After two years of President Barack Obama, where are we on network neutrality, and the rights of minority communities to fight the digital redlining of our communities which lies at the core of the telecom business model? If the president didn't deliver when he had a majority in Congress, what can we expect from his White House and FCC in the next two years?
“It was a two year period in which Obama entered office with the wind at his back, with overwhelming public approval and thumping majorities in both houses of Congress.”
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama declared he would take a back seat to nobody when it came to advocating a free and open internet. As candidate and as president, Obama uses the phrases “net neutrality” and “internet neutrality” freely and knows what they mean. He promised to appoint an FCC Chairman who shared his views.
A full two years after his election, heading into the lame duck session of Congress, we must assume the president still knows what net neutrality is, and that his FCC Chairman shares the president's views. But it looks like the president lied to us about what those views were.
For the last two years, the network neutrality ball has been in President Obama's court, and he hasn't touched it. Federal courts held during the previous administration that first cable companies, and later phone companies had the right to decide who and what could access “their” networks, and under which terms, even though these networks were invented by engineers and scientists on the government dime in the 70s and 80s, practically given away to the telecoms in 90s, and expanded with tens of billions in corporate welfare subsidies and tax breaks since. For the last two years, network neutrality advocates have waited for President Obama's FCC to officially declare it has the right and duty to regulate the internet for the public good.
It was a two year period in which Obama entered office with the wind at his back, with overwhelming public approval and thumping majorities in both houses of Congress. It was the best opportunity, if the administration ever intended such a thing, to mobilize public opinion against the greed and encroaching power of the telecom industry. It was, if we take the promises for granted as sincere an opportunity wasted.
An FCC declaration of authority over broadband internet and cable networks would be far from the end of the story. It would in fact mark a new beginning. The FCC would have to craft regulations. The president and his Congressional majority could propose laws that might extend the FCC's authority in this regard. If a majority of Congress disagreed with the president and the FCC, they too could try to pass legislation telling the FCC what it can and cannot do, and how. The president and his supporters could appeal to the public, and the courts too would have the chance to weigh in again. But most importantly, definitive presidential and FCC declarations might bring on what the telecoms and their allies fear most: an open public debate on telecommunications, cable, internet and media policies.
It's not just that the presidential candidate who needed our votes smiled at us, told us what we wanted to hear, and now intends to forget those promises. It's far worse than that. By owning the media, and managing broadcast airwaves, cable, telephone and internet networks as their private property, telecommunications companies have become the literal owners of our public and even our private conversation. Communities have no right to hear their own voices if some telecom executives can't reap a profit.
“And there is the 800 pound gorilla in the room: the pending Comcast-NBC merger...”
Broadcasters can decide, for instance, that BET, Black Evil Television, along with corporate hip-hop, gospel, TV One, syndicated infotainment talk and oldies are the totality of the African American voice. So they did. Broadcasters can follow the lead of print newspapers, who claim the internet made them do it, closing down their foreign bureaus and radically shrinking their news gathering operations to become more profitable. And they have done just that. Broadcasters can fill the empty air with entertainment news, with talking pundit heads recycling press releases from government and industry disguised as news. And that too, is the way it is.
There's also the fact that Obama's FCC Chair, Julius Genakowski is a longtime telecom lobbyist, who had a hand in writing the notorious Telecommunications Act of 1996. That law auctioned off the government-built internet to telecoms for pennies on the dollar, and lifted the ca`p on how many TV and radio stations any single owner could have in any single market, or nationally.
And there is the 800 pound gorilla in the room: the pending Comcast-NBC merger, which would place a large fraction of the internet backbone into the hands of one of the biggest producers of corporate content, a staggering vertical monopoly with endless potential for abuse. Though the merger has been pending since the opening days of the Obama administration, the president's FCC and Department of Justice are silent as sphinxes on the matter, while Comcast is raining money on members of Congress, and black and Latino advocacy groups such as LULAC, the Urban League and the NAACP. Can this notoriously corporate-friendly president ever bring himself to say no to Comcast-NBC?
It doesn't take rocket science to predict what the craven and corporate-friendly Obama administration wants to do. The president is already doing what he intends to do. His telecom lobbyist-in-chief at the FCC isn't opposing the Comcast-NBC merger because the president doesn't intend to. There's no assertion of FCC authority over the internet because President Obama won't choose the public interest over corporate interests here either, any more than he has done anyplace else. The president can stall another month, and a new Congress will be in town. Then he can crow a little, but not too loudly or forcefully, about being for internet neutrality again, but how tea party Republicans in the Congress are holding it up. That's what the president has done, and what we can reasonably expect he'll do.
The question now is what will what was once thought of as the movement for media justice do. Will it hold its breath another year, waiting to be noticed by the president? Will it forget its own problems and come together to re-elect Barack Obama for a second term? After all, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin are worse, right?
Bruce Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the Green Party in Georgia. He's based in Marietta GA and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareort,.com.