Foreign ownership of US broadcasting

Variety reports that the the Federal Communication Commission has relaxed longstanding prohibitions on foreign ownership of US broadcast stations. The move is a sign of the “global” times. It is also an opportunity for diversity, FCC officials were quick to point out. But what kind of diversity?

The restrictions had established a 25% cap on foreign ownership as a means to retain national control of telecommunications infrastructure. Advances in communication have made broadcasting less a concern for national security. The rule change points to the growth of international stakeholders and the growing pool of those with stake in US policy.

The move opens up the market for Spanish-language conglomerates to strengthen their holdings in companies like Univision, but it also changes the marketplace for the growth in foreign news broadcasting operations. Al Jazeera’s purchase of Current TV cable slot might indicate a the future of broadcast stations. The network reported $330,000 in lobbying expenses with the Senate Office of Public Records for 2013. And Al Jazeera is not alone. Foreign news broadcasters have a growing thirst for US audiences and the capital to reach them.

It is tempting to view this process as another example of ubiquitous “globalization,” but the relaxation of these caps comes at an interesting time for US national security. Even as this move frees transnational investment in communication infrastructure, the US Congress has veered in the other direction. In 2012, a House intelligence committee warned businesses to be wary of Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE and questioned whether the firms’ equipment could spy for the Chinese Communist Party. Both tech firms have strong ties to their home government, but the House committee’s suspicion stems from the long-held belief that China tolerates patent and copyright violations. Industrial espionage is, in many cases, a national security priority.

This is an issue of shifting policy priorities. Will fear of Manchurian technology and surveillance of corporate networks displace older fears for radio? It remains to be seen. But these will be competing impulses as media and telecomm integration continues.