CPSR document on telecom [cr-95/10/27]


Introduction from moderator:

I finished this document yesterday.  CPSR leadership is now talking
about officially adopting it; I'll hear from them by Tuesday.  Because
the very last paragraph promotes it as a CPSR document and it hasn't
received official blessing, I'm not yet ready to send it to the media,
politicians, etc.  But you are free to use the information for
whatever campaigns or research you are working on.

Let me know about newspapers, organizations, and other places where
this could go.  Also contact me about receiving hard-copies.  I'm now
working on a shorter and snappier 700-word version that could be an
op-ed piece.

Without Craig Johnson's help, I could not have completed this, because
the technical and legal subtleties are so fine-grained.  Several other
people helped with comments too, thanks to everybody.



   U.S. Telecommunications Bill Fails to Serve the Public Interest

                           25 October 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:

    1.  It allows oligopolies to form that control the information we
        receive on radio, television, newspapers, and electronic

    2.  It allows gaps to widen between segments of society (rich and
        poor, educated and uneducated).

    3.  It censors public discussion on electronic networks.

    4.  It lets rates rise too fast and too much.

This paper will examine each of these problems, after some
introductory background.  We may still have time to make significant

Why is the telecom bill important?

    Electronic media are not just another industry like shipping or
    manufacturing.  They deal with the very stuff our minds are made
    of: the information we use to take political positions, the
    choices we have in educating ourselves, the cultural resources
    through which we define ourselves.  The struggle over electronic
    media is a struggle for our thoughts and actions.

    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

    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.

The intent of the bill

    The stated purpose of telecom reform is to increase technology in
    homes and institutions.  While we definitely support an expansion
    of electronic networking (the information infrastructure or
    information superhighway, as it is often called) we ask, "What
    will it be used for?"

    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 improve 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.  Let us look at the

Problem 1.  The bill allows oligopolies to form that control the
information we receive on radio, television, newspapers, and
electronic networks.

    The wave of highly-publicized mergers (along with less sensational
    but still important takeovers) that have reduced the number of
    people in control of broadcasting will continue after this bill is
    passed.  Although the bill prohibits mergers between telephone
    companies and cable TV companies, the House version contains many
    exceptions, waivers, and exemptions that erode this protection
    against monopolies.  For instance, mergers are permitted in
    communities with less than 50,000 population, and the two types of
    company are permitted to share some transmission facilities.

    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

    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.

Problem 2.  The bill allows gaps to widen between segments of society
(rich and poor, educated and uneducated).

    The 1934 communications act guaranteed universal service, meaning
    that everyone in the country could get telephone service at
    reasonable rates.  The new bill contains protections for rural
    areas and the disabled, but leaves loopholes in the universal
    service guarantee.  Some of the advanced information services
    could well become available only to affluent people or to
    institutions in privileged areas.

    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.

Problem 3.  The bill censors public discussion on electronic networks.

    Both houses of Congress have inserted sections in the bill
    criminalizing a broad range of information under the claim that it
    harms children.  These clauses of the bill, while supposedly aimed
    at pornography, have such vague language ("indecency" and "sexual
    or excretory activities") that they could be used to censor
    literary classics and public health information.

    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

    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.

Problem 4.  The bill lets rates rise too fast and too much.

    Cable TV rates for upper tier services (those offered for extra
    cost) are deregulated in the bill before there is adequate
    assurance of competition to keep the rates down.  Cable operators
    are also effectively allowed to deregulate any services they
    choose by moving them from the basic tier to the upper tier.  This
    would reverse the consumer protections passed in 1992.

    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.

What we want

    Our communications channels are a public resource.  As the telecom
    bill prepares to go into conference committee, we call on Congress
    to safeguard the public interest.

    * Promote diversity of programming by requiring carriers to
      provide services to other companies at reasonable rates.

    * Protect the free marketplace of ideas by preventing yet larger
      media monopolies and oligopolies.  Keep regulatory safeguards in
      place until proof of true competition emerges.  If telephone
      companies and cable companies merge in sparsely-populated areas
      that lack competition, continue price regulation.

    * Do not raise the limits on the percentage of markets owned by
      one firm or on foreign ownership.

    * Keep the requirements for interconnection and interoperability
      (the ability of different services to use each others lines and
      identical protocols) so that users anywhere can reach each
      other.  Ensure that users can keep telephone numbers when
      switching companies.

    * Reject censorship, which is a big step backward and is totally
      unacceptable.  Leave it up to parents make their own choices.
      Strip out the provisions on "Obscene or harassing use" and
      "Protection of Minors."

    * Ensure equitable access by all segments of the population,
      including rural areas, low-income areas, and the disabled.  Make
      the Federal-State Joint Board overseeing universal service a
      permanent institution.

    * Maintain reasonable rates for enhanced cable services as well as
      basic service, either through robust competition or through
      continued regulation.

    * Make telephone companies return to consumers some of the savings
      achieved through greater efficiencies.

    * Preserve preferential access for public, education, and government

    * In exchange for the extra television spectrum that broadcasters
      can profit from, require extra services such as public interest
      programming or more diversity in programming.

What to do now

    Legislators have to hear from you.  They need to know that this
    bill will not slide quietly through Congress, but that the eyes of
    the public are on them.

    Write to your own legislators, to the people on the joint
    committee, 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.

Key legislators

    These are the Senators and Representatives on the conference
    committee that is merging the Senate and House telecom bills.  If
    you live in one of their states, write to the legislator and
    strongly indicate that censorship is unconstitutional and will be
    ineffective in protecting children.  Also write to Senator Robert
    Dole and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who have a great deal
    of power to influence the committee, and to President Clinton, who
    has said he might veto the bill.

        Conrad Burns (R, Montana)
        J. James Exon (D, Nebraska)
        Wendell Ford (D, Kentucky)
        Slade Gorton (R, Washington)
        Ernest Hollings (D, South Carolina)
        Daniel Inouye (D, Hawaii)
        Trent Lott (R, Mississippi)
        John McCain (R, Arizona)
        Larry Pressler (R, South Dakota)
        John D. Rockefeller IV (D, West Virginia)
        Ted Stevens (R, Alabama)

        Bob Barr (R, Georgia)
        Joe Barton (R, Texas)
        Howard L. Berman (D, California)
        Thomas J. Bliley (R, Virginia)
        Rick Boucher (D, Virginia)
        Sherrod Brown (D, Ohio)
        John Bryant (D, Texas)
        Steve E. Buyer (R, Indiana)
        John Conyers (D, Michigan)
        John D. Dingell (D, Michigan)
        Anna G. Eshoo (D, California)
        Jack Fields (R, Texas)
        Michael Flanagan (R, Illinois)
        Daniel Frisa (R, New York)
        Elton Gallegly (R, California)
        Bob Goodlatte (R, Virginia)
        Bart Gordon (D, Tennessee)
        J. Dennis Hastert (R, Illlinois)
        Martin Hoke (R, Ohio)
        Henry Hyde (R, Illinois)
        Sheila Jackson-Lee (D, Texas)
        Scott L. Klug (R, Wisconsin)
        Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D, Arkansas)
        Edward Markey (D, Massachusetts)
        Carlos J. Moorehead (R, California)
        Mike Oxley (R, Ohio)
        Bill Paxon (R, New York)
        Bobby L. Rush (D, Illinois)
        Robert Scott (D, Virginia)
        Dan Schaefer (R, Colorado)
        Patricia Schroeder (D, Colorado)
        Cliff Stearns (R, Florida)
        Rick White (R, Washington)

For more information

    If you are not online, information is hard to get.  The
    traditional media find this issue boring, so they don't report on
    it.  Write your local radio stations and newspapers and tell them
    the bill has serious consequences for the public and should be
    covered.  One fine article in print is "The Robber Barons of the
    Information Highway" by Joshua Wolf Shenk, which appeared in the
    Washington Monthly in June 1995.

    If you are online, you can read some World Wide Web pages and join
    several mailing lists that distribute information and discuss the
    telecom bill.  To get on one of the lists below, send mail to the
    address shown and include the information in the required format.
    Capitalized words should be written exactly as shown here;
    lowercase words should be replaced with your full name.

    Cyber Rights--discussion of civil liberties and rights on
    electronic networks.

        mail to: •••@••.•••

        Put in body of message: SUBSCRIBE CYBER-RIGHTS your name

    Telecommunications Policy Roundtable Forum--discussion of
    telecommunications issues from a public-interest standpoint.

        mail to: •••@••.•••

        Put in body of message: SUBSCRIBE ROUNDTABLE your name

    Voters Telecommunications Watch (VTW) Billwatch--announcements
    about bills and actions to take.

        mail to: •••@••.•••

        Put in Subject line of message: SUBSCRIBE VTW-ANNOUNCE your name

    Telecomreg--discussion of technical, legal, and policy issues in

        mail to: •••@••.•••

        Put in body of message: SUBSCRIBE TELECOMREG your name

    com-priv--discussion about commercial use of the Internet.

        mail to:  •••@••.•••

        Request to be added to the mailing list (mail is read by a

    The Center for Media Education offers a Web page about the bill


    The CPSR Cyber Rights group provides several documents on our ftp
    site.  Look particularly at ACLU-Censorship-Challenge,
    AllComMed-PEG-campaign, Clinton-Telecom-Position,
    Cox-Wyden-Protection, Shenk-Telecommunications-Bills,
    Telecom-Post-on-Bills, and Valovic-re-Telecommunications-Bill.


    The Benton Foundation maintains a general page about the bill at:


    and other pages about one issue, TV spectrum allocation, at:


    The Clinton administration has placed statements on the bill at:


    Analyses from Ralph Nader and the Taxpayer Assets Project are at:


    The Campaign for Broadcast Competition offers a page about TV
    spectrum allocation at:


    Many organizations and individuals have Web pages about
    censorship; one up-to-date page at the time of this writing is:


    Industry has not had much to say online about the bill.  Two
    opposing viewpoints from Regional Bell Operating Companies and
    LDDS WorldCom, a long-distance telephone company:


    The Center for Media Education has made several fine analyses of
    the bill available by electronic mail.  Write to •••@••.••• and
    put one of the following words in the subject line to get a
    position papers on the subject shown:

        alert           call to action with summaries of issues
        clinton         President's critique of House bill
        own             industry concentration
        rates           rates, industry concentration, related issues
        spectrum        spectrum give-away
        update          frequently-changing news

Redistributing this document

    This paper may be freely distributed if kept in its entirety.  A
    special short version is available which lacks contact information
    for legislators and pointers to further information.  (The short
    version is intended for distribution to the media and political

    You can obtain the paper as a text file (so you can email it to
    friends or post it on appropriate bulletin boards and newsgroups)
    and as a PostScript file (so you can print and distribute it in
    hard-copy form).  Contact Andy Oram at •••@••.••• or
    617-641-1261 (during U.S. East Coast business hours) to obtain
    either of these formats.  On the Web, the paper is at:


    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.

 Posted by Andrew Oram  - •••@••.••• - Moderator: CYBER-RIGHTS (CPSR)
You are encouraged to forward and cross-post messages for non-commercial use,
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