You’ve probably heard about the news of Comcast’s upcoming merger with Time Warner and this week’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling on net neutrality, but the concrete impact of what those decisions mean for our media landscape can feel abstract and remote.
Here’s why you should care: Comcast could soon own a third of internet. And they’ll be able to sell the best service to the highest bidders, like Facebook and Google. While media outlets are historically responsive to reader input, citizens have way less sway over the companies that will control our online media access. Google doesn’t have a “letters to the editor” section about its policies. Pretty soon, these major companies could dominate our internet airwaves, with the companies that shell out the most to Comcast becoming the only places to stream news and videos with decent buffering times.
Though it’s often framed as a fight between Netflix and Comcast, net neutrality and the upcoming merger are about more than how fast people will be able to stream Mean Girls in high definition. These two internet freedom cases have potentially major economic and social repercussions, as one company will control the infrastructure that supports a huge amount of our nation’s media.
On Wednesday, the FCC aid that it would propose new rules that will allow internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon charge companies like Disney and Google for faster avenues to send video and other content to their customers. Meanwhile, Comcast is planning to merge with Time Warner—if federal regulators approve the deal, the new company will be in charge of the television and internet connections for roughly one in three American homes. As this chart from Free Press shows, Comcast-Time Warner Cable will control half the high-speed internet access in the United States.
More Americans get their news from online sources than from the radio or TV, so the ruling threatens the future of smaller media companies that can’t pay up for the fast lanes—not to mention small businesses, start-ups, and media outlets like Bitch. Fact is, independent and nonprofit media outlets that don’t have Disney’s budget (or even just a little extra cash to spare) won’t be able to compete: It’s the equivalent of a company buying up half the newsstand in town and then charging the New York Times to put their paper on the shelf before any of the small fries. The alternative to net neutrality is net discrimination. As a recent editorial in Fortune noted, “A merger between these giants would threaten an open and fair market for cable television as well as Internet access.”
There’s also the issue of the cost for people to actually get online. Let’s face it, no one’s ever accused Comcast of caring too much about the little guy, and it has a track record of raising its rates more steeply than other companies. Yikes.
Professor D. Watkins noted recently people who can’t afford smart phones and internet connections are increasingly “too poor for pop culture.” As Comcast raises the cost of getting online, more people could be priced out and unable to access news, art, and entertainment. Think about that. If Comcast raises rates the way it has in the past, more readers will become unable to afford the daily dose of Bitch, and we might be unable to afford to deliver it to you. Raising rates for internet access would contribute to a class-based information gap, where people are unable to afford to participate in daily media.
But here’s the kicker: there’s a gendered impact to allowing Comcast to take over more and more of the nation’s internet access. If Comcast is allowed to dominate the market, it will hurt the chances of small business entrepreneurs, who Free Press Engagement Director Mary Alice Crim says are more likely to be women. “At a time when we need to address broader issues of gender equity in America, this is going to set us back in ways the FCC just doesn't or won't contemplate,” says Crim, who explains that women are more likely that men to start small businesses and Comcast’s hold on the market will make it hard for small tech companies to compete against the big dogs. “The FCC's rules will send a chill in the investment climate for Internet start ups, which will disproportionately impact women entrepreneurs,” says Crim.
The internet has revolutionized the playing field for independent media, and if we have anything to say about it, we’d like to stick around. While the spread of news online has hurt the business model of traditional print media, it has taken out many of the gatekeepers who stood between news writers and news readers. Now, it’s easier that ever for individuals to publish their own ideas and share them with millions of people. These days, front-page news often bubbles up from grassroots sources, as people publish their experiences on social media, personal blogs, and independent online outlets. With this week’s ruling, the FCC establishes Comcast as the nation’s premiere gatekeeper of journalism. People who can’t afford their rates and outlets who can’t compete against Disney-size budgets will be squeezed out.
Want to speak up for equitable internet access and independent media? Tell the FCC to block Comcast's merger.
Related Listening: We put together a whole podcast about open source feminism, profiling folks working to make information free and accessible online.
All graphics created by Free Press and used with their permission.