Five Questions for Jeff Chester

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Jeff Chester, executive director of the not-for-profit Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C., has been a critic of cable operators since before the 1984 Telecommunications Act when, as a freelance reporter in California, he observed the lobbying for cable deregulation there. He later ran Ralph Nader’s Teledemocracy Project, which sought cable re-regulation. He’s written a new book called Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy ($24.95, The New Press), urging private and public action beyond anti-discriminatory “network neutrality” curbs on Internet providers to keep the Internet “a robust, open medium.” He spoke with Multichannel News executive editor Kent Gibbons.

MCN: What’s your biggest fear about the future of the Internet?

JC: The biggest fear is that it’s being transformed into a perpetual, virtual Madison Avenue machine. That we will be bombarded with precision ads that will make us better consumers and not citizens.

MCN: What’s your solution?

JC: There needs to be national legislation so that people can control all their information. They can’t be targeted online, via interactive television or on mobile networks without their consent.

MCN: Isn’t the Internet already about as commercialized as it could be?

JC: But the Internet and all digital media is on the verge of a major transformation. It will be able to better deliver these multimedia, virtual-reality enriched, precision ads. And it will be ubiquitous on all the so-called triple play platforms. So as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. And as my book talks about, the fact that they’re working on neuroscience now, the ad industry, and they’re working with cable and others, and are really trying to push the envelope with brain behavior. To really figure out, OK, how do we use multimedia to bypass the conscious mind, to reach deep into our emotions? The fact that they’re actually doing that — to me it takes it to another level of concern.

MCN: Where do cable companies stand in your hierarchy of potential Internet-corrupting forces?

JC: For many years, I joked that the broadcasters were lucky that cable threatened to be the worst form of all media alive. But I think that it’s pretty much a draw. The broadcast phone, cable and advertising industries are not to be trusted by the American public, by and large. Cable has made endless promises to the public, which they have broken. They have controlled the kind of programming that the public sees, with the exception of the deals that they had to cut with broadcasters. I think that the cable monopoly is something that the public should be concerned about.

MCN: Do you disagree that network-neutrality restrictions could inhibit private investment in improved broadband access?

JC: Ridiculous. Cable and telephone subscribers have paid for a super-fast broadband network several times over. Network neutrality will do absolutely nothing in terms of denting returns or slowing down deployment. Look, the reason that the cable and phone companies oppose network neutrality is they’re desperate to extend their monopoly business model from multichannel video to the broadband world. … The cable industry, along with the phone industry, is trying to hijack the Internet in the United States.