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"Digital divide" is "a dangerous phrase" because it can be used to justify government programs that guarantee poor people cheaper access to new technology.

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michael powell
FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell

United States
Chairman Mike and the Digital Divide

by Chuck 45

FEBRUARY 12, 2001. 'Tis the year of the sons. And they all seem to stand to the right of their worthy dads. Take Michael K. Powell, the chubby, achingly smart 37-year-old son of Colin Powell, the pro-affirmative action Hero of the Gulf War. Mike has just been catapulted to the helm of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where he has served as a Commissioner since 1997.

The Mercedes Divide
At his maiden press conference last week, FCC Chairman Mike caused even jaded journalist jaws to drop when he warned America that "digital divide" was "a dangerous phrase" because it could be used to justify government programs that guaranteed poor people cheaper access to new technology, like computers. "Digital divide" refers to the growing technological gap between rich and poor, white and non-white.

"I think there's a Mercedes divide," Chairman Mike elaborated. "I'd like to have one, but I can't afford one." Then, to disabuse anyone who might think him just another spoiled, rich, overprotected brat, he added: "I don't mean to be completely flip about this. I think it's an important social issue. But it shouldn't be used to justify the notion of essentially the socialization of the deployment of the infrastructure." God forbid. One thing you can say about Mike is that, unlike George W., he has no trouble whatsoever with polysyllabic words.

Representatives of consumer groups left the press conference in various states of disenchantment and indignation. Apparently, the new guy at the top had turned out to be more of a free marketer than most had anticipated. Gene Kimmelman, of Consumers Union, said the Chairman's remarks "were insensitive and elitist." Others blasted them as unnecessarily inflammatory.

eat cakeIn a 1999 study, "Falling Through the Net," the Clinton U.S. Commerce Department reported that U.S. black and Hispanic households were roughly two-fifths as likely to have home Internet access than white households. Households with incomes of $75,000 or higher were more than twenty times as likely to have a computer at home than those at the lowest income levels. "America's digital divide is fast becoming a 'racial ravine,'" said Larry Irving, then Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Telecommunications.

Hands Off!
Chairman Mike promises to be a hands-off Chairman. In fact, his entire press conference was mostly about what his FCC would not do. It won't try to keep big communications companies from becoming bigger or force them to provide services to the poor. It won't wait until a telecommunications market is somewhat competitive before deregulating it (the Clinton strategy). It won't try to make broadcasters provide free air-time for political candidates. It certainly won't get involved in any "digital divide" nonsense.

And it won't interpret protecting the "public interest," the touchstone of telecommunications law and of the FCC regulatory role, in any but the most restrictive and stingy ways, particularly when considering whether to allow mergers, license transfers, deregulation, and other key issues.

What Mike's FCC will do is dramatically shrink itself, while deregulating with abandon, and letting Nature, I mean, the Marketplace, take its course. The country does not need another anti-trust bureaucracy, he says. And, in any case, the FCC can't keep up with the lightning speed changes in telecommunications. He wants the agency to do less, but do it better. Sounds reasonable. It could even work, if at least consumer rights and some kind of anti-mega-monopoly radar were part of the Chairman's regulation-light menu.

But Mike's riff on the Mercedes casts serious doubts on his commitment to technological democracy. And his anti-monopoly radar may well be rusty. It didn't even blip as Mike told the press of his intense distaste for the current FCC regulation preventing any single broadcaster from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of households in the country. Viacom and other broadcasting behemoths are salivating at the prospect that the new FCC boss will let them gobble up a larger market share.

Neither did it blip last fall at the $183 billion Time-Warner/AOL mega-merger. Mike voted for it, along with his fellow commissioners. His Dad, who owns $13.3 million worth of AOL shares and sits on the AOL management board, is bound to make a bundle. Some of it will be no doubt inherited by Mike himself some day. However, the FCC lawyers didn't see a conflict of interest, and activist and watchdog groups themselves were divided about whether the younger Powell should voluntarily have recused himself from the vote.

Free Market, Free Speech
rca microphoneThe U.S. is, increasingly, a communications-driven economy. The FCC is the key agency regulating the core of that new economy (telephone, broadcasting, cable and wireless industries) and reviewing big mergers. The Clinton administration, seeing the writing on the wall, put the agency on an expansive fast track, enforcing more aggressively. Chairman Mike has all but promised to nip that in the bud.

However, there's a silver lining to the new Chairman's dislike of big government and to his restrictive interpretation of "public interest." Unlike his predecessors, he thinks the FCC has no role to play in controlling content. "I don't believe that government should be your nanny," he said.

Powell got the Media Institute's Freedom of Speech Award in 1998. In his acceptance speech, he spoke eloquently about the First Amendment, said free speech applied to broadcasting, too, and attacked FCC regulations limiting it. And he did not spare the broadcasters themselves.

"The industry," he said, "has regularly traded its First Amendment rights to obtain favors from the government. However the Framers did not mint the First Amendment to serve as currency. To offer it as such is to trade away one's moral right to cry victim when the bargain is accepted."

Last year, conservative rage forced the FCC to hurriedly withdraw guidelines restricting religious programming that it had approved just a few weeks earlier. The guidelines said that "programming devoted primarily to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs would not qualify as 'general educational' programming." They were supported by the Coalition to Defend Educational TV, which included People for the American Way, the National Education Association, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and Citizens for Independent Broadcasting.

At the time, then Commissioner Powell said that the new guidelines had "opened a Pandora's Box of problems," and their withdrawal would put "the lid back on the box." He voted to withdraw them. The lone dissenting vote was that of Commissioner Gloria Tristani, who said the FCC had "capitulated to an organized campaign of distortion and demagoguery."

Redefining Public Interest
The Tristani and Powell votes on the guidelines withdrawal vividly illustrate the perils, and advantages, of liberal and conservative approaches to "public interest" in telecommunications.

gloria tristaniTristani, a Puerto Rico-born Democrat, is an avid, if secular and reasonably progressive, user of the "public interest" tool. A champion of democratizing access to new technology, she also heads the FCC V-chip project, essentially an exercise in content censorship. Last week, she was the only Commissioner to complain when the FCC Enforcement Bureau refused to punish KLOU-FM in St. Louis for broadcasting an "excretory joke" a listener found obscene. Her dissent in the religious broadcasting flap was courageously consistent with her more interventionist philosophy.

Powell's vote to deep freeze the annoying clause was also consistent with his seemingly libertarian conservative stance, even if, in this case, he got to have his cake and eat it too, pleasing both the rabid right and himself. His devotion to the First Amendment wasn't as sorely tested as if the guidelines had been about, say, real AIDS education, instead of religious content.

Which leads us to the punch line: Which Michael K. Powell is the new FCC Chairman? Is it First Amendment champion Powell, willing (perhaps) to hurt even Pat Robertson if he must? Or is it newly minted Mercedes (Let 'Em Eat Cake) Mike? Or, perhaps, a two-headed beast? Stay tuned.

Related links:

For the FCC homepage.

To send Chairman Powell your comments.

For Comissionner Gloria Tristani's excellent home page (English and Spanish).

For "Falling Through the Net," the thorough U.S. Dept. of Commerce 1999 report.

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