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Reform Group Challenges Rush Telecom Vote

The media reform group Free Press has called on Rep. Bobby Rush to abstain from voting on any bills that could benefit AT&T, the telecommunications giant whose charitable arm donated $1 million to Rush’s Rebirth of Englewood Community Development Corp.

The AT&T donation to Rush’s charity was reported today in the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Rush must stay out of any votes that impact AT&T until investigators can get to the bottom of this apparent quid pro quo,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a national media reform organization.

“We need to know if the congressman is selling his vote to AT&T and whether other members of Congress are participating in this kind of chicanery,” Silver said.

Rush is primary sponsor along with two Republicans — House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton of Texas — of the Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act, which is scheduled for committee markup and a vote in the House tomorrow.

According to Common Cause, the COPE Act would place control of the Internet in the hands of a few powerful corporations, “transform the information superhighway into a toll road,” end consumer protections against abuses by cable companies, and expand the “digital divide.”

Lauren Coletta of Common Cause termed “baffling” Rush’s subcommittee vote against a Democratic amendment requiring cable companies to serve low-income rural and minority communities. “That’s obviously going to effect neighborhoods like Englewood negatively,” she said. “They’re not going to build out and invest in infrastructure in low-income communities” if they aren’t required to do so.

Michael Maranda, executive director of the Chicago Chapter of the Community Technology Centers Network, has urged Rush to reconsider his position on COPE, which he says will “open new dimensions of the digitial divide” and “give a green light to digital red-lining.”

Rush has not made a strong case for supporting COPE, said Bruce Montgomery, a local technology access activist and public access cable producer. Any benefits from the bill are outweighted by “much more onerous negatives,” he said — including national franchising for video companies that could undermine local control of cable franchises and support for community access TV.

(Last week Bill McCaffrey of the Department of Consumer Services told Newstips of the city’s concerns that the COPE act could vacate Chicago’s cable franchise agreements and remove requirements that all residents of a service area be served.)

Montgomery called for an extended public comment period and local hearings on the bill.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action says he was “just furious” to learn earlier this month that Rush was sponsoring the COPE act. He had participated in a 1st Congressional District assembly on telecommunications reform in October and “we thought we had an ally” in Rush.

The bill “will be tremendously damaging to local media and the internet,” he said. “Unless it undergoes dramatic changes, it deserves to die.” Among his concerns is the loss of “network neutrality,” allowing internet service providers to determine what content will be available to customers.

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