Monday, October 29, 2007

Net Neutrality's Second Coming

Don't always believe the purveyors of conventional wisdom in Washington. Some of these DC pundits are so steeped in their own "knowledge" that they get stuck spinning their wheels when faced with evidence to the contrary.

This was the case for a few of Washington's finest who recently hunkered down behind their laptops to convince the world that Net Neutrality was dead and gone.

Mark Twain

Greatly Exaggerated Rumors of a Death

The issue is a "fading memory," one crowed. It "barely raises a yawn" said another.

That Net Neutrality has remained a centerpiece of public activism outside the Beltway was lost on these naysayers.

The Road to Recovery

As any 12-step veteran can tell you, denial can be interpreted as a final cry for help. And more than one Potomac insider could use an intervention.

Fortunately, some of their colleagues have stepped in to report that the fight for Net Neutrality is alive and well. It's leading the news and being vigorously debated on the Hill and along the campaign trail.

Indeed, earlier today support for Net Neutrality emerged as the No. 1 issue that thousands of visitors to TechPresident had selected to be answered by all the presidential candidates. By Monday afternoon's count, more than twice as many people had voted for the Net Neutrality question over any other issue at

Sen. Barack Obama answered their question during a live forum on MTV. "Yes, I am a strong supporter of Net Neutrality," he said, adding that discrimination "destroys one of the best things about the Internet -- which is that there is this incredible equality there."

On the Hill and in the Media

On Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats have joined in a call for urgent congressional action in defense of Net Neutrality. Last Thursday, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) called for new hearings, citing recent incidents of blocking of cell-phone and Internet traffic.

The senators wrote that recent actions by Comcast and Verizon have raised "serious concern about the phone and cable companies' power to discriminate." They called upon the Senate Commerce Committee "to determine if they were based on legitimate business and network management policies or part of practices that would be deemed unfair and anti-competitive."

In less than two days, 10,000 activists wrote their members of Congress supporting the senators' call for hearings.

Net Neutrality has become the topic du jour among tech-forums and trade press as well, including prominent reports at SlashDot, Ars Technica, Consumerist, Machinist, BetaNews, WebProNews, GigaOm and, yes, even CNet News -- whose own DC navel gazer declared the "death of Net Neutrality" just a few weeks ago.

Gatekeepers in Need of a Solution

In mainstream press, Stephen H. Wildstrom, a senior technology writer and editor at BusinessWeek, wrote that he had shifted his position to support Net Neutrality following recent incidents of network gatekeeping. "The behavior of the top telecommunications companies, especially Verizon Communications and AT&T, has convinced me that more government involvement is needed to keep communications free of corporate interference," he wrote.

In the Washington Post, Rob Pegoraro wrote last week that customers ought to have a simple remedy in cases where the only Internet providers available attempt to block or slow their connections. "The network-neutrality debate will never go away as long as [the lack of choice in the ISP market] remains the case," he writes, "nor should it."

At the San Jose Mercury News, Vindu Goel writes that efforts to restore Net Neutrality protections had been unsuccessful in the absence of evidence that Internet providers were meddling with the free flow of information. He adds that all this has changed since Comcast began blocking peer-to-peer sharing.

"There was no real evidence that Internet providers were discriminating against any content," he concludes. "Now there is."

Life Beyond the Beltway

Net Neutrality has also been debated in recent issues of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal and in hundreds of new blog posts since early October.

So the next time some insider tells you that Net Neutrality is dead I advise you to check his pulse instead. Then point out the more than 1.5 million Americans - from every state and county across the nation -- who are taking action to protect the free and open Internet.

And if you can spare it, give him some change for bus fare and a map of the world beyond the Beltway.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Verizon's Crocodile Tears Mask a Threat to Democracy

You may have missed it in the fine print of your agreement. Phone companies like Verizon and AT&T reserve the right to block your free speech and terminate your cell phone services "without prior notice and for any reason or no reason."

That's chilling enough, but here's the shocker. There are no laws that prevent these giant companies from censoring your speech on their networks. That's right -- free speech ends at your cell phone.

Verizon's Gag Rules

Verizon's Gag Rule

This is why Verizon recently got away with blocking text messages that NARAL Pro-Choice America wanted to send to its members.

This begs the question: "If the phone company can’t tell you what to say on a phone call, then why should they be able to tell you what not to say in a text message, an e-mail or anywhere else?"

They shouldn't. But don't tell that to Verizon.

Verizon Is So Very Sorry

On Wednesday, New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky called two senior Verizon lawyers to testify at a hearing on their company's recent censorship of NARAL.

The lawyers groveled before the Assemblyman and his colleagues. Verizon was so very, very sorry about the incident that they changed some "dusty policies" so that this particular mistake would never, ever happen again. But when pressed they refused to relinquish their company's authority to censor other speech over their networks.

Verizon apologies should provide little comfort. Free Press has sifted through the agreements of several Internet and cell phone providers -- including Verizon and AT&T -- and found explicit language that reserves their right to cut off, block or permanently cease to provide services to anyone -- and for no reason.

Imagine that. Free speech over networks used by more than 230 million Americans can be denied at the whim of a Verizon and AT&T -- the same companies, by the way, which are now seeking retroactive immunity for illegally wiretapping Americans and handing over the results to the government.

A Wild West View of the Internet

Verizon's two lawyers went one further. They told Assemblyman Brodsky that their company should be free from any and all regulatory restraints. Above the law. Americans should simply trust that Verizon will do what's best for everyone -- as the Internet's sheriff, gatekeeper and undertaker all rolled into one.

So, do you trust Verizon to serve your interests?

Internet, email and text messaging are a final refuge for free speech -- at a time when other "mass media" have become the domain of a handful of powerful companies. We can't let the Internet slip into the hands of the same types of gatekeepers that now control most of what we see and hear over television and radio.

Policies not Apologies

Sen.Dorgan Takes a Stand

It's clear that the fundamental democratic principles of free speech and open communications are too important to entrust to corporate gatekeepers like these.

Lawmakers need to take decisive action to protect the free flow of information over 21st Century communications. The most important free-speech principle in communications law is nondiscrimination; and its most important application is Net Neutrality.

There are a few bright lights in all this telco darkness. One is Sen. Byron Dorgan who on Wednesday called for a congressional investigation into censorship on cell phones and the Internet. Earlier this year Dorgan joined with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine to introduce the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act," which protects Net Neutrality under law. At the moment he needs your support and support from his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

Another bright light is New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky. At the end of his hearing this week, he pledged to re-draft and re-introduce state level legislation that would prevent phone and cable companies from smothering the free flow of information over Internet and cell phone networks.

Free Speech for the 21st Century

The other bright lights are the more than 1.5 million Americans who have called for baseline protections to our freedom to chose where we go, what we say and whom we say it to every time we boot up our computers or pick up our cell phones.

We are facing down one of the most powerful corporate lobbies Washington has ever seen. We need to match the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend to strong arm legislators, rewrite the law and distort democracy with the voices of millions more who believe the Internet must remain free, open and available to everyone.

We must fight for freedom of speech, right now in a digital world, as stubbornly as we fought for at our nation's founding.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


We just released this game. As news of Murdoch’s Fox Business Network is making the rounds, we wanted to frame the issue as a problem of consolidation -- and do it in a way that's fun for all.

The main point is this: When we let a few giant conglomerates control so many outlets, quality journalism turns into junk partisan media, and our democracy suffers.

Hopefully, this will draw more attention and people to the issue just as the FCC is weighing a decision that could further unleash the floodgates to consolidation. In 2003, more than two million people responded when Michael Powell’s FCC tried to sneak through rule changes that would have handed more local media to large conglomerates.

Congress got so many letters and call that they reversed Powell’s move. We expect current FCC chair Kevin Martin to rule in favor of more consolidation later this year. We hope to spark a similar outcry.

Please take the game for a spin:

My best score is 520.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bush and the Phone Companies: Partners in Crime

Originally published at Huffington Post

Phone companies have opened a new front in their campaign against the free flow of information. This time they've found a powerful ally in the White House.

AT&T and Verizon have already shown their disdain for free speech and Net Neutrality, and their eagerness to let government spies lurk on our phone calls. Now, their lobbyists have teamed with President George Bush to strong arm Congress into granting full immunity for a disturbing array of illegal and unconstitutional acts.

George Bush

Bush: Siding with AT&T and against the rest of us

A handful of legislators, though, are holding out against the pressure, which is no small feat given the extreme powers behind the amnesty grab.

Money, Politics and the Law

Both Verizon and AT&T spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign contributions, congressional junkets, Washington lawyers, lobbyists and PR campaigns.

Much of this political clout is now being focused on one issue: elevating phone companies above the law so they can invade our homes via phone lines, the Internet and other modern communications -- acting as the ultimate gatekeepers against the free flow of information.

Earlier this year they were caught handing over customer phone records to the National Security Agency (NSA). The phone companies first denied it and then started a quiet campaign with the White House to gain immunity from any lawsuits.

The campaign got a lot louder on Wednesday, when President Bush told reporters that he would veto a new FISA eavesdropping bill that doesn't grant retroactive immunity to the phone companies.

Thus far, about 40 active lawsuits name several telecommunications companies for alleged violations of wiretapping laws. Other suits are in the works, pending this legislation.

A Few Brave Congress People

Despite the intense pressure from lobbyists and the White House, Americans are telling Congress that they're fed up with the abuse.

On Wednesday, some of our representatives showed that they were listening. The House Judiciary Committee voted down an amendment to the FISA bill, which would have granted legal immunity to Verizon and AT&T for an as yet unspecified list of legal violations. (The White House and NSA have thus far refused to reveal to us just how far the phone company legal abuse has gone).

Democrats will bring the bills to the full House for passage next week. The Senate Intelligence Committee will be introducing its own bill. The House move against immunity should serve as a guide for their colleagues in Senate chambers. [See update below]

Telecommunication companies are among the most powerful political donors in the United States. They have also worked hand-in-hand with the Bush administration to whittle away our constitutional freedoms, all the while seeking special policy favors and a rubber stamp for a recent spate of mega-billion-dollar telco mergers.

Protecting Free Speech Everywhere: Democracy's Last Stand

Today's committee vote might be a hopeful sign that their political clout has its limits. But this fight is far from over. Bush is still threatening to veto any legislation that doesn't hold his telco friends above the law.

It begs the question: Why would someone stick out his neck so far to protect such bad actors?

Amnesty for AT&T and Verizon for illegally wiretapping Americans is a stunning example of the ways this White House sides with their corporate benefactors against the most fundamental democratic principles. The Bush administration would rather flout the laws for themselves and other friends in high places than protect the free speech and privacy of law abiding Americans.

Phone companies can't be trusted to act in good faith to protect the free flow of information. The White House can't be trusted to stand with ordinary Americans and the Constitution against its own special interests. Congress must step in to protect our rights to use phones, text messaging and the Internet with policies that keep the lines open, neutral and free of corporate and government gatekeepers.

The fight for these basic freedoms will be fought in Congress. It's time everyone got involved.

[UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald reports that the Senate version of the bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D - W. Va.) DOES contain full retroactive amnesty for the telcos. Greenwald points to Rockefeller's long history on the receiving end of phone company contributions as possible explanation]

What's the Biggest Threat to Free Speech

Originally published at Huffington Post

If you thought phone companies were simply supposed to get you connected, think again. Over the last week we learned that the nation's two largest telecommunications firms want to get into the business of censorship as well -- blocking the free flow of information over phones and the Internet.

VZVerizon's notion of "progress" may not agree with your notion of free speech
We saw an unsettling example of just how bad this can get last week. Verizon Wireless blocked text messages that national pro-choice group NARAL wanted to send to their members. That they reversed the decision after the censorship was exposed should offer little comfort.

While they may have scrambled to fix one "dusty policy" and let these messages through, we can see in the details of this and other episodes a worrisome pattern of abuse. And it's not just at Verizon. Over the weekend, the technophiles at Slashdot exposed what many of us failed to read in the fine print of our AT&T customer agreements.

Censorship Is in the Details

Deep in its "terms of service" for high-speed services AT&T had buried this tidbit: The phone company may "immediately terminate or suspend all or a portion of your service ... without notice, for conduct that AT&T believes ... tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries."

We have since sifted the agreements of other access providers and found even more explicit language over at Verizon: The company "reserves the right and sole discretion to change, limit, terminate, modify at any time, temporarily or permanently cease to provide the Service or any part thereof to any user or group of users, without prior notice and for any reason or no reason."

You got that?

You're Busted!

These multi-billion dollar network giants are telling their Internet and cell phone customers this: If you want "your world delivered," you better play nice with the phone companies.

That means no speaking out of turn against AT&T and Verizon's slow services, high prices or anti-competitive practices.

Speak out for Net Neutrality and you could find your self on the wrong side of the digital divide. Losing an Internet connection would hit especially hard those millions of Americans in markets where the phone company is the only Internet service in town.

It gets weirder. Listed among AT&T's "prohibited activities" are "creating or attempts to utilize a domain or domain name that is defamatory, fraudulent, indecent, offensive, deceptive, threatening, abusive, harassing, or which damages the name or reputation of AT&T." [my emphasis]

This seems to take AT&T's content policing one further. It is not enough that you can be disconnected for conduct that damages the reputation of AT&T, but you can lose your feed for simply visiting a Web site -- or "domain" -- that does the same.

Guess what? You're doing that right now.

Free Speech Everywhere

Perhaps you think we're making much out of nothing -- that such fine print is created by lawyers to cover a company's butt in rare, worst case scenarios.

Try thinking about it this way: If a phone company can't tell you what to say on a phone call, then it shouldn't be able to tell you what to say in a text message, an e-mail, a blog or anywhere else. Speech should be free wherever it occurs - on the Internet, over cell phones, on the streets - everywhere. And it should be protected.

More and more of our communications occur in digital formats. It's time Americans safeguarded free speech in this new media with the passion that we protect it in old. A good place to start is with the two companies that control Internet and cell phone access for more than 120 million Americans.

Earlier today, my organization Free Press called on Congress to convene hearings that address phone company censorship policies. You can support this effort by writing your member of Congress and urging them to stand with the rest of us and investigate this abuse.

The biggest threat to free speech in America is public complacency. We must have this discussion about our democratic rights while we still can.

Phone lobbyists exert immense power over both Democrats and Republicans in the halls of Washington. As an alternative to opening their doors wide to AT&T and Verizon lobbyists, the least our elected officials could do for us is keep new communications open for everyone.