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FCC Meets Today on AT&T Merger: Why You Should Care

Without Net Neutrality, these media giants will transform the Web into their own empires, destroying the Internet's promise to break Big Media's stranglehold on access and distribution.
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Earlier this week Alberto Gonzales's Justice Department sold out to Big Media by green-lighting the largest communications merger of all time with no conditions to ensure that the public is protected. The decision coincides with daily revelations of how consolidated, corporate media are failing to provide critical journalism and services that the public needs and deserves. Anyone who is concerned about the dismal state of the media should be outraged by this, the most recent assault on media in Washington.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission meets to approve or scuttle the proposed AT&T-BellSouth merger; part of AT&T's relentless march to re-assemble the Ma Bell monopoly. But the stakes are much higher today than when - prior to its 1984 anti-trust break up - just one phone monopoly ruled the nation's phone system.

Thanks to the national transition to high-speed broadband, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner are poised to control all electronic media - phones, TV, music and the Web. AT&T - led by monopolist-in-chief Ed Whitacre - sees Net Neutrality as a major obstacle to this billion-dollar scheme.

Net Neutrality was the law until the FCC removed it in 2005. It ensured that broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon treat all information moving through the Internet equally - without slowing down or speeding content based on who pays them more. Without Net Neutrality, these media giants will transform the Web into their own empires, destroying the Internet's promise to break Big Media's stranglehold on access and distribution.

The FCC as early as today (October 13) could give a final approval. FCC Chair Kevin Martin has already indicated his willingness to follow the DoJ's lead and rubber stamp the $79 billion deal without Net Neutrality protections.

Today's New York Times editorial reads, "By approving the merger between AT&T and BellSouth unconditionally, the Bush administration has again abdicated responsibility for protecting consumers when huge companies combine."

In Martin's view - severely clouded by his keepers at the White House - the proposed merger does not raise a significant threat to Internet choice or Net Neutrality. Regrettably, this view ignores the enormous market power that a new AT&T would wield. The merged entity would become the principal - in most cases only - phone-based broadband provider in 23 states.

Martin has also ignored prior statements by executives of both companies. In interviews with the Financial Times, Washington Post and BusinessWeek, Whitacre and BellSouth executives have outlined plans to consolidate their control over the Internet by erecting new online toll booths and discriminating against Web sites that don't pay their "special service" fees.

But there is a growing glimmer of hope. Since Wednesday, when the DoJ passed on the deal, more than 20,000 Free Press and activists have sent letters asking for a Net Neutrality condition to be placed on the merger.

Two of the four who will vote, Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, have indicated that they will support this as part of any merger. But they still need strong public support to prevail.
The fourth, Republican Deborah Tate of Tennessee, is expected to follow Martin's lead - dead locking the FCC in a 2-2 tie. Under the Communications Act, transfer of phone lines and wireless licenses can only be on an affirmative finding by the Commission.

According to Harold Feld of Media Access Project, the only way to break the tie would be for Martin to force a fifth commissioner, Robert McDowell, to "un-recuse" himself from the process. McDowell had backed away from involvement due to a conflict of interest with respect to prior work as legal counsel for a telecommunications lobbyist.

It's now up to the FCC to step in where the Justice Department fears to tread; to put away rubber stamps and 11th hour maneuvers and serve the interests of a free and open Internet and the millions of Americans who use it.
But if recent history is any measure, there is no chance that FCC Chairman Martin and his keepers at the White House will do anything to protect the public from Big Media: whether it's about lifting media ownership limits, passing net neutrality, giving us fair use of the public airwaves, or placing real public interest protections on the AT&T merger.

Corporate control of media has given those in power a pliant, corporate-friendly press that has - until recently - been the cornerstone in their successful control of public opinion. It has only been a few intrepid journalists and the devastatingly unavoidable realities on the ground in Iraq, New Orleans, and across our nation that have laid bare the truth to the American people.

Most of the mainstream media has been and continues to be too fearful, too entrenched in the status quo, too subservient to corporate advertisers, and too insulated from realities on the ground - domestically and abroad - to meet their obligation: to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.

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