RealTime IT News

Envisioning a Re-Regulated Internet

WASHINGTON -- Internet policy folks who style themselves as progressives have high hopes that the new administration will reverse some of the deregulatory policies that have left the media and telecom industries operate under their own devices.

Here at the Newseum, where the media-reform group Free Press held its annual "Changing Media" conference, the speakers -- an almost exclusively left-leaning bunch -- were replete with criticism of policies they said had led to egregious market failures.

"We are at the end of the era of deregulation," said Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University and chairman of Free Press. "The ideas that powered the deregulation movement have essentially run their course."

Supporters of a more vigorous regulatory regime criticize the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for allowing cable and telecom companies to secure what they describe as a duopoly in the broadband service market, a policy framework that ran counter to the spirit of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

In the world of newspapers, whose current existential crisis is a popular topic in Washington these days, those in the pro-regulatory camp wag a disappointed finger at the regulatory authorities who gave a green light to widespread media consolidation and the newspaper acquisition spree of 2006 and 2007, which saddled companies like McClatchy with staggering debts just as the bottom was about to drop out of the advertising economy.

Indeed, many individual newspapers are still operating at a profit, albeit it a declining one. But with their parent companies encumbered with so much debt, layoffs and other cuts have become an economic imperative.

Years before the current crisis, when newspapers were riding high on fat profits, critics accused their corporate parents of precipitating their own decline by thinning out newsrooms and cutting coverage to plump up their quarterly reports.

So now, with a Democratic president in office who has shown himself willing to exert far-reaching government control to correct instances of market failure in the banking and auto industries, the progressives are looking for the discussion to move toward what role government should play in nurturing industry, rather than the question of whether it should have one at all.

Next page: How much to regulate?