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<nettime> Charles Ferguson: Trump's real issue is his threat to the inte
Patrice Riemens on Thu, 2 Mar 2017 19:30:36 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Charles Ferguson: Trump's real issue is his threat to the internet

original to:

Forget Trump’s tweets and media bans. The real issue is his threat to 
the internet

Deregulation could allow the president to undermine freedom of speech in 
a way that was beyond even Nixon

Monday 27 February 2017

In one of the most jaw-dropping press conferences of all time, this 
month President Trump declared war on the entire news media, except Fox 
News and Alex Jones of InfoWars. Last week he doubled down with his 
speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, on the same day 
that the Guardian, New York Times, BBC and CNN were among news 
organisations barred from a press briefing.

All of this is occurring at a time of unprecedented financial pressure 
on the news media. For newspapers and magazines, both advertising and 
readership are shifting rapidly from print to the internet. Print 
advertising and circulation revenues are declining sharply.

Furthermore, as readership shifts to the internet, digital advertising 
revenues are shifting even more sharply away from the news publications 
themselves to the small number of technology companies that send them 
traffic. Facebook and Google now capture the overwhelming majority of 
digital advertising revenues.

When the Washington Post and New York Times, among others, faced off 
against the Nixon administration over the secret bombing of Cambodia, 
the Pentagon papers and then Watergate, they were enormously profitable, 
secure companies. So were Time, Newsweek, and other news magazines; and 
so, despite their dependence on regulation by the Federal Communications 
Commission, were the three television networks.

That world is gone. Newsrooms are being downsized, starting with 
investigative journalism, the most expensive kind of reporting. The 
Washington Post has sold itself to Amazon. The Los Angeles Times and 
Chicago Tribune are basically bankrupt. None of the major television 
networks or cable channels are independent any more, and most of them 
are under increasing financial pressure.

Against this backdrop, however alarming Trump’s attacks on the media 
are, they are less significant than other actions that, paradoxically, 
have received far less media coverage – but that present a very real 
threat to journalism and freedom of speech in America.

Donald Trump lost no time installing Ajit Pai as the new chairman of the 
FCC, which regulates broadcast and internet media. Pai has stated that 
he opposes net neutrality, the principle whereby service providers and 
regulators treat all data the same. Since his appointment Pai declined 
to say whether he will enforce existing neutrality rules, but if these 
rules are overturned then the small number of companies that dominate US 
internet access will be permitted to promote content of their choosing, 
placing other content and its providers at a disadvantage.

Pai has reversed a recent FCC decision that would have opened the 
provision of cable set-top boxes to competition. The move allows cable 
companies to retain control of not only set-top boxes, but also the 
software and programming content passing through them. This of course 
runs counter to Trump’s avowed principle of helping the little guy, etc 
– but that is no longer a surprise. Pai also blocked a programme 
designed to provide internet access to rural and low-income households.

There is potentially far more. The FCC holds sway over all 
telecommunications. As the newspaper and magazine industries convert to 
digital formats, they become dependent on services subject to FCC 
regulation. Given Trump’s personality, track record and various 
statements, it does not seem insane to worry that he might try to use 
the FCC to exert political pressure on the news media. It has been tried 
before, notably by Richard Nixon, when he was trying to persecute 
enemies and suppress the scandals of Watergate.

But the relaxation of oversight with regard to concentration of the 
media industry – mirroring other sectors, including banking, though 
receiving far less attention – is even more worrying. The FCC and the 
justice department both oversee competition, or antitrust, policy for 
telecommunications. And both have been asleep at the switch for years. 
The internet-access industry has become a tight oligopoly, which keeps 
the price and speed of US internet access far behind those of other 
industrial nations.

Even this isn’t the worst of it. The large internet providers are now 
acquiring the media properties for which, increasingly, their services 
are essential. Amazon has bought the Washington Post. Verizon is buying 
Yahoo and has already purchased AOL, the owner of the Huffington Post. 
AT&T is buying Time Warner, which owns CNN and HBO among other channels. 
A large portion of the news media will soon be owned by enormous 
companies with very strong special interests of their own.

Antitrust policy was already in bad shape under Barack Obama; now it’s 
going to get much worse. Trump singles out Fox News for praise at the 
same time that the sale of its largest rival, Time Warner, is under 
antitrust review at the justice department. That would be the same 
justice department where Trump recently fired the acting attorney 
general for refusing to enforce his orders, on the grounds that those 
orders were illegal – a position subsequently upheld by the courts. It’s 
not hard to imagine what might happen to anyone who gets it into their 
head to stick up for market competition or media independence.

All is not lost, of course. Much of the news media is feisty in covering 
the Trump administration, and independent voices remain plentiful. But 
kleptocracies and dictatorships don’t usually appear overnight; they 
creep up on you gradually. And this would definitely be one of those 
times to start looking over your shoulder, early and often.

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