NEW YORK – New Federal Communications Commission chairman William Powell said he is excited about his responsibility in shaping the future of digital communications but happy he does not have responsibility for deciding copyright protection issues in the new environment.
Speaking at The Big Picture media forum sponsored by Salomon Smith Barney/ Broadcasting & Cable Magazine recently, Powell called finding a way to balance consumer desires for a free Internet space with the rights of content producers “one of the greatest challenges we face” and a very difficult problem to solve. As Congress hears debate on the topic, Powell said he is glad digital copyright protection is not one of the many issues currently on his plate but a topic on which many other decisions hinge.
“For the Internet itself, government tends to have a bias toward an unregulated environment,” Powell said. “But as that environment increasingly intertwines itself with media property in the traditional sense — whether it be broadcasting space, cable, DBS or even telephone — it presents very difficult policies in reconciling judgments that in many cases are 30 or 40 years old, with the modern paradigm of an Internet-driven services industry.
“One of the greatest challenges I see in the Internet space is that consumers are increasingly acclimated to [the concept that] anything that comes over the screen is free and they don’t want to hear about it being anything but,” the chairman said. “As we know, any market does not ultimately function that way, and the producers themselves will have to find value in offering the services that consumers value.
“It is the attempt to experiment with and find … that point of mutual value that is the struggle of the industries, the source of confusion for consumers and should be the guide post of government policy when making assessments about the propriety of intervention or the timing of any said intervention.”
Powell said the eventual winners in the digital space would be those who present the most value in a way that can be best appreciated by consumers. A “continuing driver of policy” he said will be anti-competitive concerns, and, with a nod to the recent AOL/Time Warner merger, finding the best value in vertically integrating content with distribution services.
“We understand the big-buy itself isn’t bad, but we do understand there are always dangers and threats of anti-competitive activity as industries search for maximum efficiency and try to maximize their value,” he said.
Powell called diversity the second biggest policy driver, but one complicated by its amorphous nature. “You know it when you see it,” he said.
“Diversity is a regulatory challenged principle,” he said. “It is very easy to articulate, very easy to embrace, but trying to figure out the appropriate governmental policy to promote it is much more challenging.”
He labeled the final policy driver addressing “the sense of socially repugnant content.”
“When you talk of prohibiting certain kinds of messages, it is even more challenging given the first amendment,” Powell said. “I’m not a politician, I’m a regulator. I have to write rules, not just have debates about these values. I’m still waiting to understand how to write a rule that defines violence. Does Bugs Bunny count? Should someone being slapped on a sitcom at 8 o’clock count? Should some show that is critically acclaimed like the Sopranos be subject to government regulation?”