Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader

Long-time consumer advocate Ralph Nader needs no introduction. He has been leading public interest campaigns, including the Taxpayer Assets Project, which has worked to open public access to JURIS, a Department of Justice data service, and EDGAR, a Securities and Exchange Commission system. The following interview was conducted by Government Technology Features Editor Brian Miller.

by / October 31, 1995
Nov 95 Vendors: Lexis-Nexis

GT: Congress currently has telecommunications reform bills in conference committee. What are some of your concerns with regard to consumer protection as the bills move closer to law? Nader: One is access, one is price and the third is the ability to form our own networks. We're confronting the opposite trends now in Congress, which is obliterating the barrier between the conduit and content. Here's a bill that is supposed to create competition but ends up promoting monopoly power where telephone companies can buy cable and vice versa. Plus they can buy wireless, and the bill endorses closed networks like existing cable systems. This centralizes more power in a weaker Federal Communications Commission, which is still over the state and local regulators. It eliminates the diversity of enforcement strategies that states have been involved in, and the FCC is not willing or capable of doing any regulation. If you had the principles of consumer protection you'd have competition, and a barrier between companies owning both. Which of course is what the Disney and ABC, TCI and Turner mergers are about. That's what happens when you have a cable company with an economic interest in programs, an investment program. You have to protect competition in carrier markets. Likewise, give states more authority to protect consumers so that Americans are not required to put all their eggs in one weak FCC basket. GT: What do you think about the authority being given to state and local government by Congress for consumer protection? Nader: You have the ultimate political hypocrisy for the Republican right wingers in Congress who talk about state rights and devolving powers, which Gingrich has said repeatedly. They are doing just the opposite in this area. They're moving toward preemption, concentrating, stripping the state and local authorities of any power over these industries. The locals should organize on this. GT: Regarding local cable franchising and public access channels - you advocate some changes in the way public access channels are run. Would you explain? Nader: We should have a diverse pattern in licensing. For example, there should be licenses not just to existing TV and radio stations, but to cooperative models of audience networks where people would program their own part of the spectrum time - one hour prime time a night, with dues-paying members to support studios, reporters and producers. What we should get is an audience network with one hour prime time [that] reverts back to a congressionally chartered organization. It can be called the Audience Network, open to anybody who wants to join it, with five-dollar minimum dues a year. They elect the council directors, regional councils, and hire the staff and set up the studios so that there is very intelligent, non-Nielsen, non-advertising agency-determined programming. People become more electronically literate, there's a decentralization in people's ability to put programs on, develop programs, develop good facilities. That's reciprocity. What is the reciprocity for the cable license? Nothing. You could say one reciprocity is going to be a requirement that five times a day on each cable channel, there is a notice inviting cable viewers to join their own statewide cable viewer's organization with full time staff to deal with complaints, rates, programs, etc. There are certain reciprocities now in terms of public access studios, but they're very, very modest. We're heading toward 500 cable channels and we have no student channel, labor channel, college student channel, consumer channel, citizen action channel. We should have all these channels instead of 1,500 different home shopping and movie rerun channels. We should have these channels to enrich our democratic society. People could turn to the consumer channel because on a certain day every week they tell me what buying groups I can join in order to get a better bargaining power. Or I have a real problem in our community, so I'll turn on the citizen's action channel to see what's going on in the country, to see people dealing with similar problems, with phone numbers and addresses that I could contact. One problem now it that there's no reciprocity. The very concept of reciprocity is foreign. These are public assets that are being given away to extremely profitable corporations. Instant multi-millionaires are made. If you're going to license an asset, that doesn't mean you have to license it 24 hours a day to the same company. GT: How would these channels be financed? Expanding public access channels to the degree you advocate could be expensive, and cable companies are unlikely to unilaterally agree to this in franchise negotiations. Nader: It would be easy to pay for because you'd allow them to lease back some of the time to the broadcast and cable companies. You could do a lot given all of the viewers out there, with five dollars as the minimum so you don't penalize poor people. There's no expense to the fund raising because it would be on the screen five times a day. What makes fund raising so difficult is the expense needed to raise it. GT: Using a number of channels for public interest would cut into channels a cable company would otherwise use for paid programming. Nader: Well, then open up to competition. As long you have a monopoly license you have certain reciprocity. If they really want to experience the strange beast called private enterprise, which they all try to control and centralize, let's see if they agree to that. And when it comes to the public airwaves, that's owned by the public. And when the public owns property, it should be able to do what it wants and price it just as a private company does with its own assets. These companies don't recognize that. They want free grazing, minerals, timber - a modestly priced natural resource. They would never operate that way if they owned that timber. It goes to the highest bidder. We're told if we work hard and earn money, we'll own our own home and our own car. But we're never told we own as a commonwealth the public lands, public airwaves, $4 trillion of pension money and so on. As a result, there's an insufficient proprietary interest by the public in what they own together. If you divide this country into private wealth and public wealth, the public wealth will be massively greater than the private wealth - trillions and trillions of dollars more. If we grow up learning about what we own together, there would be a stronger constituency for the concept of reciprocity, the concept of different kinds of leasing arrangements, the concept of allowing people to band together as capable viewers of TV. GT: Do you have some similar concerns regarding broadcast media? Nader: Above all, the public should get a return from public airwaves. The public airwaves are owned by the public, and are given away free to radio and TV. Only recently has the government been licensing cellular. The public's getting ripped off. They've got the public assets that the law says belongs to them and these assets are given away 24 hours a day to private corporations who have no accountability to the public and don't pay any rent. We pay more for our auto license than the biggest TV station pays the FCC. I'm arguing against giving away these assets. I think the key at the local level is to begin to look at public airwaves as public assets that require reciprocity by the licensees. What do we get in return by giving away our broadcast licenses? We don't get anything. GT: The Taxpayers Access Project.asserts that databases created by public funds should be accessible by the public. There are some arguments, even in state and local governments, about charging or using different prices for allowing companies to resell the data to access public information. How should that be resolved? Nader: It's where you draw the line. If you say to the government that all you can do is just produce raw data without any value added, that's very extreme in our point of view. It's a judgement call as to the response for the government which generates the data with taxpayer money to put it in usable form even though it wouldn't do it in all possible usable forms. It still leaves the opportunity for data transformers in private industry. If you just have raw data, then the citizens cannot use it. You can put that raw data out, but nobody can figure it out. Then they send it to Mead Data [now Lexis-Nexis], and they put it in usable form and sell it. That was a policy of Reagan/Bush and that's what we're opposed to. For highly specialized use, fine, because the government isn't going to figure out every potential specialized use. But making it understandable and meaningful at that first level is clearly a government responsibility. GT: Then there's the issue of getting access to government information and privacy protection. A balance needs to be struck. How do we do that? Nader: Strip them of its proper names for one - turn it into anonymous data. The government is not in the business of selling private information for marketing purposes. I've never supported government selling their magazine mailing list. If I subscribed to some government publication, why should I have my name on a mailing list? You've got the privacy act that deals with those things. GT: Local governments use voter registration records for other things, often for jury duty lists. This is information provided for one purpose then used for another. Is this use of data provided for one purpose but used for others something you're concerned with? Nader: No, because that's one public use to another. GT: Public use to public use is different from public to consumer use? Nader: Yes, but it doesn't mean it should be without limits. You wouldn't want it to go to the NSA or the CIA. That doesn't mean it's a right, that it's an open sesame. It does mean it's still under the same protective law and it's a public use, not a profit use. Personal information that floats around in different contexts, commercial, government, etc. , can be used in a system of control and, at its worst - intimidation, at its best, modest embarrassment. That's why there hasn't been a modification to the credit privacy laws for almost 20 years, but if there is there should be a proprietary interest given and information that relates to personal, commercial or otherwise. On that basis you are in control of what databases are going to be receiving or transmitting it. You would have to give permission and also correct errors more easily than is presently the case.