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2014-05-20

Sen. Al Franken: Media Mega-Mergers and FCC Rollback of Net Neutrality Threaten Democracy

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Major developments in recent days could shape the nation’s media landscape for years to come. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission advanced a proposal that critics say threatens net neutrality, the concept of a free and open Internet. The new rules could allow Internet "fast lanes" where companies pay providers for faster access to consumers. That sparked a wave of protest from opponents who say the rules hand too much power to the major companies who can afford to shell out, consolidating their control at the expense of smaller competitors and consumers’ monthly bills. Similar concerns have been raised about a merger deal struck over the weekend. The telecom giant AT&T has agreed to buy satellite television operator DirecTV in a nearly $50 billion deal. The move comes just months after Comcast announced plans to merge with Time Warner Cable. We are joined by one of the leading voices on Capitol Hill challenging media consolidation, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We begin with major developments that could shape the nation’s media landscape for years to come. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission advanced a proposal that critics say threatens net neutrality, the concept of a free and open Internet. The new rules could allow Internet "fast lanes" where companies pay providers for faster access to consumers. That sparked a wave of protest from opponents, who say the rules hand too much power to the major companies who can afford to shell out, consolidating their control at the expense of smaller competitors and consumers’ monthly bills.

Similar concerns have been raised about a merger deal struck over the weekend. The telecom giant AT&T has agreed to buy satellite television operator DirecTV in a nearly $50 billion deal. The move comes just months after Comcast announced plans to merge with Time Warner Cable.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to one of the leading voices on Capitol Hill challenging media consolidation: Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. He serves on the Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Franken joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Senator Franken.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the latest decision by the FCC?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I was very unhappy with that vote. It was—Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, had—it had kind of been leaked out a couple weeks prior to this that he was open to a fast lane, meaning that—the antithesis of net neutrality. Net neutrality has been the architecture of the Internet from the very beginning. What it means is it treats all digital content, all content that comes across the Internet to you, the consumer, through the Internet service providers, is all treated the same, is all treated equally or neutrally. And that has led to all this innovation that we’ve had over all these years on the Internet. And what Chairman Wheeler is talking about is allowing a fast lane, and it would be deep-pocketed corporations that would be able to buy this. And so, information would come to viewers from big corporations faster, or consumers. And this really would hurt innovation, and it has freedom of speech issues.

Let me give you just an example of why this—all information traveling the same has led to innovation. Years ago, there was a thing called Google Video, and it wasn’t very good. And the guys who created YouTube did it in—over a pizzeria in San Mateo, California. It’s a better product, and because it was—allowed travel the same speed as the Google product, people got to see it. And they sampled it, and they liked it better, and so we have YouTube. And in the same way, we’ve had all this explosion of innovation over the Internet because of net neutrality.

In the same way, this threatens democracy, something I know you’re interested in. And because right now your show travels as fast as Fox News, travels as fast as The New York Times, someone blogging right now not liking what I’m saying could do this—you know, can do that and get it up as fast as any other piece of information. If you have a fast lane for corporate news and corporate information and corporate content, that threatens our very democracy.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Senator Franken, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler has denied claims he is abandoning net neutrality.

COMMISSIONER TOM WHEELER: Those who oppose the idea of net neutrality might feel like a celebration is in order. Reports that we’re gutting the open Internet are incorrect. I’m here to say to you, wait a minute, put away the party hats. The open Internet rules will be tough, will be enforceable, and, with the concurrence of my colleagues, will be in effect with dispatch.

AARON MATÉ: That’s FCC Chair Tom Wheeler speaking last month at Cable Show 2014, the cable industry’s largest trade show. Of course, he, himself, was a former cable industry lobbyist. Senator Franken, now, according to Wheeler’s proposal, these content deals could be done if they’re, quote, "commercially reasonable." What do you understand that to mean? And do you trust the FCC’s vow that they’re going to review these cases individually?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: Well, one, I don’t know what that means, and so that’s a problem. And, two, I don’t trust the FCC’s ability to do this. The FCC could do something very simple: It can just categorize the Internet as a telecommunications service. It would give it the authority to enforce net neutrality. And that would be as simple as that, and they could just do that. There was a lot of pushback a few weeks—over the last several weeks, when he—when it was first leaked that he was talking about a fast lane. I don’t see how you can do a fast lane and not undermine the whole concept of net neutrality. I just don’t see it. You know, there’s going to be a comment period now, so maybe we will learn more about what he means. That content, by the way, as I was listening to it, did seem to travel very slowly.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Franken, Michael Powell is now head of the NCTA, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which is the cable industry’s largest lobbying group. He, of course—his target is net neutrality, opposing net neutrality. But Tom Wheeler, who is President Obama’s nominee, was the head of the major—this largest cable lobby. What was expected? And do you think President Obama should now fire Tom Wheeler? He’s the one who appointed him.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: Well, I believe that the president did make a pledge before he became president to keep net neutrality in place. And I really do think he should honor that. So, you know—and Powell was the one who categorized—in 2002, when he was FCC chair, he categorized the Internet as an information service. Again, all we need to do is just change it to a telecommunications service, and it gives the FCC the—all the right—every authority it needs to protect net neutrality. But as you can see, this sort of revolving door is kind of disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: They’ve switched places, but they seem to be doing the same job. So, how—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: In the Senate, who are your allies? And how does something like this get done, to reclassify it as a common carrier, as a utility?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: Well, during the comment period—you know, he did open up that to discussion in this new preliminary rule. And I think that’s good. And again, I think it was kind of pushback from what he got starting several weeks ago when it kind of leaked out that he was talking about a fast lane. So, he has the authority to do it. The FCC has the authority to just say this is a telecommunications service, which it is—it’s a common carrier—which gives it the authority to enforce net neutrality. And that’s what he should be doing.

AARON MATÉ: Senator Franken, the amount of money that are going into these mega-deals between Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, DirecTV is staggering—$45 billion, Time Warner, Comcast; $48 billion, AT&T and DirecTV. Are you concerned here that we’re creating this business model where basically companies are spending all their money buying each other up instead of investing on infrastructure that could actually bring the U.S. in line with the rest of the world in delivering quality Internet?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: Yes, that’s occurred to me. You know, during the Comcast—latest Comcast hearing, where they’re talking about purchasing, acquiring Time Warner Cable, they said that this deal would spur a lot of what you were talking about—investment in technologies and—and so, the first thing out of the gate and—they say it started a dogfight. The first thing out of the gate is just another big telecommunications giant buying, you know, a big content—not a content provider, but a delivery system, the second-largest pay TV system that we have. So this is really disturbing, is just the whole concentration of media. This will be in the hands of fewer and fewer companies. This is something I warned about in 2010 when we had the Comcast-NBCUniversal deal before us. And I was—I opposed that, as well. And I said this is what’s going to happen. And I was kind of—this is all unfolding in a very disturbing way.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think your colleagues in the Senate are afraid to take these mergers on, because, I mean, these are the media entities that cover them? And what actually—how does it affect the consumer, when—if AT&T merges with DirecTV, Time Warner merges with Comcast?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: It has a bad effect on consumers. I think consumers, as we’ve seen this concentration in media, has paid for it. You’ve seen this past year the cost to consumers has like tripled the rate of inflation; over the last 20 years, more than double the rate—at the rate of inflation. So—and Comcast told its investors that they will leverage their position to make more money, and they have not said this won’t increase the rate that consumers are paying for their services. And so, this is—this is not good for consumers.

As for my colleagues, I think that there’s a lot of skepticism about both of these deals. More—we know more about exactly what Comcast, Time Warner is. We had a hearing. We heard a lot of skepticism. I’m the only one who’s just come out against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable acquisition. I want to look more at what AT&T is. You know, I’m skeptical. I want to look at it a lot more.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chair, said he’s leaving the House to become a radio talk show host. You were a radio talk show host, Senator Franken, and you wrote for Saturday Night Live. What has this transition been like for you going to the Senate? And what advice would you give to Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: Well, I would say, listen to my show, and try to do that, and, you know, to have fun with it and do the best job he can. That would be—and good luck. I think we’re pretty different, where we—you know, how we see things. But, for me, this has been a great transition. This is a job where I can get things done. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s very satisfying when you have wins. And sometime they’re bigger than others. And I’m not—you know, people ask me some version of "Is this being a senator as much fun as working on Saturday Night Live?" And, no, it isn’t, but this is the best job I’ve ever had.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, how does your background in media influence your—well, clearly the strongest position fighting for net neutrality in the Senate right now and opposing these mega-media deals?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I think it has given me a better view on Comcast-NBCUniversal, that acquisition. I had some insight into that and some of the history of authorities given to networks; fin-syn, financial syndication, rules being changed in '89, ’90; and how that led to independent producers being kind of—their production being diminished; and how sometimes the networks don't say, or the owners of the networks don’t say that they’re going to do what they’re going to do. They’re going to act in their own interest. And so, it gave me a better perspective, I think, than other people on the committee. You know, I’m on Judiciary, and obviously we look at antitrust. Amy Klobuchar is the chair of the Antitrust Subcommittee. She is a former prosecutor, very good, very knowledgeable lawyer. I’m not an attorney. I’m not a lawyer. But this experience in this business, I think, has helped me.

AARON MATÉ: And, Senator Franken, back to the FCC’s new rules, now, of course, they’re not set in stone. Now we have the comment period for four months. How important will it be for citizens to speak out during these 120 days?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I think it’s very important. I think that Chairman Wheeler reacted to all the pushback from the leak of his preliminary proposal, or his proposal. And I think it’s very important that we use—skeptics and opponents of this ruling express themselves, use this comment period. I think it’s very, very important.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, while the U.S. was the one that developed the Internet, it now ranks among—below scores of countries for Internet speed and access. The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 35th of 148 countries in Internet bandwidth. Other studies rank it anywhere from 14th to 31st in the average connection speed. Why are we so slow in the United States?

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I think part of it is, is that we didn’t categorize it as telecommunications. I think that would have helped. And I’ve been—you know, my state of Minnesota, we have a lot of rural areas in Minnesota that are underserved. And actually, in the last budget process, I teamed with Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska, to spur more investment in rural broadband. This is something we need to do to keep economically competitive. This is the kind of infrastructure that—when you look at what builds prosperity, you look at education, research and development, and infrastructure. And this is the rural electrification of the 21st century.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Franken, thanks so much for being with us, Democrat of Minnesota, opposes the AT&T and DirecTV deal, is one of the leading congressional voices to challenge corporate consolidation in the U.S. media. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the largest settlement with a bank, criminal settlement, in U.S. history. It’s with Credit Suisse. Yet its chair still says Credit Suisse is white as snow. Stay with us.

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