Senator focuses on how net neutrality and media mergers impact democracy.
Google "Google antitrust hearings," and 1.2 million results pop up.
But unlike the alleged business practices that are the focus of next week's congressional hearings, none of the top search results give Google an unfair competitive advantage.
Instead, they guide the reader to a litany of complaints that Google searches unfairly channel consumers toward services Google could profit from.
The hearings were called by the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights. Given the pace of change in the media landscape, the subcommittee better have an appetite for warmed-over pizza and cold conference room coffee.
Technological transformations have made media among the most dynamic sectors of a stagnant U.S. economy, and along with the hardware come hard questions about how to keep a level playing field without leveling the innovation driving the digital revolution.
In addition to the antitrust subcommittee, the Judiciary Committee's newly formed Privacy, Technology and the Law subcommittee is taking a look at other media matters under the chairmanship of Minnesota Democrat Sen. Al Franken, whose calling card was comedy, not courtrooms.
When it comes to media policy, Franken isn't joking around.
Instead, he's been at the forefront of fights over media mergers and net neutrality, among other privacy and technology issues. The role fits Franken, whose media career gives him the experiential bandwidth to decode complex technology and telecom policy while positioning himself as a consumer advocate.
Along the way, however, he's alienated allies. Many unions lobbied for the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. But Franken opposed it over consumer concerns and the potential for job losses, which were also reasons the Justice Department decided to try to block the deal.
Franken also spoke out against the proposed merger of NBC Universal and Comcast despite his years at NBC as a "Saturday Night Live" cast member and sitcom star of "LateLine."
"It came from my experience at NBC -- I really love NBC," Franken said in an interview. "But I realize that I was the only one who really knew how NBC works, and why that merger was going to hurt competition, innovation and consumers."
Franken's perception of NBC's strategy goes back to the intense industry fight over the "financial-syndication rules" that once prohibited networks from owning their prime-time programming. Repealed in 1993, many shows are now produced in-house, instead of at independent production companies.
"Independent production just fell through the floor, there is much less choice for consumers, and fewer people were deciding what was on television," he said.
Limiting sitcom selection is one thing. News and information options are another.
Which is one of the reasons Franken has become an outspoken advocate in the important, albeit arcane, argument over net neutrality, which is the principle that proposes that all Internet content be treated equally by Internet service providers.
"The biggest fear in net neutrality is having the faster lane for corporate information," Franken said. His concerns include inhibiting innovation, which he said has happened online under the current regime of net neutrality, as well as inhibiting democracy itself.
"Our whole democracy is based on society having all the information possible. This is a very dangerous thing," he said.
Whether such a high profile on media issues is a dangerous thing politically will become more apparent in 2014, when Franken is up for reelection. Minnesota is more known for med-tech than media-tech, unlike Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley in New York.
And yet nearly everyone, in some way, will feel the impact of any new rules regarding media policy.
"If, as a senator, you decided that all you were going to do is to focus on national issues and you ignored constituent service, you'd be in big trouble," said Norman Ornstein, the Minnesota native who is now a nationally noted resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
"But I don't think he's got a problem with this at all. ... It shows him to have some of the strengths of Paul Wellstone, which is a passion for freedom and equality, and at the same time it shows that this is not just a guy who is a comedian who came to the Senate. Instead it's somebody who is a serious policy wonk getting involved in all kinds of issues that have real implications for voters and the power structure in the country."
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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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