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Senator Al Franken: Politicians Didn’t Stop the Comcast–Time Warner Deal. You Did.

5 minute read
Al Franken is a Democratic senator for Minnesota and member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.

The collapse of Comcast’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable is a big victory for anyone who watches TV or uses the Internet. But it won’t be the last time the interests of consumers clash with the desires of big corporations in the media and technology space. Here are five lessons from this fight I think we should keep in mind going forward.

1. We should believe in the power of grassroots activism.

When this deal was announced, it was seen as a fait accompli; everyone expected it to go through without a hitch. And for more than a year, I was the only senator to oppose the deal.

But we won because ordinary Americans can wield extraordinary power when they raise their voices. It happened when we rallied to save net neutrality, and it happened again here: According to Public Knowledge, nearly 1 million comments and petition signatures were submitted to the Federal Communications Commission asking that this deal be blocked.

Politicians didn’t stop this deal; you did. At a time when cynicism comes easy, and progress comes hard, it’s worth savoring this grassroots victory.

2. We should empower regulators to do their jobs.

This decision illustrates an important reason why we have the FCC (and federal regulatory agencies in general): to protect the American people from being taken advantage of by big corporations.

That said, far too often, those big corporations are able to wield overwhelming influence over the government agencies (and lawmakers) that are supposed to be keeping them in check. Comcast is represented in Washington by more than 100 lobbyists, more than a few of whom have passed through the “revolving door” between the company and its regulators (for example, less than four months after the FCC approved Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011, one of the FCC commissioners went to work for Comcast). Last year, it and Time Warner Cable combined to spend $32 million trying to influence the federal government.

So while it’s critical that we empower regulators to do their jobs, we also have to demand that they do them well; our activism has to outweigh the big money on the other side.

3. We should still be worried about lack of competition.

Even without this deal, there is far too little competition in the cable and broadband markets. As it stands now, 55% of U.S. households only have one choice for broadband Internet—and for a majority of those homes, it’s Comcast. Not exactly an incentive for the company to provide first-class service, as many Comcast customers can attest.

And if you want another illustration of how powerful Comcast is, consider that, during the debate over this deal, other companies who did business with Comcast told me they were afraid go public with their opposition because they feared retribution.

Innovation—along with all the new jobs and economic growth and cool stuff that we get as a result of innovation—comes from competition. And in important sectors of our economy, there still isn’t nearly enough competition. I plan to keep looking for ways to encourage more.

4. We should remember when corporations break their promises.

Comcast had a hard time convincing me, and regulators, that this deal wouldn’t hurt consumers. Part of the reason why is that we had heard similar promises from Comcast before—and they’d been broken time and time again. (And I don’t just mean promises like, “Your technician will be there between 10 and 2.”)

For example: As a condition of the NBCUniversal deal, Comcast (which already owned the pipes through which programming flowed) had to promise not to give their own newly-acquired business or news networks (like CNBC) favorable locations on the cable dial while relegating competing networks (like Bloomberg TV) to the cheap seats. Guess what: They broke that promise.

They also promised to create a standalone broadband product so that people who only wanted Internet service wouldn’t have to buy an expensive bundle that also included cable TV. Comcast created the product; they just didn’t tell consumers about it. In fact, Comcast told Wall Street investors that, with the Time Warner deal done, they planned to push the bundles even more aggressively.

I’m always skeptical about big deals like this one—but we should all be especially wary when they involve companies that have proven to be so untrustworthy.

5. We should always put consumers first in media and technology policy.

I happened to know a lot about consolidation in media because I used to work in media. But to a lot of people, vertical integration and antitrust law sound like obscure, and almost comically boring, topics. And that’s a shame. Because this is really about consumers, and the services they rely on as part of their daily lives, and how much they have to pay for those services every month.

The same was true for net neutrality, which was about whether the Internet would continue to be a free and open marketplace of ideas. And the same is true for work I’m doing as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, looking at how corporations get access to, and sometimes make money off of, your personal information.

More and more Americans are getting educated about these issues, and I’m working to get Washington focused on how they affect the real lives of real people. Media and technology policy has a huge impact on consumers—and consumers’ interests should always come first, just as they ultimately did here.

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