By Mark Lloyd / Original to ScheerPost
WASHINGTON, DC — Given the amount of attention paid to presidents, it may come as a surprise to some that the action in Washington that affects most Americans takes place in the Congress, the often invisible regulatory agencies, and the courts. This has been true for at least half a century.
The radical right Trump/McConnell Supreme Court may soon change this by limiting the power of regulatory agencies. But as of the summer of 2022, to assess the work of the national governing bodies after the last national election, the focus should be on Congress and the executive branch and independent regulatory agencies. This is especially true regarding how we communicate in our supposed democracy. And it is especially urgent that we realize this approaching the midterm elections.
In short, the record on communication policy is mixed at best.
Broadband and the Digital Divide
First, the good news: In 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, taking one step forward to address, among many other infrastructure issues, the now nearly three decades-long concern over the digital divide in the U.S. Congress allocated $65 billion for investment into advanced digital telecommunications service – broadband. An agency in the Department of Commerce, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will administer the bulk of this funding ($48.2 billion) to the states. Congress has also set aside $2.75 billion to NTIA to promote the opportunity for all individuals in diverse communities to acquire computers and digital literacy skills.
In the same legislation, Congress set aside $14.2 billion to support the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) work in creating a more reliable map of broadband deployment, and investing in the Affordable Connectivity Fund, which subsidizes access to broadband. An additional $2 billion was appropriated for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to support distance learning and telemedicine in rural America.
The Chamber of Commerce is happy about the additional taxpayer dollars that will go to public/private partnerships that “demonstrate strong financial, managerial, operational, and technical capabilities.” They probably think this language will give existing telecom corporations an advantage in accessing funds. But, predictably, the business lobby is unhappy about NTIA’s support for unions, a preference for fiber telecommunication, net neutrality regulation, and a requirement that potential grantees may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public utilities or local governments. Still, the business lobby is happy to take more taxpayer money and fight the other issues down the road.
Many self-styled public interest groups are also happy with the additional funds made available by the infrastructure bill. On June 7, 2022, Joshua Stager, deputy director of broadband and competition policy at New America’s Open Technology Institute, congratulated NTIA as it approved funding to four states—New Hampshire, Louisiana, West Virginia and Virginia: “After years of rhetoric about closing the digital divide, it’s great to finally see real progress in funding the affordable, high-speed broadband networks that so many communities lack.”
In addition to the initial funding for the four states, on June 23, NTIA awarded nine grants, totaling more than $7.7 million, as part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program These grants are being awarded in six states – Alaska, California, Louisiana, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Washington. And on June 27, NTIA awarded Michigan State $10-million to fund internet fiber expansion in partnership with internet service providers (ISP) in Michigan. Benton Institute, Free Press and other civic associations that have been advocating to close the digital divide for many years are applauding NTIA’s broadband grant work to public private partnerships and tribal communities. Though government funding to advance broadband deployment is not new, the increased funding to help close the digital divide is welcome.
Broadband deployment and broadband access are different goals. True access will require affordability and quality service. And as New America has documented, U.S. consumers pay the highest average costs for mediocre service as compared to any region in the world. “The average monthly price in the United States is $68.38—higher than the average price for all of North America at $61.46, Europe at $44.71, and Asia at $62.41.53.” According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. broadband speeds rate well behind Germany, Korea and Canada, and just ahead of the Czech Republic. The industry response to America’s global internet ranking is, well, we’re doing better than we were doing before.
While the need for action on America’s persistent digital divide was keenly felt during the sheltered-in-place days of the Covid-19 pandemic, only 53% of Americans told pollsters in 2020 that the Internet was essential during the pandemic. A majority of Americans (62%) do not think it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that all Americans have a high-speed internet connection at home. However, a majority of Democrats (52%) agree that government has a responsibility to get all Americans equal access to the internet. Yes, there is a clear partisan divide even on the importance of internet deployment.
The infrastructure bill is one of the few accomplishments of the 117th Congress; its bi-partisan parentage and contentious birth (it was once joined with the now defunct Bill Back Better bill) has been widely reported, and the death of its twin is the reason for much of the relatively somber mood among progressives in Washington, DC this summer. The Build Back Better bill is not the only legislation passed by the House that failed to get the needed support in the Senate. Between the House of Representatives and the Senate, well over 50 bills directly related to U.S. communication policy have been introduced and have little chance of passing this year. The bills proposed touch on issues ranging from local cable franchise agreements to reforming regulation regarding internet platforms to regulating block chain to promoting local journalism and more. Congress is busy, but there is little to show for it.
The continuing partisan rancor, the lack of action on legislation to support children and caregivers, or voting protection is perhaps more keenly felt than a victory to spend money on roads and bridges and broadband. And, yet, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act with its deeply compromised legislation to fund climate change efforts, the first gun control legislation in decades, and legislation to encourage microchip production in the U.S. has given some public service advocates hope that a Congress led by Democrats can actually accomplish something.
Like too many commentators, Patrick Gaspard, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, shifted the focus from Congress, calling President Biden “the most legislatively successful president in modern American history.”
Below is a quick review of the successes and failures regarding communication policy in 2022.
Getting back to the good news on the communication policy front: there is some hope that a strong antitrust team has been constructed at both the Justice Department and at the Federal Trade Commission. President Biden has even proposed $227 million in increased funding for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) combined — much needed to tackle cases against the nation’s wealthiest companies. Again, the president may propose spending, but Congress sets the federal budget. Just as Congress, specifically the Senate, must consent to Biden appointments. With a slim Democratic majority in the House and a Senate split 50-50 giving the Democrats control only because Vice-President Harris has a tie-breaking vote, Biden’s proposed budget, appointments, and legislative wishes are . . . well just that, wishes. After eight months of hearings, Senate holds and threats and a tie-breaking vote from the vice president, the Senate confirmed Alvaro Bedoya in May of 2022 as the FTC’s fifth commissioner. This gives FTC chair Lina Khan the third Democrat she needs to advance her promise to crack down on anti-competitive behavior in the communications industry.
Ever since the Sherman Act was passed in 1890, with few exceptions, U.S. regulators have taken a laissez-faire approach to mergers and market competition. Khan and a new generation of antitrust thinkers have supposedly disturbed the comfort of the business community. Yet, the takeover of TimeWarner assets from AT&T to Discovery posed little challenge. And few in Washington are betting against Microsoft as it seeks antitrust approval to purchase the gaming giant Activision.
At least the Chair of the FTC has her tie-breaking vote, FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel is not so fortunate. The nomination of Gigi Sohn to the FCC has been blocked by Senate Republicans, leaving the Commission deadlocked with little chance that federal net neutrality rules once again will be put in place.
Social Media Regulation
But neither net neutrality, broadband deployment or antitrust enforcement rank at the top of the various communication policy concerns in Washington. In the Spring of 2021, according to a poll by Pew, 56% of Americans expressed the view that major technology companies should be regulated more than they are now, and 68% believe these firms have too much power and influence in the economy. After Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen appeared on 60 Minutes and testified before Congress in the Fall of 2021, a Washington Post poll revealed an America concerned about how social media companies were using their data and the impact of these companies on youth. Seventy-two percent of internet users responded that they trust Facebook “not much” or “not at all” to responsibly handle their personal information, and 6 in 10 distrust TikTok and Instagram. In the same poll, 64 percent of Americans said the government should do more to regulate Internet companies.
But this spring, Pew reports that only 44% of Americans think major technology companies should be regulated more than they are now. And according to Pew: “These changes are particularly pronounced among Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party, especially those who identify as conservative.” The steady drumbeat by the conservative echo chamber about the victimhood of right-wing politicians and, well, the conservative echo chamber has an impact … at least on Republicans.
The bungled roll out and quick collapse of a new Department of Homeland Security unit — called the Disinformation Governance Board (DGB) — does not inspire confidence that the Biden administration has a handle on how to address the ongoing corruption of what the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists call the “corruption of the information ecosystem” in America. The DGB was meant to be an internal Homeland Security coordinating office with no authority regarding disinformation. It was clearly not a “Ministry of Truth.” But the DGB and its young staffer, Nina Jankowicz, was quickly subject to the same kind of right-wing smear campaign that promoted and continues to promote the lie that Trump really won the 2020 election.
As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted: “Waves of internet-enabled lies persuaded a significant portion of the U.S. public to believe the utterly false narrative contending that Joe Biden did not win the U.S. presidential election in 2020. Continued efforts to foster this narrative threaten to undermine future U.S. elections, American democracy in general, and, therefore, the United States’ ability to lead global efforts to manage existential risk.”
There is nothing new about American disinformation and delusion. Yes, America lies. The lies about an open frontier led to the theft of indigenous peoples’ lands. The lies about race justified slavery and the continuing brutality facing black Americans. America lied about the reasons for war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. America lied about Iraq and Afghanistan. America now simply has more efficient tools to spread lies. And, yes, the lies have almost always been about profit. Profit in the taking of land, profit in the subjugation of human lives. Now, it’s just about profit to sell pillows or whatever it is that the conservative echo chamber is selling. Putting aside the distortions over the DGB, the answer is most certainly not censorship. One answer to the problem of disinformation is, or was, the establishment of an independent entity to support a democratic non-for-profit media for the public. In 1968 it was called the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
CPB has clearly failed to meet the hopes of its early advocates. Still, the Biden administration seems intent on at least keeping the CPB running with a proposed appropriation of $475 million for fiscal year 2024. The fiction of this forward funding is to suggest government non-interference with the work of CPB. The Biden administration proposal is a significant improvement over the Trump Administration budgets for CPB, which would have zeroed out federal funding. Again, Congress decides on the budget, and during the Trump administration CPB (better known as Big Bird on Sesame Street) funding was spared.
President and CEO of the CPB, Patricia Harrison, the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee who was appointed president and CEO of CPB by former President George W. Bush, released the following statement, “the president’s [Biden’s] request underscores that federal funding for public media is a vital investment – one that continues to deliver proven value on-air, online, and in the community.”
Harrison’s continued leadership, controversial from the start, has received zero attention from the Biden Administration. There have been no proposals to reform or properly staff the CPB. And yet, while there are a few exceptions, public radio and television have been deservedly criticized for the lack of local reporting and the incessant pledge drives.
The most serious effort to address the lack of local journalism provided by the vast majority of so-called U.S. public media was a plan to fund local journalists. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act was dropped from the Build Back Better bill once it was renamed the Inflation Reduction Act.
In the meantime, the Post Office, the great engine of democratic deliberation established by the founding generation, is flailing. Despite the corruption surrounding the Trump Postmaster General and the objections raised by Senator Bernie Sanders and others, Republican fundraiser and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy will likely continue to stay in office over the next few years. Congress, working hand-in-hand with the Nixon administration, removed the old Post Office Department from the President’s Cabinet and most congressional oversight in 1970 with the Postal Reorganization Act, which created today’s U.S.Postal Service.
A bi-partisan Congressional group continued to destroy any democratic accountability regarding the Post Office with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. So we are likely to have more gas-powered postal delivery vehicles, fewer post office boxes, and reduced postal service, slower mail delivery and the potential for more interference and confusion regarding mail-in ballots for some time to come. Congress could fix this, but only if we elect a Congress to fix it.
Our elected representatives in the House and the Senate matter, for good or ill. Americans will determine who controls those legislative bodies this coming November.