So it’s official. Comcast has announced its intention to buy NBC Universal from GE. The danger of this cannot be overstated, but it could actually be the catalyst for a policy conversation the nation desperately needs to hold.
A Comcast-NBC combination is brazenly anti-competitve and anti-democratic. It would give one company far too much ownership over not just professionally produced media but also the ways media consumers can receive it.
Worse, if approved, it could mark the tipping point in Big Media’s push to take control over the Internet itself. That’s where we need to focus our attention.
We can come out of this the right way if the announced deal prompts Congress to stop ducking the key media consolidation issue of our time. If we can use data networks the way we choose, the traditional fears about media consolidation — the concentration of mass media in the hands of a few immensely powerful corporations — lessen over time. They’re still worth worrying about, but not as much.
No, the issue now is the truly scary media consolidation we face: the “broadband” duopoly’s increasing control over what we can do with our media. The cable and phone giants are determined to decide what bits get delivered in what order, at what speed and at what time — if they get delivered at all — to the people who want them.
It’s been obvious for years that a day like this was coming. From We the Media in 2004 (and I was hardly the first person to notice):
In a world where we may end up with one, two, or at most three broadband telecommunications providers in any given community, the end-to-end principle is in serious jeopardy. Should giant telecommunications companies—namely cable and local phone providers—have vertical control over everything from the data transport to the content itself? For example, as I was writing this book, Comcast, the cable monopoly in my area, was trying to buy Disney. The attempt failed. If this happened, Comcast could have decided to deliver Disney’s content online more quickly than someone else’s, discriminating on the basis of financial considerations. Such a regime would have been a disaster for the unimpeded flow of information. We should insist on a more horizontal system, in which the owner of the pipe is obliged to provide interconnections to competing services. Unfortunately, today’s regulatory and political power brokers lean in the wrong direction.
The cable and phone companies have shown again and again that they abuse their power. They are historical monopolies with control over vast territories given to them by governments. But they used to be regulated monopolies. Increasingly, they are freeing themselves of regulation.
The threat is still more theoretical than real, at least in the United States. People in China, where the government censors Internet content, know firsthand the danger of centralized choke points.
So now it’s real. What can we do?
First, recognize how networked media work, or should. In the traditional mass media days, people who worked for big businesses created media and distributed it; they manufactured stuff and put it in trucks, or broadcast it over one-way, one-to-many distributions systems.
In an Inter-networked world we create stuff, and then we make it available, and other people come and get it. People at the edges of networks make the decisions that matter, not the people who provide the data pipes. That’s how it should work, at any rate.
Second, this suggests we shouldn’t obsess over what sound like huge issues but are actually peripheral. Specifically, I don’t care that much if Big Content ends up in just a few hands, as long as the rest of us can a) keep creating our own media and b) make it available on distributed networks without having to pay unjust toll charges.
Comcast has already started pushing its Internet users toward an entirely artificial pricing, putting usage caps on packet-switched data services, i.e. the Internet, for heavy users of data-rich applications, notably video. This has been a conflict of interest from the start, given that Comcast is primarily a video-delivery company for Big Content. Comcast’s data pipes could be used to provide much greater Internet bandwidth, but Comcast chooses to limit that kind of data, and not just for technical reasons.
Now that it would own one of the major Big Content companies, the conflicts of interest would expand in dramatic and obvious ways on the video side. I’m sure the other Big Content players can fend for themselves when it comes to keeping their cable channels; they have lots of financial and lobbying clout.
But the rest of us, especially the younger people who should be entering a data-networked world of nearly unlimited media choices, have less power. And we’re likely to be the ones, in the end, who lose the most.
Why? Because it will be in Comcast’s financial interest to clamp down as much as possible on Internet data use when it conflicts with its cable-TV business, which is to say on a constant basis.
Keep in mind that Comcast wouldn’t be the first company to have this kind of vertical content and distribution structure. Time Warner owns some cable franchises along with CNN and other media properties; Cablevision has its own content business. Phone companies have some projects under way, too.
The greater threat is where this deal would lead. It would set off a rush of other buyouts, moving more Big Content under the wings of the rest of the telecom companies. They’ll have the same incentives to restrict data usage, and unless they’re told not to do this by people who can make it stick, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
Understand this: The telecom companies are trying to remake the Internet into a form of cable television. It’s not because they’re evil, though they often behave in evil ways, but because it would be good business — for them, and the hell with the rest of us.
So where does Congress come into the picture? Everywhere, obviously, but I wish I had confidence in lawmakers’ willingness to address this.
Keep in mind how people are elected today: for the most part, despite progress in Internet organizing and fundraising, via television advertising. Will Congress take on companies that control the biggest media? Have the lawmakers ever done this, at least in recent times? Nope.
Please be clear on what’s at stake: We are heading toward a level of media control that, if the telecom companies succeed in achieving it, will threaten every bit of the work I and many others have been doing for the past decade.
I’ll say it again: This is the media-consolidation issue of the early 21st Century. If you care, call and/or write your member of Congress, before it’s too late.