6 November 1995
A bill that will change the way we use telephones, television, and electronic networks is currently being considered by the U.S. Congress. The bill claims to promote industry growth, competition, and technological progress, but may well simply end up reducing diversity and public debate. It also sets precedents that we expect to be mirrored in other countries. So non-U.S. residents also have good reason to be concerned with the outcome of this bill.
There are four major problems in the bill:
But we may still have time to make significant changes.
Why is the telecom bill important?
The intent of the bill
What we want
What to do now
For more information
Redistributing this document
Local telephone companies are allowed to enter the long-distance market too soon, before competition is likely to enter their traditional local market. Local telephone users may end up bearing the costs of expansion.
The bill allows cooperation between companies that should be competitors, assuming that abuses will be stopped by anti-trust laws that are not adequate or appropriate for this kind of oversight.
In a direct blow to diversity, the bill raises the percentage of national audience that a single person or company can reach from 25% to 35%. A larger foreign ownership of broadcast media is also permitted. Limits are removed on the number of radio stations that an individual can own. The bill makes it easier for broadcasters to keep their licenses indefinitely, without the hearings that are currently held. Finally, it gives existing broadcasters a large amount of unused television spectrum, instead of opening up the spectrum in an auction.
Moreover, while there are some sections supporting access for schools and public agencies, these are vague and need stronger guarantees. Public libraries, the traditional place where all members of the public can get information, are given special rates in the Senate bill but not the House.
Given the open nature of networks such as the Internet, restrictions on sending material that children might look at ends up keeping everyone from speaking freely. The fear of being caught in the law’s net will force many networks to shut down. Thus, the free flow of views we now have on the information highway could be replaced by a controlled set of ideas dished out by corporate broadcasters and monitored by prosecutors all over the country.
By approving censorship, the Senate rejected a petition signed by 107,000 Internet users. The House voted overwhelmingly to reject government censorship, but sections imposing it were inserted into the bill almost at the last minute as part of a complicated amendment.
We do not dismiss the concerns of parents who want to shield their children from inappropriate material. The whole point is that each parent defines what is “inappropriate” differently. There are more flexible and effective ways to screen what children see, than to have the government impose censorship on everybody.
In other media, states can let rates for services rise with little justification. Both the Department of Justice and the FCC are severely restricted in their traditional powers to review competition and rates.
As mentioned under Problem 2, rates are not regulated for advanced information services. These services could end up costing far more than necessary, just as cable TV companies now charge premiums for popular channels. Loopholes allow companies that own media (cables and phone lines) to charge artificially high rates to others who wish to lease them, or restrict the people leasing them to ineffective competitors.
Electronic media cover a range of giant industries, including radio, broadcast and cable TV, telephone companies, wireless communications and satellites, computer networks, and traditional news and publishing companies that are moving online. The category even touches on financial institutions and electrical utilities.
The industries involved are eager to loosen restrictions on their behavior. They have poured large sums of money into influencing Congress, and lobbied intensively for the current versions of the bill: 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). Unfortunately for the public, in removing these restrictions the telecom bill also removes historic protection for diversity of opinion and reasonable rates.
Many broadcasting and telecommunications companies seem to view their customers purely as consumers of entertainment or information. But we want individuals and institutions to generate content as well as receive it.
We want to see advances in telecom increase public debate on important issues, provide a wealth of culture, and increase our links with one another. If Congress takes its role seriously in managing communications as a public resource, industry growth is quite compatible with universal service and providing an infrastructure for democracy. But currently, we see this bill restricting options and opportunities.
Write to your own legislators, to the people on the joint committee, to Senator Robert Dole and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and to President Clinton. Make the points listed in the What we want section of this paper. If the bill is not substantially changed in the right direction, write to President Clinton and ask for a veto.
Familiarize yourself with how your representatives voted, and tell your friends and colleagues about it. Let them know that this bill will affect them, and ask them to write too. Contact your local newspaper and ask them to cover the bill. Distribute this document to people you know and to key people in your community.
Online, you can read some World Wide Web pages and join several mailing lists that distribute information and discuss the telecom bill.
mail to: LISTSERV@CPSR.ORG
Put in body of message: SUBSCRIBE CYBER-RIGHTS your name
mail to: LISTPROC@CNI.ORG
Put in body of message: SUBSCRIBE ROUNDTABLE your name
mail to: LISTPROC@VTW.ORG
Put in Subject line of message: SUBSCRIBE VTW-ANNOUNCE your name
mail to: LISTSERVER@RELAY.DOIT.WISC.EDU
Put in body of message: SUBSCRIBE TELECOMREG your name
mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Request to be added to the mailing list (mail is read by a person)
This paper was written by Andy Oram with help from members of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and other people in the public interest community. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility has been in educating the public and the government for 12 years in the socially safe and beneficial use of computers and related technologies. Special thanks goes to Craig Johnson of Transnational Data Reporting Service, Inc. for his expert analysis of the bill. Copyright is held by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.