Historical Context for the Imminent Demise of Network Neutrality

On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission will vote 3-2 along party lines to obliterate the regulations that preserve the principle of network neutrality in the United States. Many have written more eloquently than I can on the policy implications; some excellent examples reside here, here, and here.

But the spectacularly misnamed “Restoring Internet Freedom” Order represents much more than a big wet kiss to internet service providers, giving them carte blanche to engage in data-discrimination dependent on content-creators’ – and your – ability to pay to send and receive. It functionally removes the FCC from having any role to play in making sure that ISPs don’t balkanize the online world to extract maximum revenue, pushing that responsibility into the lap of the Federal Trade Commission – though one Commissioner has already gone on record saying the FTC doesn’t have the legal authority or technical expertise to handle it.

As added bonuses, the Order also preempts any and all state laws that might seek to preserve the principle of network neutrality going forward, and allows ISPs to play fast and loose with the disclosures they must make regarding what you actually get when you pay for broadband service. Read More

Workers Independent News: 2001-2017

It was a crisp but comfortable fall day in 2000 when I was invited to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Union Terrace for a beer-summit about an interesting project-proposal. I was preparing to leave my career in commercial radio journalism out of disgust with the industry’s post-Telecom Act trajectory and had applied to the UW to start a master’s program in hopes of learning more about what had gone wrong with my chosen vocation, so the timing of this meeting was fortuitous.

It was the brainchild of then-UW School for Workers professor Frank Emspak: drawing on decades of experience in the labor movement and as an activist more broadly, Frank was worried that the voices of working people were being squeezed out of our media conversations, especially as business news increasingly focused on corporate executives and stock-prices, and our media outlets themselves were increasingly subject to the whims of finance capital. What if there were a news outlet run by workers, for workers, that put what passed for “business news” in the proper economic context?

A couple pitchers later, the four of us around that Terrace table had sketched out the framework for what would become Workers Independent News: the first national, labor-centric radio news program to be launched in the United States in several decades. We produced daily newscasts, feature stories, and other content from a DIY newsroom/studio in Madison and utilized our website for distribution — in effect launching a podcast long before podcasts became cool. Dry-runs of the production process began in late 2000, and WIN was officially launched in early 2001. Read More

FCC Decimation of Public-Interest Media Regulation Reaches Fever Pitch

Last month the Federal Communications Commission voted to remove the requirement that radio and television broadcasters have an actual physical presence in the communities to which they are licensed, opening the door to more station consolidation, automation, and syndication.

This month, the agency went on quite a tear: it repealed regulations that prohibit a single company from owning the major radio/TV stations and newspaper in a single market. This comes on the heels of the reinstatement of a regulation that encourages the merger of Sinclair and Tribune Broadcasting to proceed.

Furthermore, the Commission sowed the seeds for the eventual collapse of a program designed to subsidize broadband access for the poorest among us. And it endorsed the adoption of a new digital TV broadcast standard which will allow stations to customize programming to individual viewers, a la your Facebook feed. It will also require you to buy a new TV or conversion-box, similar to what was required during television’s initial analog/digital transition. (Incidentally, one of the strongest proponents of and investors in this new technology is Sinclair.)

Next month, as an extra-special Christmas present to the public interest, the Commission will vote to repeal the regulations that preserve network neutrality, and has opened the door to doing away with rules that require the cable industry to report yearly on industry competition and pricing trends. Read More

Stations Without Studios

The Federal Communications Commission has voted along party lines to repeal the main studio rule, which required all broadcast and television stations to have a physical presence in the communities to which they are licensed. This will only serve to heighten trends of consolidation, automation, and syndication that have afflicted the broadcast industry since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Even in current practice, the main studio rule was not that robust. Pre-’96, when meaningful caps on broadcast ownership existed, most stations save those who were clustered (that would be four at max for radio) had their own studios, offices, and transmission facilities. In a very important sense, this meant that there was more physical redundancy to the broadcast infrastructure in any given community.

Since 1996, most station-clusters don’t even have separate studios for every station; some stations are literally nothing more than computers tucked away, maintained and updated remotely, that feed their programming to a tower that nobody in the building knows quite where it’s located. Were you to visit a radio station today, you’d most likely find a receptionist, a manager or program director, some sales staff (though these positions are often combined), and perhaps a handful of talent with duties spread across multiple radio outlets. Read More

Ajit Pai: Silence is Consent to the Trump Agenda

The descent into authoritarianism continues apace in the United States, where Donald Trump went on a tirade against NBC News last week for publishing stories about him that he doesn’t like. Repeatedly, Trump suggested that NBC have its broadcast licenses revoked for all the “fake news” that it publishes.

Leaving aside the fact that television networks are not licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (broadcast licenses are awarded to individual radio and TV stations) and thus Trump (again) doesn’t know what he’s talking about, such vitriol from the nation’s chief executive should alarm any American who has actually read the U.S. Constitution. No surprise, then, that several members of Congress and many others have called out Trump for his attack on the First Amendment, and there’s even a case to be made that Trump’s ignorant threats already run afoul of it.

Over at the FCC, both Democratic Commissioners haven’t remained silent in the face of this bluster. Mignon Clyburn low-key responded in tweet-form, commenting that the only way TV stations might see their licenses revoked at Trump’s behest is if “we fail to abide by the First Amendment.” It bears noting that Clyburn may be mulling a run for elected office, so she’s obviously playing this close to the vest.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was just reappointed to the FCC for another term after a short hiatus, has been much more forceful. Not only has she castigated Trump on social media, but she’s also gone on CNN and told media reporter Brian Stelter that “History won’t be kind to silence. I think it’s important for all the Commissioners to make clear that they support the First Amendment, and that the agency will not revoke a broadcast license simply because the president is dissatisfied with the licensee’s coverage.” Read More