Media Regulation

Tom BrokawI think I owe Tom Brokaw an apology. When I first started reading his most recent Wall Street Journal column, “Imagine the Tweets During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” I assumed that I was in for one of those hyper-nosalgic essays about how the ‘good ‘ol days’ of mass media had passed us by and why the new media era is an unmitigated disaster. Instead, I was pleased to read his very balanced and sensible view of the old versus news media environments. Reflecting on the evolution of the media marketplace over the past 50 years since JFK’s assassination, Brokaw notes that:

The media climate has changed dramatically. The New Frontier, as Kennedy liked to call his administration, received a great deal of attention, but 50 years ago the major national information sources consisted of a handful of big-city daily newspapers, a few weekly news periodicals and two dominant TV network evening newscasts. Now the political news comes at us 24/7 on cable, through the air, the digital universe, on radio and print. And it comes to us more and more as opinion rather than a recitation of the facts as best they can be determined. News is a hit-and-run game, for the most part, with too little accountability for error.

This leads Brokaw to wonder if the amazing media metamorphosis has been, on net, positive or negative. “The virtual town square has been wired and expanded,” he notes, “but the question remains whether more voices make for a healthier political climate. With a keystroke we can easily move from an online credible source of information to a website larded with opinion or deliberately malicious erroneous claims. Have we simply enlarged the megaphone, cranked up the decibel level, and rallied the like-minded without regard to facts or consequences?” Continue reading →

Christopher Wolf, director of the law firm Hogan Lovells’ Privacy and Information Management group, addresses his new book with co-author Abraham Foxman, Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet. To what extent do hateful or mean-spirited Internet users hide behind anonymity? How do we balance the protection of the First Amendment online while addressing the spread of hate speech? Wolf discusses how to define hate speech on the Internet; whether online hate speech leads to real-world violence; how news sites like the Huffington Post and New York Times have dealt with anonymity; lessons we should impart on the next generation of Internet users to discourage hate speech; and cases where anonymity has proved particularly beneficial or valuable.

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Yesterday, Time Warner Cable and CBS reached a deal to end the weeks-long impasse that had resulted in CBS being blacked out in over 3 million U.S. households.

I predicted the two companies would resolve their differences before the start of the NFL season in a RealClearPolicy op-ed published last week:

From Los Angeles to New York, 3 million Americans in eight U.S. cities haven’t been able to watch CBS on cable for weeks, because of a business dispute between the network and Time Warner Cable (TWC). The two companies can’t agree on how much TWC should pay to carry CBS, so the network has blacked out TWC subscribers since August 1. With the NFL season kicking off on September 5, the timing couldn’t be worse for football fans.blackouts-work-1

Regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) face growing pressure to force the feuding companies to reach an agreement. But despite viewers’ frustrations with this standoff, government intervention isn’t the answer. If bureaucrats begin “overseeing” disputes between network owners and video providers, television viewers will face higher prices or lower-quality shows.

TWC and CBS are playing hardball over serious cash. CBS reportedly seeks to double its fee to $2 per subscriber each month, which TWC claims is an outrageous price increase. But CBS argues it costs more and more to develop hit new shows like Under the Dome, so it’s only fair viewers pay a bit more.

Both sides have a point. TWC is looking out for its millions of subscribers—and its bottom line—by keeping programming costs down. CBS, on the other hand, needs cash to develop creative new content, and hopes it can make some money doing so.

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Timothy B. Lee, founder of The Washington Post’s blog The Switch discusses his approach to reporting at the intersection of technology and policy. He covers how to make tech concepts more accessible; the difference between blogs and the news; the importance of investigative journalism in the tech space; whether paywalls are here to stay; Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of The Washington Post; and the future of print news.

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Aereo LogoThere are few things more likely to get constituents to call their representative than TV programming blackouts, and the increase in broadcasting disruptions arising from licensing disputes in recent years means Congress may be forced to once again fix television and copyright laws. As Jerry Brito explains at Reason, the current standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable is the result of bad regulations, which contribute to more frequent broadcaster blackouts. While each type of TV distributor (cable, satellite, broadcasters, telcos) is both disadvantaged and advantaged through regulation, broadcasters are particularly favored. As the US Copyright Office has said, the rule at issue in CBS-TWC is “part of a thicket of communications law requirements aimed at protecting and supporting the broadcast industry.”

But as we approach a damaging tipping point of rising programming costs and blackouts, Congress’ potential rescuer–Aereo–appears on the horizon, possibly buying more time before a major regulatory rewrite. Aereo, for the uninitiated, is a small online company that sets up tiny antennas in certain cities to capture broadcast television station signals–like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the CW, and Univision–and streams those signals online to paying customers, who can watch live or record the local signals captured by their own “rented” Aereo antenna. Broadcasters hate this because the service deprives them of lucrative retransmission fees and unsuccessfully sued to get Aereo to cease operations. Continue reading →

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Over at Reason.com, I write today about the ongoing Time Warner-CBS blackout and point out that Congress and the FCC have tipped the scales in favor of broadcasters with, inter alia, free spectrum, must-carry power, retrans consent rights, network non-duplication rules, and my personal favorite, syndicated exclusivity privileges. It’s just not a fair negotiating environment. But, and this is important, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Trying to plan the market got us into this mess, and making new rules to try to “even out” the playing field is only further distorting the market. As I say,

Congress should completely deregulate the video distribution marketplace by repealing broadcaster’s special rights. While the they’re at it they should also end compulsory copyright licensing that allows video distributors like cable companies to pay regulated rates for the programs they retransmit, rather than negotiate. And they should privatize the spectrum, rather than continue to give it away to broadcasters in the name of the “public interest.”

You can read the whole thing here. And after you’re done, you can listen to my colleague Adam Thierer make much the same case opposite Susan Crawford on the Diane Rehm Show earlier today. Audio is available here.

Plugs out of the way, I want to take a moment to address a small point that really grinds my gears, as Home Simpson would say. It’s the constant refrain I hear about blackouts that consumers are being “victimized” by the impasse in negotiations. Some examples,

Continue reading →

over-the-topCBS and Time Warner Cable have been embroiled in a heated contractual battle over the past week that has resulted in viewers in some major markets losing access to CBS programming. When disputes like these go nuclear and signal blackouts occur, it is inevitable that some folks will call for policy interventions since nobody likes it when the content they love goes dark.

While some policy responses are warranted in this matter, policymakers should proceed with caution. Heated contractual negotiations are a normal part of any capitalist marketplace. We shouldn’t expect lawmakers to intervene to speed up negotiations or set content prices because that would disrupt the normal allocation of programming by placing a regulatory thumb too heavily on one side of the scale. This is why I am somewhat sympathetic to CBS in this fight. In an age when content creators struggle to protect their copyrighted content and get compensation for it, the last thing we need is government intervention that undermines the few distribution schemes that actually work well.

On the other hand, Time Warner Cable deserves sympathy here, too, since CBS currently enjoys some preexisting regulatory benefits. As I noted in this 2012 Forbes oped, “Toward a True Free Market in Television Programming,” many layers of red tape still encumber America’s video marketplace and prevent a truly free market in video programming from developing. The battle here revolves around the “retransmission consent” rules that were put in place as part of the Cable Act of 1992 and govern how video distributors carry signals from TV broadcasters, which includes CBS.

But those “retrans” rules are not the only part of the regulatory mess here. Continue reading →

WP coverThe Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released a new paper by Brent Skorup and me entitled, “A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector.” In this 73-page working paper, which we hope to place in a law review or political science journal shortly, we document the evolution of government-granted privileges, or “cronyism,” in the information and communications technology marketplace and in the media-producing sectors. Specifically, we offer detailed histories of rent-seeking and regulatory capture in: the early history of the telephony and spectrum licensing in the United States; local cable TV franchising; the universal service system; the digital TV transition in the 1990s; and modern video marketplace regulation (i.e., must-carry and retransmission consent rules, among others.

Our paper also shows how cronyism is slowly creeping into new high-technology sectors.We document how Internet companies and other high-tech giants are among the fastest-growing lobbying shops in Washington these days. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, lobbying spending by information technology sectors has almost doubled since the turn of the century, from roughly $200 million in 2000 to $390 million in 2012.  The computing and Internet sector has been responsible for most of that growth in recent years. Worse yet, we document how many of these high-tech firms are increasingly seeking and receiving government favors, mostly in the form of targeted tax breaks or incentives. Continue reading →

Patrick Ruffini, political strategist, author, and President of Engage, a digital agency in Washington, DC, discusses his latest book with coauthors David Segal and David Moon: Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists, and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet. Ruffini covers the history behind SOPA, its implications for Internet freedom, the “Internet blackout” in January of 2012, and how the threat of SOPA united activists, technology companies, and the broader Internet community.

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Richard Brandt, technology journalist and author, discusses his new book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.Com. Brandt discusses Bezos’ entrepreneurial drive, his business philosophy, and how he’s grown Amazon to become the biggest retailer in the world. This episode also covers the biggest mistake Bezos ever made, how Amazon uses patent laws to its advantage, whether Amazon will soon become a publishing house, Bezos’ idea for privately-funded space exploration and his plan to revolutionize technology with quantum computing.

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