Internet

Imagine, wanting to donate money to a charity and not being able to open the nonprofit's web page because of the charity's inability to afford the dominant internet provider's fees required to make the page efficient? Imagine the millions of life-saving dollars these charities will lose if lobbyists get their way? What if your child is sick, and you can't gain access to a support group's page because the support group can't afford the fees? Or even scarier, imagine not gaining speedy access to a politician's views because the specific provider is against his or her ideology?
--Who's the Boss? star Alyssa Milano
Will the internet in the United States become, in the words of AT&T (SBC) CEO, their company's private "pipes"? Or will it remain, as the Supreme Court cited in 1997, "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed"? These two very different perspectives reflect what's at stake in the growing fight now in Congress over the internet's future.

A growing movement of online users, public advocates, internet "visionaries," bloggers, and online corporations are fighting to have Congress enact what are called "network neutrality" safeguards. Such rules would preserve the internet's essential democratic structure: All content would be required to flow into our PCs and digital devices in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner. Network neutrality would help ensure that internet serves the interests of diversity of speech. As the new Savetheinternet coalition put it, network neutrality is the equivalent of the internet's First Amendment.

But an unfettered open road is directly at odds with the broadband business plans of AT&T (formerly SBC), Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon. The cable and telephone industry see enormous revenues as operators of a private internet toll-road. How has the internet -- so diverse and unwieldly -- fallen into their hands? The answer is (of course) the Bush administration. Heavily lobbied by the cable and phone giants, the Bush Federal Communications Commission has been eliminating the rules that required the internet to operate in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Under the "old" policy governing what's called the "dial-up" internet, the public was guaranteed that their internet service provider (ISP) had to treat all online content in an unbiased manner. ISPs couldn't, for example, speed up the email or websites they liked, or decide to slow down content it didn't like (such as from a peace group). The former rules also permitted the public to choose from literally thousands of ISPs to connect them to the internet. Such federal safeguards have, sadly, now bitten the digital dust.

It's all about broadband

Verizon, Comcast and the others had former FCC chair Michael Powell and current chair Kevin Martin strip away these rules because they were an obstacle to their plans to dominate the high-speed internet, or broadband, market. If a purely open and nondiscriminatory internet remained, then anyone could distribute a movie or video program -- a serious threat to the cable industry's monopoly over TV distribution.

No one needs a "Ma Bell" anymore to bring us telephone service. Practically anyone can now use the internet to provide phone service (known as voice over internet protocol, or VoIP). In other words, if the internet remained a real First Amendment friendly pipeline, both the cable and phone industry would see their profits and power evaporate -- fast.

But it wasn't only to prevent competitors that spurred our new broadband bandits to action. With the federal nondiscrimination policy now toast, the phone and cable companies could embark in earnest with plans to -- in their words -- "monetize" digital distribution. Through their sole control over America's residential broadband pipes (they have more than 90 percent of the market), they planned to set up a multitiered and pay-as-you-go private internet highway.

There would be a new fast lane, giving the content owned by the phone, cable and other media giants, the fastest preferential treatment. Video and multimedia programming owned by AT&T and Comcast, for example, would be received lightning speed on PCs, digital TVs and mobile devices. Those that couldn't afford to pay would be relegated to what the phone and cable lobbyists derisively called the "public" internet.

This so-called public lane would be the equivalent of a digital dirt road, easily marginalized by the majority of the public that has come to enjoy ever-faster and more efficient connections. A slew of Silicon Valley tech companies, including Cisco, have built broadband delivery equipment that allows a phone or cable company to make business decisions about every packet of data that travels over its lines.

Imagine a private air traffic controller working for Airline X. Its planes would be given priority takeoff and landings -- while competitors and others slowly circle overhead. Only those who could afford to make a payoff (such as huge fees or a cut of their business) would be afforded similar treatment. The Bells and cable hoped that with this control over the data lines, their broadband content competitors would crash and burn.

The cable and telephone broadband scam, however, is now meeting intense opposition. First, there is a growing opposition movement against the privatization of the internet. Led by Free Press, there is a new "savetheinternet.org" coalition, representing a diverse group of activists, users and experts from across the political spectrum, including Gun Owners of America, the United Church of Christ and Craigslist's Craig Newmark.

Earlier in the week, this group and MoveOn.org helped flood the halls of Congress with emails and online petitions calling on the Congress to enact safeguards for "network neutrality." The power of the cable/telco alliance to determine the future of the U.S. internet has also alarmed many of the country's most powerful online companies -- such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. They have launched their own new coalition, called "Don't Mess with the Net.com."

The GOP -- led by Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Energy and Commerce Chair Joe Barton (Texas) -- is firmly in the grip of the broadband monopoly lobby. Yesterday, Barton's committee rejected a network neutrality provision, 34-22 (sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, among others). Helping the Republicans defeat the internet freedom measure were five Democrats, including Edolphus Townes (N.Y.), Albert Wynn (Md.), Charles A. Gonzalez (Texas), Bobby Rush (Ill.) and Gene Green (Texas). (It was the endorsement of Rep. Rush, a former activist, that permitted the Republicans to call their broadband bill a bipartisan effort).

But the growing outcry to protect the internet led to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's formally endorsing the network neutrality call. There is now growing optimism among "save the internet" supporters that the Senate, which will soon take up a broadband communications bill, will endorse a neutrality rule. A bipartisan plan to do just that has already been prepared by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Federal rules to ensure that the internet remains a democratic medium of expression is essential if the United States is to ever become a more just and civil society. In the emerging era, the nature of what will be a ubiquitious broadband communications system will greatly define us as a culture. It must be one where the voices of those calling for justice, health care, environmental protection and peace can resonate as loudly as the commercial messages brought to us by Time Warner and AT&T. Network neutrality, or internet freedom, is a necessary and critical step to make sure such voices are part of the mainstream -- not exiled to the digital dirt road.

Sign the petition HERE or contact your rep HERE.

The Dangers of Corporate Wi-Fi

The digital gold rush is on across America, as cities scramble to develop free or low-cost Wi-Fi zones. These public on-ramps to the Internet are designed to provide every citizen with a form of always-on, high-speed Internet access -- at the playground, in the office or at home -- at low or no cost.

Dozens of communities large and small, in red states and blue, are either planning or currently constructing Wi-Fi systems. Community leaders -- from Philadelphia; Houston; Columbia, South Carolina; and San Francisco, to name a few -- recognize that creating a citywide Wi-Fi zone is not only vital for economic development and public safety but helps insure that Americans who can't now afford digital communications on their own can also tap in to the riches and convenience of the Internet. But there is no such thing as a free digital lunch.

Consumers and public officials should have no illusions that what is being touted as a public benefit is also designed to spur the growth of a mobile marketing ecosystem, an emerging field of electronic commerce that is expected to generate huge revenues for Google, Microsoft, AT&T and many others. Soon, wherever we wander, a ubiquitous online environment will follow us with ads and information dovetailed to our interests and our geographic location.

Unless municipal leaders object, citizens and visitors will be subjected to intensive data-mining of their web searches, e-mail messages and other online activities are tracked, profiled and targeted. The inevitable consequences are an erosion of online privacy, potential new threats of surveillance by law enforcement agencies and private parties, and the growing commercialization of culture.

Mining your data

Consider the application submitted to the City of San Francisco in February by search giant Google and its partner, the Internet service provider Earthlink. One of six Wi-Fi bids being considered by the City of San Francisco, the Google/Earthlink plan has attracted the most attention. Under this proposal, Google would provide a free but relatively low-speed Internet service available throughout the city (Earthlink would operate a higher-speed service on the same system charging users $20 a month). The costs of operating the "free" service would be offset by Google's plans to use the network to promote its interactive advertising services.

Everyone who uses the Google network would first be directed to a portal page, where they would be offered an array of what Google terms "personalized consumer products." Through those products and other technologies, Google plans, according to its proposal, to "target advertisements to specific geographical locations and to user interests."

What this means is that Google and Earthlink plan to use online files (known as cookies) and other data-collection techniques to profile users and deliver precise, personalized advertising as they surf the Internet. (Earthlink is working with the interactive ad company DoubleClick, which collects and analyzes enormous amounts of information online to engage in individual interactive ad targeting.)

Not everyone is enthused by the Google/Earthlink model. San Francisco was advised by a trio of privacy advocates to develop policies that would respect personal privacy. In letters to the city, the ACLU of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) urged the adoption of a "gold standard" for data privacy, insuring that its Wi-Fi system would "accommodate the individual's right to communicate anonymously and pseudonymously." The groups also suggested that the city require any Wi-Fi company to allow users to "opt in" to any data-collection scheme. [Full disclosure: I rent office space in Washington, DC, from EPIC].

Scary syllables

These two syllables -- "opt in" -- strike terror in the hearts of Google, Microsoft, AOL and everyone else in the interactive marketing field. Opting in requires users to affirmatively give permission before any data can be collected. Individuals would be fully informed about how such information would be used (such as profiling, sharing with others, etc.). What companies want instead is an "opt-out" approach, in which the default is always set to collect and make full use of our personal information.

As EPIC's West Coast senior counsel Chris Hoofnagle explained, "The Google plan proposes to bargain away users' privacy for a trickle of Internet connectivity." Google will have an unprecedented ability to monitor use and build records of web activity. These records will be a honey pot for law enforcement. Individuals' privacy is worth more than a 300K download speed." (Other Wi-Fi applicants in San Francisco also favor opt-out data-collection technology. One applicant, the NextWLAN Corporation, envisions "an e-commerce monetized, fully captive, location-aware Internet portal." But also on the table is a proposal from the nonprofit Seakay that offers a free service and pledges no personal information will be collected online.

The interest San Francisco and other cities have in securing the financial support of commercial investors for their Wi-Fi grids in part reflects the success of the campaign run by the nation's largest cable and phone companies, which have opposed the idea of municipally owned and operated Internet service. Companies such as Comcast and AT&T view these low-cost local municipal competitors as a threat to what they believe is their rightful broadband monopoly businesses. Already, there have been lawsuits, lobbying and legislation against such municipal Internet services.

As a result of this pressure, cities are now seeking a more corporate-friendly approach to provide what should really be a public utility operated for everyone's benefit. Too many local governments are embracing a model for Wi-Fi, says advocate and expert Sascha Meinrath, that creates a system more favorable to "billable moments" than one designed to truly connect communities together.

Instead of creating yet another e-commerce stomping ground, San Francisco and other cities should understand that real alternatives do exist to the corporate model of municipal Wi-Fi being peddled by Google and its cohorts. It is possible to develop community networks that reflect our highest principles, including the right to personal privacy, and the cost of building such networks can be very low. There are already successful publicly supported models. St. Cloud, Florida, a city of 30,000, has built a free Wi-Fi service for its residents, seeing it as an important public service. The city has been able to build and operate the network, reduce its telecommunications costs and generate new economic opportunities.

Building a Wi-Fi network this way brings in economic development and saves the city money on telecommunications. At a time of growing media consolidation and emerging threats to the future of the Internet, America needs to create online systems that are democratically run and commerce-neutral, that protect the privacy of the citizens they serve.

The End of the Internet

The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online.

Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants are developing strategies that would track and store information on our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency.

According to white papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and telecommunications industries, those with the deepest pockets -- corporations, special-interest groups and major advertisers -- would get preferred treatment. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out.

Under the plans they are considering, all of us -- from content providers to individual users -- would pay more to surf online, stream videos or even send e-mail. Industry planners are mulling new subscription plans that would further limit the online experience, establishing "platinum," "gold" and "silver" levels of Internet access that would set limits on the number of downloads, media streams or even e-mail messages that could be sent or received.

To make this pay-to-play vision a reality, phone and cable lobbyists are now engaged in a political campaign to further weaken the nation's communications policy laws. They want the federal government to permit them to operate Internet and other digital communications services as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. Indeed, both the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are considering proposals that will have far-reaching impact on the Internet's future. Ten years after passage of the ill-advised Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone and cable companies are using the same political snake oil to convince compromised or clueless lawmakers to subvert the Internet into a turbo-charged digital retail machine.

The telephone industry has been somewhat more candid than the cable industry about its strategy for the Internet's future. Senior phone executives have publicly discussed plans to begin imposing a new scheme for the delivery of Internet content, especially from major Internet content companies. As Ed Whitacre, chairman and CEO of AT&T, told Business Week in November, "Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment, and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"

The phone industry has marshaled its political allies to help win the freedom to impose this new broadband business model. At a recent conference held by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank funded by Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and other media companies, there was much discussion of a plan for phone companies to impose fees on a sliding scale, charging content providers different levels of service. "Price discrimination," noted PFF's resident media expert Adam Thierer, "drives the market-based capitalist economy."

Net Neutrality
To ward off the prospect of virtual toll booths on the information highway, some new media companies and public-interest groups are calling for new federal policies requiring "network neutrality" on the Internet. Common Cause, Amazon, Google, Free Press, Media Access Project and Consumers Union, among others, have proposed that broadband providers would be prohibited from discriminating against all forms of digital content. For example, phone or cable companies would not be allowed to slow down competing or undesirable content.

Without proactive intervention, the values and issues that we care about -- civil rights, economic justice, the environment and fair elections -- will be further threatened by this push for corporate control. Imagine how the next presidential election would unfold if major political advertisers could make strategic payments to Comcast so that ads from Democratic and Republican candidates were more visible and user-friendly than ads of third-party candidates with less funds.

Consider what would happen if an online advertisement promoting nuclear power prominently popped up on a cable broadband page, while a competing message from an environmental group was relegated to the margins. It is possible that all forms of civic and noncommercial online programming would be pushed to the end of a commercial digital queue.

But such "neutrality" safeguards are inadequate to address more fundamental changes the Bells and cable monopolies are seeking in their quest to monetize the Internet. If we permit the Internet to become a medium designed primarily to serve the interests of marketing and personal consumption, rather than global civic-related communications, we will face the political consequences for decades to come. Unless we push back, the "brandwashing" of America will permeate not only our information infrastructure but global society and culture as well.

Why are the Bells and cable companies aggressively advancing such plans? With the arrival of the long-awaited "convergence" of communications, our media system is undergoing a major transformation. Telephone and cable giants envision a potential lucrative "triple play," as they impose near-monopoly control over the residential broadband services that send video, voice and data communications flowing into our televisions, home computers, cell phones and iPods. All of these many billions of bits will be delivered over the telephone and cable lines.

Video programming is of foremost interest to both the phone and cable companies. The telephone industry, like its cable rival, is now in the TV and media business, offering customers television channels, on-demand videos and games. Online advertising is increasingly integrating multimedia (such as animation and full-motion video) in its pitches. Since video-driven material requires a great deal of Internet bandwidth as it travels online, phone and cable companies want to make sure their television "applications" receive preferential treatment on the networks they operate. And their overall influence over the stream of information coming into your home (or mobile device) gives them the leverage to determine how the broadband business evolves.

Mining Your Data
At the core of the new power held by phone and cable companies are tools delivering what is known as "deep packet inspection." With these tools, AT&T and others can readily know the packets of information you are receiving online -- from e-mail, to websites, to sharing of music, video and software downloads.

These "deep packet inspection" technologies are partly designed to make sure that the Internet pipeline doesn't become so congested it chokes off the delivery of timely communications. Such products have already been sold to universities and large businesses that want to more economically manage their Internet services. They are also being used to limit some peer-to-peer downloading, especially for music.

But these tools are also being promoted as ways that companies, such as Comcast and Bell South, can simply grab greater control over the Internet. For example, in a series of recent white papers, Internet technology giant Cisco urges these companies to "meter individual subscriber usage by application," as individuals' online travels are "tracked" and "integrated with billing systems." Such tracking and billing is made possible because they will know "the identity and profile of the individual subscriber," "what the subscriber is doing" and "where the subscriber resides."

Will Google, Amazon and the other companies successfully fight the plans of the Bells and cable companies? Ultimately, they are likely to cut a deal because they, too, are interested in monetizing our online activities. After all, as Cisco notes, content companies and network providers will need to "cooperate with each other to leverage their value proposition." They will be drawn by the ability of cable and phone companies to track "content usage…by subscriber," and where their online services can be "protected from piracy, metered, and appropriately valued."

Our Digital Destiny
It was former FCC chairman Michael Powell, with the support of then-commissioner and current chair Kevin Martin, who permitted phone and cable giants to have greater control over broadband. Powell and his GOP majority eliminated longstanding regulatory safeguards requiring phone companies to operate as nondiscriminatory networks (technically known as "common carriers"). He refused to require that cable companies, when providing Internet access, also operate in a similar nondiscriminatory manner. As Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig has long noted, it is government regulation of the phone lines that helped make the Internet today's vibrant, diverse and democratic medium.

But now, the phone companies are lobbying Washington to kill off what's left of "common carrier" policy. They wish to operate their Internet services as fully "private" networks. Phone and cable companies claim that the government shouldn't play a role in broadband regulation: Instead of the free and open network that offers equal access to all, they want to reduce the Internet to a series of business decisions between consumers and providers.

Besides their business interests, telephone and cable companies also have a larger political agenda. Both industries oppose giving local communities the right to create their own local Internet wireless or wi-fi networks. They also want to eliminate the last vestige of local oversight from electronic media -- the ability of city or county government, for example, to require telecommunications companies to serve the public interest with, for example, public-access TV channels. The Bells also want to further reduce the ability of the FCC to oversee communications policy. They hope that both the FCC and Congress -- via a new Communications Act -- will back these proposals.

The future of the online media in the United States will ultimately depend on whether the Bells and cable companies are allowed to determine the country's "digital destiny." So before there are any policy decisions, a national debate should begin about how the Internet should serve the public. We must insure that phone and cable companies operate their Internet services in the public interest -- as stewards for a vital medium for free expression.

If Americans are to succeed in designing an equitable digital destiny for themselves, they must mount an intensive opposition similar to the successful challenges to the FCC's media ownership rules in 2003. Without such a public outcry to rein in the GOP's corporate-driven agenda, it is likely that even many of the Democrats who rallied against further consolidation will be "tamed" by the well-funded lobbying campaigns of the powerful phone and cable industry.

Time for a Digital Fairness Doctrine

The debate on Sinclair Broadcasting's plans to air an anti-John Kerry documentary on its 62 stations underscores the need for new national safeguards for the electronic media in the U.S. Policies that ensure that digital media – including cable, satellite, and the broadband Internet – have an obligation to provide diverse viewpoints are more necessary than ever.

While we must address the issue of bias in broadcasting, the principle at stake is bigger and has more far-reaching implications.

Until the late '80s, the broadcasting industry was governed by a set of rules, better known as the "Fairness Doctrine," which required stations to operate in the "public interest." This included the requirement that stations must offer a variety of viewpoints that reflect opposing perspectives, and that they operate in a "fair" manner while doing so. Broadcasters also had to ensure they would treat a wide variety of politically related speech fairly, including ballot initiatives and personal attacks on the character or honesty of an individual and group.

The broadcast lobby and their allies successfully won repeal of much of the "Fairness Doctrine" during the late '80s. The Reagan/Bush Sr. FCC was notoriously aligned with the broadcast lobby. Since that time, the National Association of Broadcasters has successfully fought against its re-imposition using the spurious argument that the Fairness Doctrine harms the First Amendment rights of the media. The leading advocate for the Doctrine – Media Access Project – has never had the resources it needed for an effective campaign to restore it.

The rise of conservative talk radio is directly linked to the absence of the Fairness Doctrine. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the myriad of shrill right-wing talk jocks are immune from having to provide even a modicum of balanced perspective. Media consolidation has greatly fueled the problem, creating powerful station chains with a distinct political perspective, such as Clear Channel and Sinclair Broadcasting. While on cable and satellite networks, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel offers conservative commentary thinly disguised as journalism.

Conglomeration and deregulation has also weakened what little capability TV and radio networks possessed to engage in serious news reporting. All of these developments have created a one-sided (and highly crazed) media environment where opinion has replaced journalism, and ideology and ownership shape what audiences see and hear.

Broadcasters, however, are still licensed to serve the public interest and receive invaluable free access to public airwaves. It is time to restore the full measure of rules that require stations to provide a balance of perspectives. But safeguarding public interest requires not just reinstating the Fairness Doctrine but also new safeguards that reflect the realities of today's digital landscape.

The majority of Americans – around 87 percent – receive their TV service from "multichannel" providers, i.e., either cable TV or direct broadcast satellite (DBS). The handful of conglomerates that control cable and DBS keep a tight rein over programming. As we move toward digital broadcasting, companies such as Comcast, Time Warner and Murdoch's DirecTV will have even greater gatekeeping clout, especially in the emerging world of "personalized" TV, where content can be targeted directly to individuals. These companies will also control access to vital "choke points," including set top box controlled personal video recorders, that will determine what content a viewer can access.

The broadband Internet is not immune either. New policies for cable and telephone broadband by the Bush FCC give "last mile" control of content to monopolies like Comcast, SBC and Verizon. For example, there's nothing to prevent them from speeding up online advocacy ads to your in-box that support their favored political causes.

What's to be done?

A new national policy on "fairness" is needed, along with restored rules on media ownership and forward-thinking approaches to reducing the role of money for paid electronic advertising. All legally qualified candidates and ballot initiatives should have access to viewers, able to distribute campaign information directly (and without having to buy "time"). TV channels should be required to promote public awareness to this information. Cable and satellite network owners should be required to provide on-demand channel or program capacity to any bona fide news operation. These measures will help break the stranglehold the companies have over news, permitting the emergence of (hopefully) more services geared towards substantive coverage.

For broadband, the Congress (or a different FCC) must require that network operators treat all content in a non-discriminatory manner. Such a policy has long been at the core of the Internet's evolution. FCC Chair Michael Powell, as part of his "Leave No Media Monopoly Behind" regime, has crafted new rules that will help the big cable and telephone companies to stealthily change how the Internet serves the public. Expect broadband service to be further commercialized and "monetized," as the industry likes to say. That's why we need a new "Fairness" rule to ensure that all political and news content can flow unimpeded to users.

Radio and TV broadcasters should have to provide the full range of safeguards in return for being allowed to use a public resource for free.

It's time now to develop a "Fairness Doctrine" agenda that strengthens democratic discourse. A decade from now, we don't want to witness a "digital" Sinclair debacle, where Rupert Murdoch, Comcast, and BellSouth "push" their favorite candidate for president, using the hundreds of TV channels and broadband connections at their command. New policies are required now, to help make clear what we mean by the "public interest, convenience, and necessity," of the digital era.

A Congressional Gift to Media Biz

On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission will announce new policies on U.S. media ownership.

The shame is that nobody is telling the public what these new policies mean. That might be because so many of the changes are bad ideas or not in the public interest. Here are some lowlights:

Current safeguards limiting the number of TV stations a single company can own both locally and nationally are expected to be weakened.

The big four commercial TV networks will be allowed to buy more stations, and broadcasters will likely be able to operate two or even three stations in a community (known in the trade as "duopolies" and "triopolies").

A long-standing rule that currently prevents a single owner from controlling both a community's major daily and a TV station may be overturned.

The New York Times Co. is just one of the major media firms that have asked the FCC to make a major policy change. Under chairman Michael Powell and his Republican majority, the Times Co. has found a sympathetic ally in its quest for "deregulation." In the last few weeks, some of the industry's most powerful CEOs have personally lobbied the FCC, including Viacom's Mel Karmazin, NBC's Robert Wright, and Fox's Rupert Murdoch. They have been joined by a long list of other well-connected media lobbyists, representing Belo, Tribune and the Newspaper Association of America.

Changes these companies are proposing would help further transform the U.S. media landscape, affecting journalism and TV programming. There would be even fewer owners of TV stations, cable systems, and newspapers. Yet for the most part, the media industry has failed to inform the public about what the implications of such changes might be, let alone how their own company stands to benefit from such a decision.

The debate over media ownership policy could (and should) fill up a significant part of the front page of this and other papers. But what's most distressing is the relative paucity of such coverage. Television -- especially the main network newscasts -- has all but ignored the issue.

The story of how the U.S. media world is being transformed as it proceeds with a transition to a largely digital system is linked with the current efforts at the FCC to end ownership limits. Companies want to position themselves to be media megagiants, with clout over more stations, cable channels, and newspapers (what the industry calls adding additional "platforms").

Yet the failure to report effectively on the implications of what the media companies are doing, both in Washington and in the marketplace, is an example of what's alarming about consolidation of media outlets into fewer and fewer hands. As media companies grow larger, with more financial links to other interests, what will happen to the critical watchdog role of news media? Specifically, in the digital age, which media entities with the power to inform the country will be able to serve as a check on the power and influence of their peers?

One example is the New York Times. Last year, the Times Corp. invested $100 million in Discovery Communications, making it a 50 percent owner of what is now known as the Discovery Times Channel. But the Times investment now makes it a partner with Discovery's owners, including Cox, Liberty Media, and Advance Newhouse. Yet with the exception of a single 367-word story last April, readers might not realize that the paper's owners have made a significant decision to expand into cable programming (including such ventures as the New England Sports Network). They are likely also unaware of the Times' new relationship with powerful cable TV interests.

Nor has the paper ever informed readers about the consequences of the Times Co.'s December 2001 filing at the FCC asking it to dismantle the policy on broadcast and newspaper cross-ownership. The Times isn't alone in this omission. In mid-April, the Belo Corp. wrote to FCC Chairman Powell that it was now advocating a new policy that would permit greater consolidation. Yet its flagship Dallas Morning-News didn't report on it.

The country is at a crossroads on media ownership. At stake ultimately are the First Amendment rights of the public to a system that promotes free speech and serves as a mechanism of private and public accountability. The media industry should use the next month to inform the country fully about the consequences of ownership changes, and what they may mean for democracy.

Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy.

Showdown at the FCC

The Bush Administration will soon hand the nation's biggest media conglomerates a new give-away that will concentrate media ownership in fewer hands. On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission, run by Michael Powell (son of Colin), plans to end long-standing federal checks and balances on corporate media power.

Companies behind the measure include the powerhouses of corporate media power: Rupert Murdoch's News Corp/Fox., General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, Tribune Corp and Clear Channel. Once the rules are swept away, expect to see more mergers and buy-outs of radio and TV stations, major papers and even TV networks. It will then soon be possible for a single conglomerate to control most of a community's major media outlets, including cable systems and broadband Internet service providers. There will be fewer owners nationally of all major media outlets of communications.

Right-wing powerhouses are also likely to grow more powerful soon, unless opposed. Rupert Murdoch's Fox is planning to take over the country's most powerful satellite service, Direct TV. He will be able not only to control access to millions of households, he will use it as a "Death Star" to further expand his broadcast and cable TV empires. Meanwhile, liberals -- let alone progressives -- have no ownership influence over any major media outlet.

This is all happening despite the fact that growing numbers of the public are willing to stand up and express their unhappiness with the way media conglomerates are using the public airwaves. As Neil Hickey describes in his article, "The Gathering Storm Over Media Ownership," in hearings across the country there has been a huge outpouring of public concern and anxiety about the direction of the media system.

Not surprisingly, the media conglomerates thirst for more control as they seek to end media ownership limits. What all this means for our nation hasn't been covered by the media. There has been no TV network news coverage on the impending media give-away. Nor have the major dailies explained to readers what their lobbyists are doing and how such changes will affect journalism, politics and the public's First Amendment rights to a system fostering diversity of viewpoints and expression.

A rare exception was a recent column in the New York Times by conservative pundit William Safire arguing that the media system is hiding the real story because it is unwilling to "expose the broadcast lobby's pressure on Congress and the courts to allow station owners to gobble up more stations and cross-own local newspapers, thereby to determine what information residents of a local market receive."

The proposed FCC rule changes will further weaken the ability of mainstream journalism to serve as a critical public safeguard. Soon, reporters at newspapers will have to pay attention to whether they get TV ratings, once their papers become part of larger TV empires concerned about promoting advertising and "brandwashing." More importantly, the country will have even fewer gatekeepers over the news and popular culture that informs much of public consciousness. (Read more about this problem from media mogul Barry Diller, who made many revealing statements to Bill Moyers on a recent edition of his program NOW, on PBS.)

As recent TV coverage of the Iraq war illustrates, US media companies aren't interested in providing a serious range of analysis and debate. "Embedded" reporters present information from a point of view shared with U.S. soldiers. News outlets hire retired military generals to dish up the prominent "expert" point of view. Journalists regurgitate communiqués disseminated by the Pentagon. Corporate TV stations avoid feeding viewers information and images they "don't like" such as coverage of civilian casualties and protests. The network that 36 percent of people watch for their primary war coverage (Fox News, according to a recent Gallup poll), is a deliberately conservative mouthpiece. Furthermore, for the media companies to be heavily lobbying the Bush administration for give-aways that will net them billions of dollars -- while they are providing mostly uncritical coverage of the war -- gets to the crux of our media problem. Danny Schechter of the Media Channel provides more details of this media conglomerate war cheerleading collusion in "War Coverage Rewrites History."

The FCC's Powell is also promoting massive consolidation in cable TV and with online communications for this summer. Soon just two massive cable companies -- Comcast and AOL Time Warner -- may be legally permitted to own almost all of the nation's cable TV systems. And Powell has already removed critical safeguards that will enable cable and telephone giants to dominate high-speed Internet access -- which has alarmed the ACLU (and even other monopolists like Microsoft and Disney).

Some key members of Congress may be undergoing some reality therapy as citizens are forcing them to confront the stark ramifications of the media deregulation they have enabled. One overwhelming result of their actions, for example, is the Clear Channel Communications buying spree (the company now owns more than 1200 radio stations), which has run roughshod over the nation's commercial radio system, turning it into a wasteland of conformity and commercialism. In contrast, back in 1996, the combined total of the number of stations owned by the two largest radio chains was a mere 115. Eric Boehlert, as part of a powerful and detailed series on Salon.com on media concentration, explains how the Clear Channel situation may be producing a backlash.

A less known but also disturbing trend is represented by another conservative company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which, as Paul Schmelzer writes in "The Death of Local News," is pioneering the frightening model of local news from a central sources thousands of miles away from the market. Meanwhile, perhaps unrelated to media concentration, but clearly connected to the war, female voices have just about disappeared from the media as documented by Caryl Rivers from Women's ENews.

Despite all the bad news, Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project offers: "These decisions in June are hardly the end of it. There is a real effort to keep the FCC in check going forward. Cable ownership rules are up for review this summer. There will be a spate of mergers after the rules change, and organizing may be able to beat some of them back, and pushes for legislation to gain back some of what has been lost."

But in the big picture, unfortunately, elected officials have been silent about what will be the most significant changes in media diversity rules since the Reagan era. It's time to send Congress a message that they should speak up now and defend the right to free speech, competition and ownership diversity in the digital age. To make your voice heard go to MediaReform.net, a comprehensive website that makes it easy for you to register your protest about the FCC's media deregulation policies.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.org. Jeffrey Chester is the director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Time Is Now to Fight for Future of TV

The rising tide of protest against U.S. media coverage of the war should also signal the need for a new progressive strategy about the future of the media system. Recent marches across the country protesting the networks, and a new focus by Moveon.org on media issues are vitally important. But they don't address the need to take advantage of fundamental changes taking place and alter how our media system is structured. The time is ripe, given all the activism and commitment now in place, to direct our energy towards achieving long-term positive changes for our media system.

A major transformation that is underway is reshaping broadcasting, cable and the Internet. The TV system in the U.S. is being reorganized because of digital technology, which should provide new opportunities for progressives to directly offer channels and program services to the vast majority of television households. But unless progressives and their allies pursue a proactive strategy, they will continue to be as marginalized as we are today.

The emerging structure of the television industry will flow primarily from cable television, a monopoly service that already serves 70 percent of all U.S. viewers (direct broadcast satellite controls the next 15 percent, with over-the-air broadcast serving the remainder). In the future, both cable and satellite companies will be sending their programming via servers, storage devices that will deliver programs and channels to individual households. There will be more channels since cable broadband technology can distribute a greater range of programming options. Already, more than 20 million U.S. cable households receive digital service. Within the next five to seven years, digital set-top and other connections will serve the vast majority of the viewing public.

But mainstream commercial programmers intend to keep a tight control over this new media landscape, dimming the possibility for the inclusion of alternative voices. Their goal is to use the new technology to make TV an even more potent commercial medium through targeted advertising. For example, Comcast, the nation's largest cable television and broadband Internet Service Provider, is now testing on-demand delivery by offering Philadelphia viewers 1500 hours of programming, with half of it for free (but with ads). Working with its partner NBC, Comcast intends to provide its captive viewers with the programs and channels of its choice to store on their server.

The next-generation of set-top boxes will also allow viewers to download and store programming on the hard-drive of their personal video recorder or PVR (similar to what Tivo today provides to more than 500,000 "early users"). Control of the PVR will be partly under the influence of the cable or satellite company since they provide the download connections that make such a device "intelligent." TV will also be interactive and personalized. Leading the way are people like Rupert Murdoch, whose company NDS is building cutting-edge software for television's next technological leap.

Cable also intends to effectively mold the future of the Internet as more households select broadband online connections. Both cable and large phone companies have recently secured new policies at the FCC that allow them to deny access to other ISPs -- in effect, they will become broadband monopolies. Cable's new set-top boxes include high-speed internet access and wireless connections. They hope that a single "bundle" of services, attractive to many users, will foreclose competition from alternatives.

The commercial cable and broadcast conglomerates have no intention of sharing their "broadband wealth" with others. Even PBS recently complained to the FCC that the cable industry is refusing to carry their proposed new digital channels. The FCC will soon allow even fewer companies -- perhaps as few as two -- to own the majority of cable systems. And although the Writers Guild of America (West) recently complained to the Commission that just five companies already control the vast majority of all the major television channels, the FCC will also soon permit more consolidation as it weakens media ownership safeguards as early as June.

A broadband system possesses the capacity to offer progressives and other groups the opportunity to create new channels and programming services by using a variety of business models. Imagine, for example, that 500,000 progressives agreed to pay $5 a month to support a news service. With a $30 million a year programming budget, that channel could be made available for free and seriously challenge the timidity of both commercial and public TV. A whole range of news and cultural services could be created, including ensuring that independent producers have access to the servers, PVRs, and electronic programming guides that will be at the heart of the new interactive TV landscape. But first we have to secure access to the treasure trove of channel capacity held by cable and satellite companies.

What can be done? First, progressives will have to craft a legislative strategy that breaks the cable and satellite stranglehold over channel capacity. They will have to mount efforts at the local level as well, challenging the ways in which cable, for example, intends to serve the public with its new technology. Finally, they will have to develop plans that will lead to the creation of real programming alternatives. While we should continue to pressure the networks through demonstrations and other efforts, we must also strive for more long-term fundamental changes.

The history of U.S. communications in the twentieth century was marked by a striking common theme. During each major transition to a new medium -- radio, broadcasting, or cable -- the media industry assured the public that they would use their new capacity to serve the public interest. But once they were able to lobby away any policy safeguards, the networks served only their narrow commercial goals.

Unless progressives embrace a strategy to intervene in the emerging digital TV marketplace, they may find themselves locked into a future commercial media system that once again marginalizes critical analysis and dissent. Let's avoid that rerun.

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. His book "America's Digital Destiny (and what you can do about it)" will be published by The New Press.

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