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Why Journalists Should Care About Today’s Net Neutrality Ruling

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Photo by Steve Rhode, via Flickr.

Internet service providers, like Verizon and Comcast, can give preference to some content owners over others or block them, a federal appeals court ruled this morning.

Quite simply, this means Internet service providers can pick and choose the content consumers see and how they see it. The ruling, Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission, is a setback to what is more commonly called, “net neutrality,” the principal that Internet service providers should enable equal access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

The court states that the Federal Communications Act does not allow the FCC to force internet service providers to make their networks open to all.

Why should journalists and journalism organizations care?  For independent or small-scale content owners, this ruling means it will be that much harder to reach the consumers they’re targeting. For news organizations, already strapped for cash, this means either now having to pay to play on the information super highway in order to reach consumers, or worse,  having your content blocked because the Internet service provider favors another company over yours.

“This ruling means there is no one who can protect us from ISPs that block or discriminate against websites, applications or services,” according to media advocacy organization Free Press in an email blast about the ruling. Free Press has been warning of the threat for more than a year.

The court did allow that Internet service providers will have to disclose their practices to users. During the holidays, Republican members of Congress announced plans to update the federal communications law by offering a more modern one that takes into account the changing media landscape, they said.

Congress first passed the Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC to encourage and regulate electronic communication in the United States; the law was revised in 1996. Signed by then-President Bill Clinton, the initial purpose of the current law was to deregulate the converging broadcast and telecommunications industries.

Under a more modern communications law, Congress could give the FCC power to make and enforce rules that would require telecom companies to keep their networks open. Or Congress can bend to the will of the telecom lobby and allow the court’s ruling to usher in a new era of unequal access to the internet. Public hearings on this matter promise to be top news in months to come.

UPDATE: This afternoon Comcast released a statement that the cable provider would continue to play by open internet rules, at least through 2018, per an agreement it made with the government when it merged with NBCUniversal.

Note: This story is developing; it will update once I read the ruling further. 

Tracie Powell is co-chair of the NABJ Digital Journalism Task Force. She writes about the media and media policy issues. 

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Why We Should Care About The FCC Fight Over Media Ownership

By Tracie Powell

ImageThe Federal Communications Commission has delayed until January it’s decision on whether to further relax a long-standing rule that limits the ability of companies to own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same local market. Supporters of the rule argue that it is outdated, while opponents say it will further weaken media ownership by blacks, Hispanics and those representing other ethnic groups.

Truth is, the rule change is a double-edged sword, which is exactly why journalism associations such as the National Association of Black Journalists, shouldn’t just sit on the sideline as impartial observers while others shape policy; they need to weigh in.

The F.C.C. already allows companies to seek waivers to own both a newspaper and a station in the same market. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the News Corporation owns The New York Post and two television stations in the New York City market. “Allowing more companies to do so could create new bidders for newspapers, which as a whole have suffered more severely than local TV stations in the last decade,” Brian Stelter wrote for the Times.

He’s right. Loosening rules could create new opportunities, and new life, for struggling news organizations. At the same time, changing the rules could also lead to consolidation, which might lead to more job layoffs for journalists.

“In the vast majority of cases, I do not believe that newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership advances the public interest,” former Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, said in a statement. “It means fewer voices in the community, less localism in the industry and steep transactional costs that all too often lead to down-sized or shuttered newsrooms and fired journalists.”

He’s right too. Mergers may mean opportunity but can also mean cuts, something all too familiar in the nation’s newsrooms; and people of color are all too often the first laid off when mergers happen.

While that sinks in, journalists should also consider how consolidation impacts who controls the images and information our communities receive.

Whites far outpace African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups when it comes to owning and controlling the medium and the message, according to an F.C.C. report released in November.

  • While whites, collectively or individually, controlled the majority of 9,610 broadcast stations in 2011;
  • American Indian/Alaska Natives owned or controlled 64;
  • Asians owned or controlled 187 broadcast stations;
  • Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islanders owned or controlled 31 broadcast stations;
  • Persons of two or more races owned or controlled 46 broadcast stations.

Black/African Americans owned 231 broadcast stations, but owned majority shares in just 10 (0.7 percent) full power commercial television stations, down from 12 (1 percent) owned in 2009, the National Newspaper Publishers Association reported this week. Hispanics, on the other hand, increased the number of full power television stations they owned from 30 (2.5 percent) in 2009 to 39 in 2011 (2.9 percent). The number of White owned full power TV stations increased from 754 (63.4 percent) to 935 (69.4 percent) over the same period.

In September, NABJ released a report pointing to the continued lack of diversity in television newsrooms and calling attention to the congressional mandate for the F.C.C. to eliminate market barriers to entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications and information services. But so far the organization has been silent on whether it supports the current proposed F.C.C. rule change.

Despite the fact that Hispanics have seen an increase in media ownership, in a letter dated December 12, 2012, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists told F.C.C. Chairman Nicholas Genachowski that the organization was troubled by the commission’s plans to lift the newspaper-TV cross-ownership ban in the country’s largest markets. NAHJ also stated that it was frustrated that the F.C.C. has failed to listen to advocates who, for years, have called on the commission “to adopt policies to increase ownership diversity rather than promoting greater media consolidation, which has made it harder for women and people of color to own broadcast stations.”

Supporters of the rule change point to how it has become easier for women and people of color to control and own the medium and the message. They argue the Internet has lowered and eliminated so-called barriers to the marketplace. “The notion that broadcasters may distribute their content through radio, television, the Internet, mobile devices and other unforeseen portals, but must be prohibited by law from printing the same content on the medium of newsprint, seems anachronistic at best,” Republican Commissioner Robert M. McDowell said in a statement. He “suggested that the rule is outdated at a time when people increasingly get news on the unregulated Internet,” reports the Times.

The “unregulated Internet” raises a final, yet little discussed point present in this F.C.C fight: Not everybody is online regularly nor do they have full access to increasingly pay-walled news websites. In fact, only 43 percent of Americans who make less than $25,000 a year have home Internet access, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce study. It’s clear that in moving toward digital news, many people still need access to information that doesn’t require a computer.

This is perhaps the most compelling reason why NABJ, and other journalism associations that have yet to speak out on this issue but care about an informed citizenry, should stand in opposition to the F.C.C’s rule change.

Tracie Powell lives in Washington, D.C. and writes about legal and policy issues confronting the changing media landscape. She is a Vice Chair of the NABJ Digital Journalism Task Force. Email her at tracie.powell@gmail.com