Tuesday, February 28, 2006

AOL Admits Defeat in War on Spam

STOP AOL's Email Tax
Today, an unlikely coalition of more than 50 groups, representing some 15 million people, launched a campaign to fight AOL's new pay-to-send email scheme.

In addition to Free Press and Electronic Frontier Foundation, coalition members include Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, MoveOn.org, Gun Owners of America, the Association of Cancer Online Resources, the Humane Society, the AFL-CIO, RightMarch and others.

Cumulatively, these groups count more than 3 million AOL subscribers as members, or in excess of 15 percent of AOL's customer base.

While the organizations occupy almost every corner of the political landscape, we're united in opposition to AOL's plan to make large group e-mailers pay to bypass the email service's Swiss cheese spam filters and get guaranteed delivery to the inboxes of AOL customers.

AOL's Spam on Spam

AOL's pay-to-send plan is the latest media snake-oil scheme, designed to give users the impression of improved service while serving no one but the company’s bottom line.

In fact, the AOL pay-to-send plan could make spam worse. As AOL turns its attention to revenue generating email it has a cash inducement to let its free-to-send service grow increasingly unreliable.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham presents his company's new regime as a boon to end-users, stating -- misleadingly -- that a certification system will protect user inboxes from spam. This isn't true. AOL subscribers will receive certified email in addition to the regular traffic that clutters most inboxes.

"We continue to provide exceptional service to all email senders who conform to our antispam guidelines," Graham writes in a rebuttal to our campaign. "In fact, CertifiedEmail serves as a valuable, new standard and threshold for the delivery of legitimate email that will serve as a guidepost for other email senders to follow and adhere to."

Nice try, Nicholas. AOL hasn't solved the spam problem at all; they've merely created a second tier for delivery, one favoring those who can afford to pay AOL's express rate. The other tier -- which has been increasingly compromised by AOL's inability to distinguish honest email from spam -- will remain in place. It may get worse, even, as AOL tries to "incentivise" more users to move from the free lane to their toll road.

The Façade of Good Intentions

You would think that AOL could better spend its time and energy improving the existing spam filters. Apparently not.

According to Andrew Lochart of the email service provider Postini, AOL's effort "badly misses the mark" because it will lead to more spam in user inboxes. "It guarantees delivery of paid-for bulk email based on the sender paying, not based on users' preferences," Lochart told Red Herring. "In other words, it will allow more, not less, unwanted email through to users."

David Hughes, chief executive officer of email security company Reflexion Network Solutions, said AOL's proposal "violates the democratic principles of the Internet and many people will see this as a transparent attempt to develop a new revenue stream despite the company's façade of good intentions."

In truth, AOL is attempting to profit from its own incompetence. By adopting the pay-to-send plan, AOL is declaring defeat in the war against spam. But instead of waving a white flag, AOL has asked legitimate senders to pay for its failure by buying an easy pass to users' in-boxes.

Where's the benefit in that?

But that's just the half of it.

Your tax dollars at work
As I mentioned earlier today, AOL's email tax is one salvo in a two-pronged assault on a free and open Internet. On the one hand, we have large cable and telephone companies that are now seeking to become the gatekeepers to Internet content and services. (for more on this visit NetFreedomNow.org). On this front we have large email providers that want to turn email communications into a privileged realm for those who can afford to pay a corporate tax.

These are the first steps onto a slippery slope that could dismantle the net freedoms that Americans have come to know. These types of corporate schemes discriminate against those of us who use the Internet to spread new ideas and spark innovation and dissent.

Reversing the Revolution

The Internet has evolved to be the most democratic medium in the history of communications – more accessible even than Gutenberg’s press. At its core is its ability to level the playing field for all comers.

The brilliance of this end-to-end network is that the intelligence resides at the edge of the network; the wires in between simply pass information between individual users. Those who run the network’s only job is to move data — not to stifle user innovation by selecting which users to privilege with higher speeds and "guaranteed" delivery.

If corporations like AOL get their way today, they’ll stifle the spread of independent ideas that we've come to expect online and shift the digital revolution into reverse.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Network Neutrality: Dead on Arrival?

Your tax dollars at work
Network neutrality, a principle that ensures the free flow of ideas online, appears dead on arrival in Washington as big media once again wield influence over our elected politicians.

The numbers tell the story. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, AT&T and other telephone and cable companies are among the top contributors to the re-election campaigns of a number of house Telecommunications Subcommittee members, including Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who has received more than $12,000 from AT&T executives, employees and their family members. Comcast associates tipped in an additional $10,000 equaling Upton's contribution from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

And hands aren’t clean on the other side of the aisle either. AT&T, Comcast and NCTA have tipped more than $100,000 into the campaign war chests of Telecommunications Subcommittee Democrats as well.

The corporate largesse is paying dividends. Sources inside the House of Representatives revealed earlier this week that all language pertaining to network neutrality has been struck by subcommittee from the latest draft of the Telecom Act.

According to the National Journal, the Telecommunications Subcommittee is likely to drop all references after lawmakers failed to reach consensus on the issue. If the Journal report is correct, the DC bottleneck is the net result of the full-tilt lobbying by AT&T, Comcast, BellSouth and Verizon.

In addition to the money spent to fill campaign coffers, they have funneled tens of millions of dollars to lobbying efforts, industry friendly think tanks and political junkets, waving a strong hand over all sectors of the political process -- at the local, state and federal levels.

By lining their pockets with telco dollars, certain lawmakers have opted to turn their backs on network neutrality and abandoned their posts as guardians of our public commons. They've decided that committing a crime of omission is better than standing up to the corporate powers that be.

A Telecom Act without network neutrality would hasten the Internet's demise -- effectively ridding our online experience of the governing principle that until now fostered the free flow of ideas and made the Web a beacon for democratic ideas and business innovation.

A Telecom Act without an enforceable rulebook would leave this democratic medium to the whims of predatory telephone and cable companies. The stage is now set for these conglomerates to play gatekeepers to all online content and services -- turning our net freedoms into their net revenues.

If the nation's largest ISPs are allowed to discriminate against the flow of web traffic, The New York Times editorial board wrote on Sunday, "the Internet providers, rather than consumers, could become the driving force in how the Internet evolves."

The profit motive of a few corporations would supplant the freedoms of all users, determining which innovations end up shaping our digital future. The threat is real. These companies could block us from viewing a favorite podcast or blog, cut off net phones unless we use the company service, or force us to download MP3s from their company store while slowing access to other music sites.

AT&T, Bell South, Comcast and Verizon make massive campaign contributions. They're used to getting their way in the halls of Congress. And they don't want network neutrality to stop them from getting their way online.

Only a public outcry can restore this founding principle, before it becomes a footnote in the history of the Internet’s fall.

It's time Americans who feel strongly about an open and free Internet told our elected representatives to reverse course. Net neutrality is an issue where the public's interest cannot be outflanked by massive telcos and their well-oiled politicians.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Is Network Neutrality DOA?

Your tax dollars at work
NetFreedomNow is now gathering 100,000 signatures in a campaign to pressure Congress to save network neutrality.

This public push is especially urgent now. Sources inside the House of Representatives just revealed their intention to strike network neutrality from the latest draft of the Telecom Act.

According to the National Journal, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is likely to drop all references after lawmakers failed to reach consensus on the issue.

If the Journal report is correct, the DC bottleneck is the net result of the full-tilt lobbying by AT&T, Comcast, BellSouth and Verizon. These corporations have convinced enough pliant members of Congress to discard with neutrality safeguards altogether -- effectively ridding the Internet of the governing principles that until now fostered the free flow of ideas and innovation.

A Telecom Act without network neutrality would leave the future of the Internet to the whims of predatory telephone and cable companies. The stage is now set for these communications giants to play gatekeepers to all online content and services -- turning our net freedoms into their net revenues.

Not good.

To that end, The New York Times editorial board wrote on Sunday:
If access tiering takes hold, the Internet providers, rather than consumers, could become the driving force in how the Internet evolves. Those corporations’ profit-driven choices, rather than users’ choices, would determine which sites and methodologies succeed and fail. They also might be able to stifle promising innovations, like Internet telephony, that compete with their own business interests.
AT&T, Bell South, Comcast and Verizon make massive campaign contributions. They're used to getting their way in the halls of Congress. But it's time Americans who feel strongly about an open and free Internet told our elected representatives to reverse course.

Put enforceable network neutrality principles into our telecommunications laws and regulations by taking action now at: www.netfreedomnow.org

Net neutrality is an issue where the public's interest cannot be out-flanked by massive telcos and their well-oiled politicians.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Striking the Spark for a Net Revolt

Sparking the Revolt
Here are my notes from the network neutrality call I hosted on Friday with Stanford University’s Lawrence Lessig, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy and my colleague at Free Press, Ben Scott. The audio file is now available here.

I’ll be writing and posting a 1,000 word op-ed on this in the next couple of days. For a sampling of some of the best podcasts, blogging and other reporting coming out of the event, check out:
  1. MediaGeek's outstanding analysis of network neutrality and what's at stake in Washington.

  2. At the National Journal, Beltway Blogroll's overview of the blogosphere's response.

  3. Sandhill Trek's call to arms to stop ISP providers from taking Americans "even further into a second class swamp of deteriorating end-to-end service."

  4. Bob Morris boils net neutrality down to "three flash-point issues."

As major communications companies plan to control and profit from our broadband future, bloggers, independent media makers and their audiences need to remain vigilant and encourage a real debate about protecting the free flow of information and ideas.

Free Press has started to convene monthly blogger calls at the intersection of media and policy. With this series, we hope we can spark a serious debate about what the future of the Internet -- and all digital media -- will be.

Here are some memorable quotes from the first call.

Lawrence Lessig, Stanford Law School:
"What's happening here is not that people have been calling for new regulation of the Internet. What's happened is that there has been a radical change in the underlying regulatory infrastructure for telecommunications."

"Last August the FCC took the final step to remove those principals of neutrality from any part of the broadband network... that neutrality principle has been central to guaranteeing that outsiders can begin to build new applications and content for the Internet."

"All of the major innovations in the history of the Internet are by non Americans and kids, right, these are outsiders. That's because the architecture of the Internet, built upon this value of end-to-end neutrality, invited outsiders in to innovate. Now that's threatened by this change. What will happen when this principal of neutrality is removed from the network is that the network will increasingly auction off the highest value chunks of broadband network to the highest bidders. The next generation of applications and services will find it harder to compete against today's applications and services."

Jeff Chester, founder of the Center for Digital Democracy:
"The future of the Internet and our entire digital media environment is at risk with profound implications for democracy, civic participation, dissent and equity... We need Congress to step in now to help save the Internet's democratic and competitive potential."

"The cable and telephone industry have successfully led a political campaign to get to this place. They specifically want to undo the public policies that support the open end-to-end architecture that's been at the core of the possibilities for the Internet."

"They have a huge incentive now to discriminate because the government has now created as a result of their lobbying a broadband monopoly controlled by either the cable or telephone companies."

Ben Scott, policy director, Free Press:
"Now is the moment when legislation on the future of the Internet will be written, If there's ever a moment for a ruckus to be raised and the public to become seriously involved in the details of how Congress makes policy to decide the fate of the Internet, now is the moment."

"We need to bring as many people into the biggest possible movement we can muster to register with policy makers and the mainstream media that this issue of network neutrality is of central importance to us and that citizens and consumers will not stand for a Internet that's turned into the private property of the telephone companies and cable companies."

"If business were as usual, [the telecom companies] would win this. But there have been important instances where grassroots resistance has actually stopped major changes in public policy... I think a similar thing could happen here. If there really were a grassroots opposition to this, that raised a lot of anger and passion around it, I think there are a lot of politicians who would pick up on it.

"One thing I saw at the hearing, when I was testifying, is that it just didn't sit right, either with Republicans or Democrats, to imagine the Internet changed into a place where you basically could control what people had access to, or the networks had the right to control what people had access to. There really is an opportunity to do something successful in this context if there really were a movement."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Fleecing and Flogging of Americans

Your tax dollars at work
The Cold Warriors of old were seasoned practitioners of the fine art of propaganda. But their overblown manipulation and intimidation of the media would never pass muster in today's hyper-clogged information age.

Don't get me wrong; manipulation and intimidation still occur. They just take on more subtle -- and, as a result, more insidious -- appearances.

This White House is a new master of the form, and they have found a way to pay for their deception. They are quietly picking the back pockets of U.S. taxpayers to turn around and sell Bush’s political product back to . . . U.S. taxpayers.

The tab for the fleecing and flogging of Americans comes to at least $1.6 billion. That's the amount seven Bush administration agencies spent from 2003 through mid-2005 on hundreds of contracts with advertising agencies, PR firms, and individuals, according to a Government Accountability Office report released yesterday.

The GAO report carefully itemizes this administration’s preference for pre-packaged reporting at the expense of real news and information – in a scheme to make U.S. taxpayers pay for their own deception.

The report found that White House public relations spending goes well beyond the practices of any prior administration. The contracts included $2.5 million to present the Army's strategy in the global war on terrorism; $86 million to explain the new Medicare prescription drug benefit in a bilingual ad campaign; and a $6.3 million agreement to help the Department of Homeland Security educate Americans about how to respond to terrorist attacks.

Fixing the Facts

This is not the first we’ve heard about this. Last September, GAO auditors scolded the White House for squandering American tax dollars to hire fake news reporters and unleash a pre-packaged news blitz in advance of the 2004 elections. That GAO report found the White House violated the law by hiring pundit Armstrong Williams to appear before the cameras and tout Bush’s education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, while interviewing administration officials on the air.

Your tax dollars at work
The White House continues to deny that the government's practice of feeding TV stations prepackaged fake news, which don’t disclose the government as the source, amounted to "covert propaganda."

Yesterday’s GAO finding shoots down that sophistry. "No amount of money will successfully sell the Bush Administration’s failed policies, from the war in Iraq, to its disastrous energy policy, to its confusing Medicare prescription drug benefits," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said following the release of the report. "The American people know the Bush Administration is on the wrong track and the White House PR machine won’t change that fact."

Propaganda Track Record

The question now before Congress and the Department of Justice is whether this spending merits the enforcement of long standing prohibitions against "covert propaganda." The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids the domestic dissemination of government-authored propaganda or "official news" deliberately designed to influence public opinion or policy. The law singles out materials that serve "a solely partisan purpose." The GAO has already found at least four separate occasions that Bush administration agencies violated this and other federal restrictions.

A recently inserted provision into an annual spending bill would require federal agencies to include a "clear notification" within any prepackaged news story that was paid for by the government. Though this new legislation still floats somewhere between a Senate committee and the floor.

Given its track record, it’s more than likely that the White House has set other illegal propaganda efforts loose in the media mainstream. We just don’t know about them yet.

The Public Eye and Prosecutor's Sword

While the compounding evidence is damning, the GAO lacks the teeth to enforce laws against the ongoing abuse. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has final say over executive branch legal matters. And GAO and Justice Still don’t see eye to eye on covert propaganda, specifically on the issue of unidentified video news releases.

Much of this has been left to the public to do what our elected and appointed officials are unwilling or unable to: pressure our government to stop using our money on propaganda. In October, Free Press unleashed a public campaign to do just that. In less than a month, nearly 40,000 concerned citizens signed letters to Congress and the Justice Department, urging Attorney General Alberto Gonzales "to prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law."

Justice should never be delivered by popular fiat – but it's essential that our elected officials and their appointees understand that the public is watching. As more evidence comes into view, we're able to assemble a case against an administration that has gone too far, involving a systemic and quiet campaign to raid the public till, manipulate the Fourth Estate and turn the electorate in favor of an unpopular president.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Bush Budget Pumps Propaganda, Slashes PBS

The most recent twist of Bush's budgetary knife lays bare the White House's real information priority: Fake news trumps honest reporting.

Out of his depth

ON MONDAY, President Bush released plans to inject more tax dollars into the government's propaganda machinery while slashing the budget for the nation's public broadcasters.

Bush's proposed 2007 budget calls for a $671.9 million for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that supervises all US government non-military propaganda. Bush’s budget also cuts by more than $53 million money set aside for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the agency that allocates federal money for NPR, PBS and other federally funded media.

The amount allocated to the BBG is a 4.3 percent increase from the agency's 2006 budget with monies specifically "targeted to the war on terror," according to a Monday news release. These tax dollars would flow to government mouthpieces including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

The propaganda earmark exceeds Bush's proposed federal budget for public broadcasting by more than 90 percent. The White House proposal seeks to slash the CPB's 2007 appropriation from $400 million to $346.5 million.

The budget also proposes to "zero out" an additional $65 million that local public broadcasters had requested to help pay for digital TV conversion and the costs of upgrading public broadcasting's satellite interconnection system. These cuts would hobble NPR and PBS stations' ability to deliver the investigative reporting and in-depth news and information that's absent from the programming of their commercial counterparts.

This twist of Bush's budgetary knife lays bare the White House's information priority: Fake news trumps real reporting.

Out of his depth
And who better to deliver the news than propaganda errand boy Kenneth Tomlinson. The disgraced former public broadcasting czar still retains a seat atop the BBG.

"In the post-Katrina budget environment, we are fortunate to get an increase that strengthens our role in the war on terrorism," he said in a release from the propaganda agency. Tomlinson's duplicity is laid on thick here. You may recall he was shown the door at the public broadcasting agency last November after an internal investigation exposed Tomlinson’s efforts to impose a Bush-friendly agenda on PBS, NPR and other publicly funded programming.

We thought we had seen the last of Ken then. Not so. The latest White House move still puts Tomlinson on the receiving end of Bush's propaganda dividend.