This week marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996. Celebrations have been sighted in and around Washington, D.C.
Helpful clarification of the substance of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was provided by Patricia Aufderheide in 1999. Ostensibly passed to support and strengthen market forces in networking, and signed into law at the height of the competition fever that had gripped the citadels of American power, the legislation was part of a more encompassing structural transition. The early 1990s, when about ten giant local- and long distance carriers ruled U.S. networking, turned out to be the last gasp of a tightly bounded industrial giantism. This circumscribed mode of ownership and control was, however, now rapidly supplanted. A much wider range of participants together constituted the giantism that followed: proprietary intranets, operated by big companies based in every economic sector; content delivery networks, operated by the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft; and a scattering of huge backbone Internet providers. One might say that capitalism in communications had been opened to capital at large.
There is little cause for celebration about this, as a quick review of the events occurring this week makes plain. Lawyers, engineers, executives and policy wonks: these were the chief participants. Ordinary folk are as removed from these lackluster events as they were from the legislation itself. On the dreary occasion of Congress’s vote on Public Law 104-104, if memory serves, the only praiseworthy statement came from Congressman John Conyers, a trenchant opponent. Notable was the exceptionally strong bipartisan backing for the measure; and this was attributable to the extensive support that it gained from corporate America. Less interesting was the parade of self-congratulatory speeches that ensued, in which legislators, lobbyists, and academic parrots declaimed on the virtues of competition. Gas-baggery ruled.
Today’s party-ers are cast from the same mold. They don’t seem to include many working people, let alone any trade unionists. That’s not accidental: these are the people whose interests were further marginalized by the Telecom Act of 1996. However, the revolving door between industry and government is spinning as fast as ever, as regulators and lobbyists exchange places. The Center for Responsive Politics lists literally dozens of individuals who have moved between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and industry.[3