Telecom Deregulation or Attack on Democracy?

By Howard Rheingold

America is on the threshold of a power-shift.

America is on the threshold of a power-shift. Sadly, few American citizens are aware that the the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995 in the Senate (S. 652) and the Communications Act of 1995 in the House (H.R. 1555), now heading toward a final vote, will determine the kind of democracy our children grow up in, the kinds of businesses citizens will engage in, and the ways we will be allowed to communicate with one another, for decades to come.

Technologies have changed faster than laws have adjusted, but the laws are catching up. The rules are being changed. New fortunes, new industries, new media, new power-centers are going to emerge from the new rules. The way the American Congress decides to deregulate the telephone, television, and computer networking industries will determine who wins and who loses as these industries and technologies converge.

For the past sixty years, fortunes have been determined and the quality of our democracy has been influenced by the Communications Act of 1934, which set up the FCC and built the legal infrastructure we have used ever since for weighing public good versus private interests. For the past year, complex, technical, and underreported Congressional committees and votes have shaped the legislation that will influence the next sixty years.

Now is the time to speak up, before the final votes. There is plenty to speak up about.

The legislation as it stands is badly flawed. The proposed law moves us too far in the direction of monopoly and censorship, in the direction of reducing the number of owners of America's (and the world's) communication media to a few giant multinational corporations, and it sets up a Federal mind-control bureaucracy with the power to enforce "decency" standards on the communications of citizens.

As the final form of the Act moves toward passage, we are approaching the last moments when citizens will be able to voice our opinions. After the media conglomerates of the world finalize the deals with the national governments of the world, the voice of citizens will lose what leverage it has now.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a public-interest organization , has issued a statement that:

"There are four major problems in the bill:
  • It allows oligopolies to form that control the information we receive on radio, television, newspapers, and electronic networks.
  • It allows gaps to widen between segments of society (rich and poor, educated and uneducated).
  • It censors public discussion on electronic networks.
  • It lets rates rise too fast and too much."

The objections CPSR raises are serious, especially if you look a decade in the future, when today's new media technologies (and industrial empires) mature. First, the proposed bill will encourage the current trendtoward concentration of ownership in the information and communication industries, a situation that will be unhealthy for citizens (and rate-payers). On the censorship front, an extremist minority led by the religious right is grabbing the power to limit the expression of other citizens. The vehicle for the would-be mind police ls the notorious "Communications Decency Act" that would make certain forms of online communication felonious, including forms of communication that can not be constrained if they are expressed as speech or print. CPSR's final objection is vitally important, even though few want to think about it: unless provisions are made now for providing access to the poor and uneducated, and unless rates are kept at a level that a majority of the population can afford, the democratic and economic potential of the much-vaunted "information superhighway" will remain limited to a wealthy elite.

Stay in touch via The Center for Media Education web page about the bill. Read and redistribute the complete text of the CPSR analysis (including a list of key Senators and Representatives to contact).

Rep Gingrich's fax: 1-202-225-4656. Sen Dole's fax: 202-228-1245.

The proposed legislation is not good business and not good democracy. It should not become law. Let Congress know that a few citizens aren't asleep at the wheel.

Last modified November 13, 1995.
Tomorrow | Brainstorms
What's New & Rheingoldian?