TCS Daily

Democrats vs. New Media

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 27, 2002 12:00 AM

Terry McAuliffe is worried. What the Democratic National Committee chairman is worried about is asymmetrical political warfare: while the Democrats have done well with big donors and big media, they're being flanked by the Republican party, which has done far better with small donors and what might be called small media. He's been crisscrossing the country with a Powerpoint presentation that talks about how effectively the Republicans are using talk radio, Web message boards, and email-coordinated assaults on online polls.

McAuliffe is especially worried because the campaign finance 'reform' bill that has just passed will make dependence on big donors and big media more difficult. He's trying to get ready for the new small-donor, small-media era with one last round of big-money donations from big-media figures, including a record $7 million donation from Haim Saban, the creator of such programs as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. McAuliffe also scored $5 million from Steve Bing, another Hollywood executive.

McAuliffe hopes that this money, coming in just before the campaign finance reform law makes such donations illegal, will help the Democratic Party position itself to be competitive in the small-media arena, which is likely to be far more influential as Web use grows and as the new campaign law eliminates soft-money ads.

But McAuliffe's strategy is doomed to fail. It's doomed to fail because it is aimed at treating the symptoms, rather than addressing the reason Democrats are so unpopular with producers and users of small media in the first place. And nothing illustrates the problem more than what happened the same day that McAuliffe got his $7 million check from an entertainment mogul: Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, himself a recipient of nearly $300,000 in entertainment-industry money during the last election cycle, introduced legislation that seems guaranteed to ensure that the small-media world will hate the Democrats, whose support for copy protection -- and receipt of campaign contributions from the entertainment industry -- far outweighs that of Republicans.

Hollings' bill, cosponsored by Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska; $85,659 from entertainment industry in 2000), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii; $49,852 from entertainment industry in 2000), John Breaux (D-Louisana; $121,920 from entertainment industry in 2000) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California $216,138 from entertainment industry in 2000) , bears the title of the "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA)." But it's not about making broadband more successful. It's about making sure that the Big Media moguls who are bankrolling McAuliffe's campaign are given ironclad control over individuals' computers, televisions, PDAs, and other electronics.

The bill would make it a crime to sell any digital device -- a computer, PDA, DVD player or recorder, etc., -- unless that device contained government-approved technology to prevent unauthorized copying. It would also make it unlawful to import software -- perhaps even a single copy of a program purchased from a foreign website -- without government permission. (This will kill a lot of superb software entrepreneurs in countries like Poland and India that need the export earnings and that are friendly to the United States' war on terrorism. But this impact on foreign producers is no accident.)

For someone who's worried about what Web message boards are saying about Democrats, this seems like an awfully dumb move. (It's already filled up one Web message board -- a Senate site taking comments on the legislation -- with negative comments). There's nothing more likely to inflame the Web than a copy-protection bill that is a complete sellout to corporate interests, and that's what this one is.

Then there's the loss of moral legitimacy: It's hard to pose as friends of the little guy against Big Business when you're taking money from Big Business while taking long-established rights away from the little guy. (Scott Harshbarger of Common Cause calls this move "a shocking fire sale.")

If the Republicans have any sense, they'll be making an issue of this in the next elections, painting the Democrats as hypocrites who have sold out to Hollywood, and who are trying to reach, Big Brother-like, into the hearts of American televisions and computers. But even if they don't, a lot of Web denizens will be saying it, and it's likely to have a lot of resonance. Because it's true.

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