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COPE Telecom Bill Affects Net Neutrality, Local Cable Franchises and Funding for Public Access

Media Options

The House is expected to vote this week on the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006. We take a look at the various aspects of the bill with University of Illinois professor and Free Press co-founder Robert McChesney. [includes rush transcript]

This week, the House is expected to vote on Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006. The COPE bill would permit phone and cable companies to operate Internet and other digital communications service as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. The bill would effectively end what is known as “net neutrality” which is the concept that that everyone, everywhere, should have free, universal and non-discriminatory access to all the Internet has to offer. The COPE bill would permit Internet service providers like AOL to charge fees for almost every online transaction and to prioritize emails based on the senders’ willingness to pay.

Another provision of the bill would cut back the obligation of cable TV companies to devote channels to public access and fund the facilities to run them. And the COPE bill would replace local cable franchises with national franchises. The companies contend that this will create competition and lower fees but consumer groups and activists are concerned that it will take control and oversight away from local government as well as cut channel capacity for public, educational and governmental access channels or PEGs. The COPE Act would also permit providers to not provide service to low-income communities that they believe would be less profitable to serve.

  • Robert McChesney, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-founder of Free Press. He is author of several books including “Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy” and “The Future of Media: Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Professor Bob McChesney. Bob McChesney runs Free Press. He is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, co-founder of Free Press. His books include Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Pleasure to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain this bill and where it stands now?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, in one sense, the bill is extraordinarily complicated. There are different versions in the House and Senate, and the nuances get tricky, because we have these enormous lobbies fighting it out to get the best deal for themselves. But in a general sense, the way that I understand it is that the phone companies and the cable companies, which provide internet access to 98% of Americans and almost all businesses, are viewing — you know, they are companies that were set up by the government. They’re not free market companies. Their entire business model has been based on getting monopoly license franchises from the government for phone and cable service and then using it to make a lot of money. And they’re using their political leverage now to try to write a law basically which lets them control the internet.

AMY GOODMAN: Their money? Their lobbying money?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Their lobbying money, which is an extraordinary amount. And they can’t spend too much, because the future is they can control the internet. And what they want to do desperately is be in a situation where they can rank order websites. And websites that come through the fastest to us, to the users of the internet, are the ones that pay them money or the ones they own. And websites that don’t pay them come through slower, much harder to get, or in some cases, they’ll have the power to take them off the internet altogether.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, right now, the user pays per month for use of the internet, and that’s how these companies get their money. So they’d be both charging the user and the content provider, the one who makes the website?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: And there’s no technological justification for this. There’s no economic justification. It’s pure corrupt crony capitalism. They’re basically using their political leverage to change this so they get a huge new revenue stream, and it gives them an inordinate amount of power over the internet. I mean, I think what people have to remember is that I think what’s excited us all about the internet was the idea that anyone could start a website at a fairly nominal fee and be competing equally then with General Motors, with General Electric, with Rupert Murdoch. We all had a shot at it. Democracy Now! had a shot right next to FOX News.

What this will do is change that, because that genius was built on policy, not technology. It was a common carrier requirement of the Telecom Act, which required the phone companies to give all websites equal access. They want to get rid of that, because they see enormous amounts of money if they can decide which website gets the inside lane and which website is on the dirt path.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how is this going through, and what is the extent of the knowledge of the American people right now? How is this being covered?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, the big firms, the phone companies, the cable companies, wanted to ram it through Congress without anyone knowing about it. That’s their standard way of operating. And they were very successful, and I’d say about a month ago it looked like they would get it through the legislation currently weaving its way through the House and Senate and probably have something signed into law by the end of the summer, and they would win. And I think there was a 90% chance, say, a month ago.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the commerce committee headed by the Texas Republican, Joe Barton?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Barton, and in the Senate under Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican. And they are different versions of the bill, they’d eventually reconcile, but they both generally are bad on the core issues we’re talking about, and they’re both basically reflecting the interests of these corporate lobbyists. And it looked bad for us that we would have success here, but we’ve seen a massive explosion really, even unlike the media ownership explosion three years ago.

Already 600,000 people have written or contacted Congress, raising hell about the idea of getting rid of net neutrality, which is really the First Amendment of the internet, what makes it great. We have over 500 organizations that have signed on, bipartisan, right and left. And what’s interesting about this issue is that, you know, it’s not like a capitalist/non-capitalist issue. The entire business community gets screwed by this. It’s truly crony capitalism. It’s just these big companies, the cable companies and the phone companies, that want this inordinate power over everyone else in our society over the internet, over the right of who gets to speak and who doesn’t get to speak. And so, what we find is the more people know about it, the more we win. I mean, no one supports this, unless you’re getting paid off by these companies.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this a reprise of what happened when Michael Powell, the son of Colin Powell, who used to head the F.C.C., tried to push through the media consolidation rules, the changes in them?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: I really think it is, because I think what we’re seeing is this across-the-board outrage at the corruption of the process in which powerful special interests sneak through these privileges that benefit only them. And their public relations, when it’s subject to scrutiny, is laughable. It doesn’t hold up. And that’s why they have do it secretly, because they know if once the public hears about this and they go to the websites like, which is the intersect that all this coalition, right and left, has come together, where all of the information is collected. Once people hear about this, they absolutely are outraged, and the big guys can’t win, and that’s their main worry now, because we have to stop these bills this summer. We can’t let this go through and force Congress to go through an election cycle this fall and have to answer for this before the voters of this country and then come back next year.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bob McChesney, what about redlining? How does it happen?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, one of the core fundamental aspects of telecommunications policies historically, and I say it’s that it was a progressive victory for us, was the requirement that the phone companies, if they were going to get these monopoly licenses to make a pile of money, they had to serve the entire community. They couldn’t discriminate against neighborhoods, against cities. They had to give universal access. And what these companies — they hate that. They basically want to serve just wealthy and middle class communities and skip poor and rural communities. And they’re trying to write it into the law that they can basically what’s called redline, that they can be discriminatory about which communities they offer their best services to and only offer in the most lucrative communities. It’s one of the worst parts of this bill. It’s one of the things we have to oppose.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Bob McChesney, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and head of Free Press and Professor McChesney, are there other bills that are being introduced right now in Congress to counter what we’re seeing?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: There are a couple of wonderful amendments that have been offered: one by Edward Markey of Massachusetts in the House that was voted down, but it might come to the floor again, which defends net neutrality and requires the cable companies and the phone companies to maintain the ongoing First Amendment of the internet, letting all websites have access without discrimination, without favor shown to any, without payoffs having to be made so you can get fast treatment and access to the public; and there’s a similar amendment now in the United States Senate by Senator Olympia Snowe, the Republican of Maine, Byron Dorgan, the Democrat of North Dakota, also a net neutrality amendment, which is going to be coming up for a vote in the next month or so.

And, again, if listeners and viewers go to, you’ll find actually all the information. There’s a map you can click on with every member of the relevant committees, how you can contact them, let the know. And what we’ve discovered is this is an issue, that if you let members of Congress know you care, we will absolutely win this issue, because there’s no support for this. And I’d urge people to get involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bob McChesney, thank you very much for being with us. He has written many books, including The Future of Media: Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century, as well as The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communications Politics in the 21st Century And you have another one, your latest book with John Nichols.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Tragedy & Farce, that I wrote with John Nichols, selling war, spinning elections and destroying democracy, by the U.S. news media.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there you have it.

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