AT&T and the control of news

The House subcommittee on telecommunications is drafting a revision of the Communications Act of 1934 that would prohibit American Telephone and Telegraph from becoming the "publishers" of news on the two-way text services now being offered the public over their television sets. The Senate Commerce Committee has already reported out a bill that would prohibit this.

One reason for congressional concern is that the new technologies raise the possibility that a single organization -- the telephone company, a cable network , or a government agency -- might soon be able to control most of the news and information that come into our homes. All forms of communication are converging now into a single, computerized system. Its focus will be a home communications set that looks like a standard television with a keyboard attached. Besides television, this set will bring us two-way teletext by which we can ask for consumer information to be printed on the screen or printed out on a reusable sheet of white plastic. It can provide us with electronic mail and electronic newspapers.

None of this is blue sky; parts of it are already in use in the United States , England, France, Sweden, Canada, and Japan. Once the parts are unified, an agency that controls the technology could, if allowed to operate without adequate restraints, gain control of most of what we are permitted to read, see, and hear.

This is at issue in the current fight between AT&T and the American Newspaper Publishers Association. A quiet move by AT&T last year in Texas raised a hurricane warning for newspaper editors and others concerned with preserving diversity in the system. What Bell did, through its Southwestern Bell Telephone Company subsidiary, was ask the Texas Public Utilities Commission to approve a test in which it would computerize its white pages and its Yellow Pages, providing directory information and advertising to subscribers via a small video terminal. The service, Bell's application said, would also provide printed information such as news headlines, weather, and sports.

That is where the publishers saw the camel's nose under the tent.They were afraid that a huge monopoly that operates the electronic delivery system could dominate it with its ownm information and advertising services, and exclude newspapers and other providers of information. they started legal action to block AT&T in Texas; the phone company backed off and said they would try their experiment elsewhere. Then the publishers persuaded and senate committee to write in a clause to prevent AT&T from originating news and advertising other than announcements from the Yellow Pages.

The Telephone company denied any intention of usurping the new media. However, William G. Sharwell, Bell's vice president for construction, told me he felt the company should be allowed to complete fully in providing information services to the public.

Advocates of diversity, and I am one of them, believe that a telephone company, cable system, or government body which provides the electronic delivery system should not be allowed to gather and edit (and possibly censor) material that is put into the system. It is dangerous to permit the agency that can press the on-off button to control the information that is provided via its technology.

The proposed restriction on AT&T protect the newspapers' economic position, but they do not go far enough to protect the public's right to know. We need to guaranteem that the emerging system will have diversified information from many disparate sources.

To do this, the backbone network must be operated as a common carrier, with the system open to all comers without interference with the content they put into it -- much as the phone company is required to transmit your calls over its system without interfering with what you have to say.

Enacting that principle into law is by far the best defense we have against dictation of what we may know by an organization that controls the central means of distribution.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.