by Latoya Peterson
The FCC is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a huge merger between Comcast and NBC Universal, which would create a new media mega-corporation. This has brought quite a bit of controversy over the future of the web, with many digital justice activists protesting the increase of corporate control over the web.
Angry Asian Man reports on an unexpected silver lining: the FCC has proposed that Comcast and NBC must improve diversity if they are going to complete the deal, to ensure minority broadcasters are not left out. According to ABC News:
Public interest groups have urged the Obama administration to reject the deal. They fear Comcast might charge other cable distributors higher fees to transmit NBC Universal-owned content, leading to higher cable bills, fewer independent programing choices and less competition.
Comcast said in agreements filed with the FCC that it would add four new cable networks either owned or partly owned by African-Americans within eight years if the deal goes through.
It would also expand an existing channel carrying Asian-American programing to more markets, or create a new English-language channel that caters to Asian-American interests.
More diversity on major networks is definitely something to celebrate, but I’m not so sure this is the major step forward as some are quick to claim.
Most of what I’ve heard about the merger has been from the net neutrality aspect. Back in August, Colorlines broke down why it was so important to keep an eye on Comcast:
The fight started because those scary scenarios about blocking and slowing traffic aren’t merely speculative. In 2005, Comcast blocked its users from sharing BitTorrents, which are popular ways to send and receive large files. The company claimed that it was preventing its users from committing copyright infringement, since the file-sharing platforms are often associated with quick and easy ways to get free music and movies.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stepped in and ruled that no Internet service provider could block or interfere with user traffic—unless it was for “reasonable network management purposes.” Comcast challenged the ruling and this year a federal court overturned it, finding that the FCC didn’t have the authority to regulate broadband in the first place.
The court ruling has added yet another layer to the debate. The FCC is scrambling to regain its regulatory authority. That authority actually began eroding years ago, when a conservative majority of commissioners ruled that broadband be treated differently from landline phone and TV services, which are seen as essential to every household and therefore subject to federal oversight.
Meanwhile, service providers have argued vehemently against net neutrality regulations, saying that any formal rules would stifle competition and innovation—which would in turn keep prices up and limit broadband expansion into poor and rural communities.
So the issue on the table Tuesday is really a continuation of an earlier move – what right do large service providers have to restrict access for certain users?
The Comcast site even dips into the debate, explaining in a roundabout way that space online is limited, and most companies are making moves to ensure that there will be enough bandwidth for all our phones and devices. However, they seek to control content providers, with far reaching impacts:
Level 3 Communications, a company that helps Netflix Inc stream videos online, has accused Comcast of charging it unfair fees to deliver content to Comcast subscribers.
(As a Comcast customer – they have a chokehold on my area – I find it interesting this is happening. On Demand now promotes their movies by saying “Get it 28 days sooner than on Netflix!” so if I was Level 3/Netflix, I’d be pissed too.)
In addition to higher fees for certain types of content, there is the looming threat of “paid prioritization” – essentially the idea that certain content providers can pay more for more access and faster speed, which means smaller sites may be left to fight for the remaining scraps of slower, free bandwidth.
Senator Al Franken is not having it:
Just days before the FCC’s scheduled Tuesday morning vote on net neutrality, Franken blasted Genachowski for offering too many breaks to communications giants. “Let’s be clear. This is not real net neutrality,” the lawmaker said during the rare Saturday session. “This is the first time the FCC has allowed discrimination on the Internet,” he warned, referring to provisions that would let corporations pay for faster transmissions, creating Internet toll lanes.
The proposed rules, he further complained, would allow dominant wireless providers to block access to various applications, such as Google Maps. “I sincerely hope that the FCC will make significant improvements” before the Tuesday vote, he demanded.
While I am thrilled we will get some new programming out of the deal, I don’t feel like that’s a good trade or compromise. Comcast-NBCU agreed to create the networks within four years. They have yet to say what type of support the networks will be given, or if they feel any obligation to stick with these networks until they are financially viable. They also agreed fairly quickly to creating more networks and the formation of “a diversity advisory board” – but the creation of these things has historically been a smokescreen for large corporations to hide behind, not avenues to lasting, institutional change.
The vote on Tuesday is impossible to call – there are too many factors in play. However, this is one of those decisions that is ripe with unintended consequences, and we should all keep our eyes and ears open.