FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former telecom industry lobbyist, has proposed a new set of rules that will allow Internet service providers to charge web publishers extra for preferential treatment - giving them a fast lane on the Internet highway.
"Large websites like Fox News could pay for priority service to ride in the fast lane and reach more people online—while independent blogs like Daily Kos, nonprofits, small businesses and any website that can’t afford it will be left out in the cold," says Paul Hogarth, Daily Kos.
The Internet is rapidly supplanting TV, radio and newspapers as the main source of news and information. More than half of Americans get their information from Internet sources, and the rate is even higher for young people.
Yet, the Internet is not regarded as a common carrier, with a vital role in the public interest as well as public ownership of air waves, as are broadcast and the telephone communications.
And increasingly, our access to information as well as programming that shapes our culture and values, is in the control of a handful of corporate conglomerates whose allegiance is to profit, not to public interest, and who use their power over media to impact the political landscape.
If this sounds like the continuing of a pattern in this country where income inequality is growing exponentially abetted by policies which establish that corporations are people, money is speech, and wealth and power are increasingly interlinked - you would be right.
One can conceive in the not too distant future when there are minimal services at the "basic" level, with everything else having to pay premium rates, and those who can't pay, not gaining access at all. Soon after, there could be blackouts as the ISPs (like the cable companies) shut down whole content providers for refusing to come up with higher premiums (recall how the Academy Awards were blacked out when a network refused to pay Cablevision's increased rates).
"Taken to an extreme, their actions could result in political bloggers, news outlets, and even organizations like Democracy For America being silenced because the powers that be don't like our message -- or because we can't pay their sky-high rates," writes Charles Chamberlain, Executive Director, Democracy for America, who notes that a key reason Vermont Governor Howard Dean was able to run a credible campaign for president was because of the internet.
"Net Neutrality is about more than paying extra to stream your favorite show on Netflix. It's about preserving the last free, equal, and open forum in our democracy.
"We've already seen the wealthy try to take control of our democracy. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon have changed the rules of campaign finance, heavily favoring rich donors at the expense of people like you and me.
"The corporate attack on Net Neutrality is driven by the same billionaires, for the same reasons. The Internet has been crucial to building progressive power in America. Without it, we would have been defeated by corporate cash long ago. The billionaires want to control the Internet and tilt the playing field in their favor. They want the Internet to be like television, where only those who can afford to spend a lot of money are able to deliver their message.
"The Internet thrives as a medium for political discourse -- and as a way to level the playing field between the 1% and the 99% -- because it is free and open. It doesn't matter how much money you make or how many lobbyists you can hire. If you can come up with a good idea or a compelling message, it can spread online.
"It's this same openness that has made the Internet a medium for growth and job creation among 21st century industries, keeping thousands of Americans employed at the same time as many sectors of our economy are shedding jobs. That's why one of the most effective ways to go on offense against income inequality is to take action to save a free and open internet."
The rules overturning net neutrality has to be considered in context, which over time has resulted in the consolidation of media to a handful of self-serving entities with the power to control everything we know, see, believe.
This is thanks to a series of decisions going back to the Reagan era when the Fairness Doctrine was overturned and corporate consolidation was unleashed.
Before that, there was the recognition going back to Thomas Jefferson that a free and open media was vital to the preservation of democracy - after all, how can you have an educated citizenry if there is no way to get information in which to make voting decisions.
In 1969, The Supreme Court's ruling also affirmed the public interest in preventing monopolization of media: "It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the government itself or a private licensee. It is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral and other ideas and experiences which is crucial here. That right may not constitutionally be abridged either by Congress or by the FCC."
Regardless, in 1987, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, "with the exception of the personal attack and political editorializing rules."
The Supreme Court also reversed its 1969 decision in order to let the FCC's rule to stand. In a decision that echoes the rationale for overturning Voting rights Act, it wrote, "we no longer believe that the fairness doctrine, as a matter of policy, serves the public interest."
This ruling is what made Rush Limbaugh and right-wing radio possible.
And this week, the Supreme Court which loves money in politics, is hearing a case that would basically make it perfectly okay to run a political campaign based on lies - it has already ruled that it is okay for news organizations to deliberately lie.
Under the Bush Administration, the FCC (chaired by Michael Powell, son of Colin Powell) overturned rules prohibiting cross-ownership of a broadcast TV station and daily newspaper in the same market, enabling Rupert Murdoch to take over the New York City media market (New York Post, Fox TV, cable news, Wall Street Journal) - is it any wonder News Corp was so blatantly supportive of Bush and Fox has become a GOP propaganda tool?
The Bush FCC presided over one record media merger after another, having the temerity to argue that the Internet allowed unlimited access to other voices.
"In 1983, the American media was dominated by 50 companies," Sen. Bernie Sanders noted. "Today, media ownership is overwhelmingly concentrated in just six corporations: Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp., Viacom and CBS." These six control 90% of what we reach, watch and listen to.
Now, the FCC is also leaning to allow a merger between Comcast and Time Warner merger, creating an even bigger Biggest Media Conglomerate.
"The Comcast takeover of Time Warner would turn a third of American households into Comcast customers and create a virtual monopoly in 19 of the 20 largest media markets."
The net neutrality decision must be seen in light with the Supreme Court's decision overturning campaign finance limits opening the floodgates to unlimited spending by billionaires and corporations (as well as ruling that it is perfectly okay for campaign ads and news to knowingly lie).
Rupert Murdoch and News Corp were big supporters of George W Bush's election, and directly benefited from its "investment" in his election, winning a very friendly FCC chairman and commissioners who waived rules against cross ownership to allow him to take over TV stations, newspapers and radio in the New York market. Not surprisingly, Murdoch returned the favor in trumpeting Bush's Iraq War and relishes Fox' role as a GOP prop, propagandizing against Obamacare.
Or take the remark of Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom (which was in the midst of mergers and which squashed Dan Rather at CBS for airing the report on George Bush going AWOL): "But from a Viacom standpoint, we believe the election of a Republican administration is better for our company."
Perversely, the FCC has basically justified greater and greater consolidation based on the notion that because of the internet, there are plenty of "independent" voices. But the sheer size - and now the ability to actually control through pricing what goes over the lines (Net Neutrality) means that smaller, independent voices are simply drowned out. They may get an audience among their own followers, but they have little ability to add to the debate.
And if they can control by pricing, that means they can also deny access altogether, though, to appease opponents who fear ISPs will discriminate, the FCC is replacing the “unreasonable discrimination” clause from the original net neutrality rules that were defeated in court this year with standards associated with “commercial reasonableness," reports Stacey Higginbotham.
Is it any wonder that politics is treated as entertainment? That instead of issues, campaigns are described as political horse races? That polls are more important than policy?
"This kind of corporate “news” is noxious to democracy, putting the goal of revenue over any pretence of enlightenment," Mark Karlin, Editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout writes. Truthout is one of the nonprofit entities that have arisen struggling to be an alternative, independent voice, raising money through donations. (Others include American Prospect, Nation of Change, Daily Kos and Democracy Now.)
"These programs numb their viewers into thinking that the discussion of political personalities and gridlock in DC is news, when it is really only self-inflated blather. The rule of thumb is not to delve too deeply into any topic of public policy substance, because that might anger an advertiser or the corporation that owns the network."
The news business used to have a separation of news and advertising akin to the separation of church and state. This is no longer true.
But it is also the ability of money to dominate advertising, especially because of the Supreme Court's Citizen United and McCutcheon decisions.
The expense of access to monopolistic media markets gives a huge advantage to billionaires like the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson who can afford to buy up all the media time to prop up their candidate and defame an opponent or advance a political agenda (end taxes, repeal Obamacare, do nothing about climate change).
What is the recourse for a candidate that isn't a billionaire or isn't in the pocket of monied interests? They are increasingly using social media and the Internet.
Youtube, for example. Candidates make clever commercials hoping they will go viral - like the long-shot Republican candidate for Senate, Joni Ernst, whose Youtube commercial dubbed, "Squeal" has given her priceless exposure.
“I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.” Ernst says at the end she approved the ad “because Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make them squeal.”
Now imagine that ISPs can charge a premium to Youtube and Netflix, which has become its own content producer - somebody has to pay the difference - if not advertisers or producers, then consumers through their fees.
Cable subscriptions and smart phone bills are already stratospheric. How is the common man, barely able to pay both the rent and food bill, able to afford access to vital information? In the near future, news "papers" will not be in paper form at all, but will be digital, will and that means that people will have to pay fees to ISP. Broadcast TV is no longer free - because it is digital, you have to have a cable subscription even to access the most basic service.
Now, an entrenched and successful entities like Youtube and Netflix might not mind the extra fees because they have an established base of advertisers and subscribers to go to for higher fees, and may welcome this obstacle to new competitors.
But the difference in fees will make it harder for the next Youtube, the next Facebook or the next Netflix to ever get traction - they simply could not compete if their fledgling content downloads so slow as to be irritating to any viewer.
It's not just political reporting, though, it is the way these few companies can shape the cultural landscape and lay a foundation for values and beliefs by control over what content is produced and delivered. Especially entertainment which is acculturizing, even propagandist, in the service of a political agenda.
Take the program "24" for example, and how it was constantly trumpeted by Congressmen (and Cheney) as justifying torture.
Think about the 1950s, and how the prevailing culture proscribed that women not pursue careers but stay at home (in order to open up jobs for the returning World War II veterans); their role was to be in the kitchen, preferably barefoot and pregnant, be subservient to their husbands. and not incidentally, purchase all the latest appliances. Think about the popular 1950s shows, "Father Knows Best," "Leave it to Beaver," "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Donna Reed Show."
Think about how the media glamorized cigarette smoking, objectifying women, selling cars and a "keeping up with the Joneses" attitude ("Mad Men" does an excellent job of recreating that time.)
The media prescribed what women should wear, how they should look, what they should value - But the media also showed its power to change cultural mores with programs like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and shaped how we view African Americans ("The Cosby Show"), unmarried mothers ("Murphy Brown") and gays ("Will & Grace").
As Vice President Joe Biden said on "Meet the Press," when he explained his conversion to acceptance of same-sex marriage, "When things really began to change is when the social culture changes. I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”
And just as TV has become all-digital - meaning that it is no longer freely delivered over the public airwaves and you have to pay for some sort of subscription in order to get it by cable or satellite- pretty soon, it will be delivered over the internet, as well, meaning that these ISPs will control content.
That means you won't have access to information unless you have a permanent address, a bank account, and an internet account or subscription.
The issues of a media in the control of monied interests instead of the public interest is the concern of a newly formed Long Island Media Task Force.
"Talk Radio has become dominated by right-wing extremists. Television has been reduced to Info-tainment, primarily beholden to commercial ratings," declares Janine Melillo, one of the founders. "The Internet is the last uncensored, and mostly un-commercialized, pipeline of information for 'We The People'. It's also our last forum for public discussion and debates and our democracy on the issues that matter to us most."
She points people to a one-stop-shop action page has everything you need to fight bad Net Neutrality rules, big cable mergers, surveillance: savetheinternet.com/what-can-i-do.
“Under this terribly misguided proposal, the Internet as we have come to know it would cease to exist and the average American would be the big loser," U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) states. "We must not let private corporations turn bigger and bigger profits by putting a price tag on the free flow of ideas.
“Our free and open Internet has made invaluable contributions to democracy both here in the United States and around the world. Whether you are rich, poor, young or old, the Internet allows all people to seek out information and communicate globally. We must not turn over our democracy to the highest bidder.”
Thanks to the Supreme Court and the FCC, increasingly, the adage "Money Talks" would be truer than ever.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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