COPE bill would harm public’s access to information, deepen digital divide and stymie Internet innovation, 27 groups warn Congress
Twenty-seven public interest, consumer, religious and media reform organizations today called on Congress to defeat the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 (COPE, H.R. 5252), the first overhaul of our nation’s telecommunications laws since the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the COPE bill within the next few weeks. Groups signing on to the letter to House members include Common Cause, the Alliance for Community Media, FAIR: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, Inc., MoveOn.org Civic Action, and U.S. PIRG.
The COPE bill would “harm the public’s access to information, will stymie innovation on the Internet, and deepen the digital divide,” the groups said in the letter. The letter also raised concerns over the federalization of the video franchising process and the lack of local consumer protections.
The COPE Act’s weak “network neutrality” provisions have come under intense fire of late. Network neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content they want, post their own content, and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their Internet service providers (ISPs). ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast have announced plans to create a tiered structure on the Internet, where their own content (and the content of companies that pay them large fees) will travel in a “fast lane” while the rest of the web would be relegated to a “slow lane.” Nonprofit groups have expressed concern that citizen advocacy and access to diverse viewpoints would be harmed under such a system, and claim that the COPE Act does not adequately protect network neutrality.
The full text of the letter and full list of signers appears below:
The undersigned groups are urging you to vote against H.R. 5252, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act. The bill will have an impact on every American family, but the only agenda that will be promoted and enhanced by this bill will be that of the country’s largest telephone and cable companies.
This bill will harm the public’s access to information, will stymie innovation on the Internet, and will deepen the digital divide. The COPE Act will:
Fail to protect the public’s experience of a free and open Internet. The COPE Act does not contain any language specifically requiring “net neutrality” — the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content they want, post their own content, and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their Internet service providers (ISPs). Without these protections written into law, the COPE bill opens the door for companies to turn the free and open “Information Superhighway” into a toll road benefiting their own bottom lines. They would do this by charging content providers for access to their Internet “pipes,” and by relegating non-payers – everyone from bloggers and nonprofits to small businesses – to the slow lane, where they will be more difficult to find and harder to access.
Eliminate the authority of local governments. The COPE Act states that if a telephone company wants to offer video programming, it does not have to negotiate local franchise agreements, the way cable companies had to. Instead, it would get a national franchise that sets some minimum standards of behavior and compensation to local governments for using their rights of way. Depriving local governments of their power to negotiate directly with video providers harms communities by eliminating local control of public rights of way used not just by communications companies, but also water, power and gas providers – not to mention cars and pedestrians. The COPE Act would also endanger the funding and channel capacity of public, educational and governmental (PEG) channels, jeopardizing citizen access to vital local news and information that is too often overlooked by consolidated media.
Permit companies to offer special deals to high-income customers at the expense of lower income families. Current law states that every cable customer pays the same for cable service, regardless of where that customer is located. But the COPE law will make it possible for phone and cable companies to compete for the high-income customers by slashing prices in affluent neighborhoods, while keeping prices high for customers in other parts of the cable market area that are less desirable.
Exacerbate the digital divide, by failing to ensure that the benefits of telecommunications competition will be extended to everyone. When a local community awards franchises, it requires video providers to extend their services to the entire community, not just certain neighborhoods. With local governments no longer calling the shots, the COPE law does nothing to ensure that video providers “build out” their systems to include all families, including low-income, minority, and rural households. This information “redlining” can have a catastrophic impact on economic justice.
Leave the job of policing cable and telephone companies largely up to federal regulators. The Federal Communications Commission would be the primary enforcer of consumer rules. The FCC has neither the experience nor the resources to adequately address the millions of consumer problems that arise annually.
The COPE Act will harm our access to information, our local communities and our democracy, and we strongly urge you to vote against it.
Access Channel 5 NY
ACME: Action Coalition for Media Education
Alliance for Community Media
CCTV Center for Media & Democracy
Center for Digital Democracy
Chicago Media Action
Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting
Community Television of Santa Cruz County
Consumer Project on Technology
FAIR: Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
Media Access Project
Media for Democracy
MoveOn.org Civic Action
National Video Resources
Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, Inc.
Prometheus Radio Project
Reclaim the Media
SCAN Community Media
U.S. Public Interest Research Group
Cable Advisory Council South Central Connecticut
Wallingford Public Access Group, Inc. (CT)
Worcester Community Cable Access, Inc, “The People’s Channel”