Making a pest of himself

Consumer advocate Mark Cooper has long been a major pest to the Bell telephone companies. Now, he's buzzing around the cable-television business. Since AT&T's breakup in 1983, the Consumer Federation of America's research director has cajoled regulators tirelessly in local rate cases and in the Bells' attempts to get into the long-distance-telephone business. The regulators held the line against the Bells, in no small part because they agreed with Cooper's argument that the phone companies have failed to open local markets to competition.

During the past two years, he has brought similar aggravation to cable companies by preparing much of the economic analysis that consumer groups use in their fight to make MSOs open their broadband platforms to rival Internet providers. And he has played the same role in efforts to apply open-access rules to interactive TV in the America Online-Time Warner merger.

"Mark Cooper is the consumer community's one-person research department," says Center for Media Education President Jeff Chester. "He is one of the most dedicated advocates to ensuring that we have both competition and democracy in our media system."

As Cooper sees it, the transition to digital will alter the TV industry radically. The new interactive services, he says, will generate new revenue for cable systems and broadcasters through enhanced home shopping and new businesses, such as marketing of viewer data.

AOL and Time Warner, along with the rest of the cable industry, have vociferously fought restrictions that they say could hinder development of new digital services.

Cooper, however, says now is the time for regulators to establish an open architecture and to set clear privacy protections for consumer data. Otherwise, he believes, operators will try to trap customers in proprietary programming and selling environments that block, or at least hinder, viewers' access to interactive content from unaffiliated networks or the Internet.

Broadcasters generally have been supportive of greater controls on cable interactive capabilities-in large part because they fear that MSOs will restrict stations' own interactive services once digital broadcasts go mainstream.

But over-the-air services will face restrictions, too, if Cooper gets his way: "Broadcasters are going to discover that consumers want different kinds of rights because stations are selling stuff and gathering information."

Two mentors were especially influential in Cooper's forsaking a university career for consumer advocacy: Juan Linz, a political scientist who helped write the constitutions of Spain and Portugal when those countries shed military dictatorships, and Malcolm Kerr, who was assassinated after leaving a UCLA post to become president of the American University in Beirut.

"They were academic political scientists who ended up actually practicing politics," he notes.

Despite often opposing corporate interests, Cooper insists that he's a die-hard capitalist-and that means fighting monopolies. "Reconciling the progressive and the democratic with capitalism creates a really nice place to live. But you have to fight for that stuff, because it is not the natural state of affairs."

Critics, however, dismiss Cooper's claim to being a democratic freedom fighter. They note that some analyses penned in fighting the Bell companies were paid for by their rivals, AT&T and MCI.

"That taints his consumer-advocacy positions," says BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey. "The Consumer Federation of America has a bad track record of predicting the sky is falling. He said people would be dumped from the local phone network in droves and prices would go up. But no areas have lost phone service, and prices are flat."

Cooper insists that only two of his past projects received corporate support and now he refuses all corporate money. "This is not simply an academic exercise. It's the democratic process we fight for."