Recent decisions by the Federal Communications Commission and a federal appeals court are likely to unleash another round of media consolidation that will put even more constraints on journalists and threaten media access and diversity.

In February, a federal appeals court took the side of giant media companies and ruled that the Federal Commun-ications Commission had to reconsider limits on the number of local TV stations one network can own, and it struck down the FCC rule prohibiting cable companies from owning TV stations. The FCC, however, is not likely to mount a vigorous challenge. In fact, the agency and its chairman, Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell) are quickly moving ahead with their own plans to re-regulate the media in favor of the biggest operators. Had the court not intervened, it's likely that the FCC would have gone ahead and watered down or eliminated the ownership limits sometime this year. Media critics and consumer advocates who closely follow the agency warn us that other public interest measures, including the important "cross-ownership" rule-the rule that prevents one company from owning a TV station and daily newspaper in the same city-might be next on the FCC's hit list (note: Wolfe Enterprises, owner of WBNS-TV, and the Columbus Dispatch is exempt from this rule due to "grandfather" clauses).

The court decision could remove a major obstacle that was blocking the networks, especially CBS and Fox, which had just acquired the maximum number of stations, from buying more properties. If permitted to continue their shopping spree, the networks could end up with dozens of new stations, perhaps several in Ohio, which would give them enormous control over local news and entertainment programming and access to more advertising revenue.

The ruling could also clear the way for cable companies such as AOL-Time Warner and AT&T-Comcast to merge with a network or buy a chain of local TV stations-maybe even both. AOL-TW, the largest media company in the world, already controls numerous cable channels, including HBO, CNN, TBS, TNT, and Cinemax, and has major interests in publishing, movies, music, and professional sports. Adding a TV network or a few dozen local stations to its arsenal would allow the company to promote its various entertainment offerings across all channels and programs, including news broadcasts, at all hours of the day.

Less than a month after the appeals court decision, on March 14, the FCC voted to give cable (broadband) Internet services an exemption from "open access" requirements that currently apply to telephone companies offering Internet service. This decision, which is being challenged by a collection of consumer groups and Internet Service Providers, would allow the cable giants to effectively block smaller, independent ISPs from competing in the lucrative cable Internet market. And guess who would benefit most from this decision? The same companies celebrating the recent court ruling-AOL-Time Warner and AT&T-Comcast.

It should be noted that AOL-Time Warner was the biggest media donor to U.S. political campaigns between 1993 and 2000, shelling out more than 4.6 million dollars. AT&T-Comcast was no slouch either, filling campaign coffers with 1.8 million dollars over the same time period. Perhaps this explains why Congress has been virtually silent about the recent rule changes.

In lobbying against open access, the major cable companies said the requirements would slow down the broadband deployment process. They wouldn't be able to spread the technology to the masses efficiently if they had to unbundle and share their services, so the argument went. However, as law professor Lawrence Lessig points out in his recent book, The Future of Ideas, this argument crumbles when one looks just north of the US border. In Canada, open access principles have been the norm for cable broadband networks and deployment has proceeded at a much quicker pace than in the US. We should also be aware, as Lessig is, that "never in the history of telecom-munications has a network voluntarily been opened after being closed." Once the damage is done, it is nearly irreversible.

In addition to getting more control over access to broadband networks, the FCC's action will also give cable companies more control over where customers go once they connect. As it stands now, the Internet is a basically a neutral platform. That is, messages are treated equally as they are routed through cyberspace; traffic jams are resolved without regard to the content of a message or the addresses of the sender and receiver. However, in the absence of public interest protections, nothing can stop the network operators from changing protocols-the agreements between computers that facilitate data transfer-in order to speed up delivery of favored content or slow down the flow of "undesirable" content, meaning content that is not produced by their subsidiaries or corporate partners. A cable Internet customer wanting to connect to alternative news outlets, educational web sites, or non-profit groups might encounter longer download times and other obstacles getting to their destination. Conversely, non-profit groups, schools and independent news services may have to make expensive upgrades to their web sites and servers before they can be bumped up to a faster lane of traffic.

In short, the dismantling of open access rules is a 180-degree turn away from the principles upon which the Internet and the World Wide Web were built. Early designers saw the Net and its components as technologies that could decentralize communication, putting control in more hands thus making computers a tool for person-to-person dialogue rather than corporate or government monologue. Even after most of the Internet's basic infrastructure was privatized in the mid 90s, there was still hope that the medium would help democratize communication and, at a certain level, it has done that. Progressives can look at the development and growth of Znet, Indymedia, Common Dreams and other online news sites as proof. However, this democratization has depended upon easy access to the Net's pipelines and the neutral design of the platform. Clearly the vertically integrated media giants and the FCC do not share that vision. What they want instead is an Internet with totally different architecture, one than concentrates power in the center, in the hands of the network operators, the Hollywood studios, the major music labels, the corporate news web sites, and the media cartel that owns them.

As bad as all this sounds, there's still a chance that the FCC's new regulatory scheme could be halted, but only if a substantial political resistance starts now. Media scholar Robert W. McChesney recently argued (The Nation Jan. 7/14), that the time has come for a bold new media reform movement to begin. This movement must not only confront FCC policy and Congressional inaction in the short term, it must also look broadly at the structure of our media system and fight for genuine democratic change in the long term. McChesney and suggests that a good place to start is within the various progressive, grassroots organizations already working on environmental, political, and economic justice issues-talent and resources in alternative media should be tapped too. If these groups can put media reform on their agenda, or move it up a notch, and mobilize supporters to apply pressure, progress is possible. It clearly won't be an easy struggle but when you consider that the agenda of the powerful media owners and the FCC does not include the public interest, there's really no other choice.

Chris Shumway worked in TV news for 15 years, including 41/2 years at WBNS-TV. He is currently working on a Master's Degree in Media Studies from the New School University and doing research for a book on media ethics.

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