Tuesday, October 28, 2008

NAB Goes Back to the Future

As the fight over "white spaces" heats up, the technophobes at the National Association of Broadcasters are clinging to outdated scare tactics to protect us from the monsters of innovation.

Be Very Afraid

Stirring up fears about technological advances is a well-worn page in the broadcasters’ playbook. The NAB opposed satellite radio, cable TV, and even the VCR when they were first introduced, calling them a threat to the future of over-the-air television.

Well the future has arrived once again. This time it's in the form of a technology that uses vacant airwaves to connect millions of people to high-speed Internet services.

White spaces technology works, as evidenced by an exhaustive study by FCC engineers. It can be used without interfering with television signals, they concluded. But don't tell that to the NAB. They'd rather Washington gave in to their extravagant tales about creatures and ghouls determined to kill your TV.

Sound familiar? In 1974, the NAB attempted to frighten us away from cable television with a PSA that's was as over the top then as are their claims about white spaces today. (play the clip above)

It didn't work in 1974. Hopefully, the FCC will learn from the past and dismiss the NAB's latest round of fear mongering as yet another bad TV rerun.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debates Still No Place for Average Joes

Joe the Plumber may have played a role in last night's debate, but average "Janes" and "Joes" were left on the sidelines.

As the lights dimmed on the fourth and final debate of the 2008 season, one thing has become clear: These types of debates are vestiges of a bygone TV era. Tightly scripted formats and media middlemen aren't what public discourse should look like in the age of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

With the digital world at our fingertips, we the people have come to expect a seat at the table. The Commission on Presidential Debates -- the party-controlled organization that dictates debate formats -- remains reluctant, however, to offer up a chair.

Plumbing the Internet

The candidates clearly struggled last night to strike a common chord with stories of Joe, a real-life plumber from Holland, Ohio. But in their efforts to evoke him, Joe came across as little more than a middle-class caricature propped up for their rhetorical benefit.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of other "Joes" were submitting debate questions to Google's "moderator," Twittering about the debates at "Hack the Debates" and rating the media's performance at RatetheDebates.org.

The spirit of democratic discourse was thriving on the Web's rough and tumble social networks, in spite of the canned speeches being delivered at the same time over the mainstream networks.

"Four years from now, the public's use of the Internet to connect with each other and organize around like-minded interests will force the candidates and the debate commission to significantly abandon the limited format of televised debates," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum.

Rasiej, along with a bipartisan coalition of organizations, is urging people to abandon the debate commission's model and move away from "the scarcity model constraints of TV" toward the open abundance model of the Internet.

People Aren't Props

Over at RatetheDebates.org many of the 2,700 citizen "raters" thought last night's moderator, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer did a decent job -- but he didn't do enough to challenge the candidates' spin. More than 64% of McCain's supporters and 58% of Obama's supporters said he needed to hold the candidates accountable when they didn't tell the truth.

This concern has been consistent in prior debates with many raters reporting that the debate format limited the public's ability to engage in the discussion, while not allowing enough leeway for a departure from scripted answers.

"I'm not really sure that it is necessary to have an audience at all, since they weren't allowed to talk and had to remain neutral," said one rater. "Why have people there at all? We only see them as the candidates walk in."

"I would like for the audience to be able to respond by clapping when they agree with the candidate's position," responded another. "It makes debates much more lively."

"Questions should be drawn from a pool that are submitted and voted upon by citizens either online or by other means," another citizen wrote. "This would achieve a closer approximation to what people really want to know without filtering."

Several other panelists called for instant fact-checking of answers so candidates could not take advantage of the format to spin issues and avoid real answers. "We should have fact-checkers going during the debate so we know when one candidate is lying," suggested one. "The average American does not have the time to fact check everything the senators say."

Learning from Twitter

Last week's town hall format with Tom Brokaw was supposed to put the public front and center. But Brokaw only selected a handful of questions from more than 6 million e-mail and Internet submissions.

Rules set forth in a 31-page memo drafted by the campaigns and agreed to by the debate commission prevented questioners in the studio audience from asking follow-up questions or even showing emotion. Their microphones were cut immediately after their questions were asked and the cameras weren't even allowed to focus on their faces as the candidates responded.

One rater from the Oct. 7 debate said that it's not a town hall meeting "if the 'town hall' is not allowed to participate in the conversation other than by reading prepared questions."

With luck, 2008 will be the last year that the Commission on Presidential Debates gets to set the rules of the road. Voters are already joining forces online to demand interactions with the candidates that are more democratic, transparent and accountable to the public.

It's time the networks, parties and their co-conspirators at the commission followed our lead -- or got out of our way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

AT&T Promises Not To Spy on You... Sort of

You would think that AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner execs had turned a page and formed a new front in defense of your online rights.

Late last month, they lined up before the Senate to mouth principles that would, in their words, ensure that Internet "consumers have ultimate control over the use of their personal information and guards against privacy abuses."

The issue spins around the use of a content-filtering technology called "deep packet inspection" or DPI, which allows network managers to inspect, track and target user Internet content as our information passes along the Information Superhighway.

Headlines following the Senate hearing struck a reassuring note, declaring these companies were taking a stand with consumers and "keeping their distance" from DPI.

But we did our own packet inspection and found that the telcos' actions often speak louder than their testimony.

Breaking and Entering

DPI forms the cornerstone of plans to police the Internet and profit from Web content. Using DPI companies like AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner would be able to decide whether a packet can pass or be routed to a different lane on the Superhighway. It lets them pry open user's trunks, erect new tolls and sell off or bar privileged access based on what they find inside.

CicconiCicconi: Trust AT&T. We Won't Spy on You.
"Simply put, Deep Packet Inspection is the Internet equivalent of the postal service reading your mail," Public Knowledge founder Gigi Sohn said during the September hearing. "They might be reading your mail for any number of reasons, but the fact remains that your mail is being read by the very people whose job it is to deliver it."

In January, AT&T lobbyist James Cicconi said the company was testing Web technology so that it could scour user traffic.

The company's stated goal was to help the copyright cops in the recording and motion picture industry stop illegal sharing of music and movies. (This is why these same companies have also formed a bulwark against Net Neutrality rules that would prevent such snooping.)

But once the technology is in place, AT&T can use it to inspect so much more.

Internet Troopers

DPI is already being used by other governments, including China and Burma to prevent politically sensitive information from making it in or out of their countries.

AT&T could easily tweak this same technology to let Ma Bell peer into all of your Internet use.

And if history is any guide, the communications giant is not to be trusted with our most privileged information. Americans have already been subjected to the National Security Agency's domestic spying program courtesy of AT&T.


Verizon is similarly flirting with DPI -- and has a similar history of abuse.

"To be clear, Verizon has not used -- and does not use -- packet inspection technology to target advertising to customers," Thomas J. Tauke, Verizon's top lobbyist told worried senators during the September hearing. "And we have not deployed the technology in our wireline network for such purposes."

TaukeDoubleTauke: Let Me Manage You.
But note Tauke's careful parsing of terms.

DPI is not being used by Verizon to target advertising, but the Verizon exec left the field open for other applications. "Packet inspection can be a helpful engineering tool to manage network traffic and enable online services and applications consumers may wish to use," he said.

Indeed, Verizon has reportedly been seeking technology vendors who can help it fulfill these gatekeeper ambitions.

But you won't hear that from the company's executives themselves.

Telcos Mum on Plans to Filter

According to an April report in the Washington Post, Verizon, AT&T and other providers were reluctant to reveal the extent of their Web filtering, but the companies that sell the technology -- companies such as NebuAd, Phorm and Front Porch -- were more forthcoming.

Front Porch collects detailed Web-use data from more than 100,000 U.S. customers through their service providers. At the time, NebuAd had agreements with providers covering 10 percent of U.S. broadband customers, chief executive Bob Dykes told the Post.

But what's good for their business is clearly bad for the public's Internet.

With billions of dollars at stake in controlling your online experience, it's little wonder that these companies see DPI as the Holy Grail of Internet profits.

It's also no surprise that they're having troubles telling us the whole truth about their plans to use it.

= = = =
UPDATE: Stacey Higginbotham of GigaOm reports on Verizon's notion that free market pressure alone will protect consumers from abuses. Seems that line of argument sunk with the stock market earlier this month.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Taking the Town Out of 'Town Hall'

John McCain's supporters seemed happy with the ground rules of the second presidential debate in Nashville. Barack Obama's supporters seemed happy with the results. But many were troubled by the debate organizers' claim of true public participation in Tuesday's forum.

These are some of the findings of the third Citizens Media Scorecard rating the 2008 presidential and vice-presidential debates. An online panel of more than 2,800 volunteers was recruited by Free Press to "score" the conduct of moderator Tom Brokaw during the "town hall" styled debate.

Where's the Town in Town Hall?

Brokaw selected some questions from audience members and from more than 6 million e-mail and Internet submissions.

But a large portion of the questions were his own, and at times the audience members seemed more a backdrop to Brokaw than protagonists in the debate.

Republican McCain has long insisted that he prefers the town hall format for political debates. And, according to the panel, his supporters share his preference. Almost half the McCain partisans (48% vs. 24% for Barack Obama supporters) judged the town hall format in Nashville to be superior to the moderated format 11 days prior in Mississippi.

Checking the Spin

"Brokaw's balance of issues received high marks from partisans of both candidates," according to Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, who designed the Scorecard and analyzed the responses Tuesday night. "And their complaints about bias were in perfect balance too."

In the view of the panel, however, Brokaw's decision not to fact-check the candidates or challenge their spin was a problem: 83% of Obama supporters and 75% of McCain supporters wanted to see more challenging follow-up questions from the moderator.

"Like other moderators before him, Brokaw allowed the senators to avoid answering questions and meander to their own comfort zones," said one volunteer rater.

"[Brokaw] kept saying their answers were too long, but didn't focus enough on what they were saying," said another.

More Town Hall, Less Wax Museum

Writing for Tech President, Micah Sifry called the Town Hall format a "bust" for not more directly involving the public in the initial and follow-up questions. Sifry recommends having a follow-up round of public questions, "so the public and the candidates could dig deeper, and get past the soundbites."

"The pre-agreed rules that prevented the studio audience from asking follow-up questions or even showing emotion, made the 'town hall' style presidential debate more like a wax museum animatronic replica of a town hall," he wrote. "What a shame."

One debate rater said that it's not a town hall meeting "if the 'town hall' is not allowed to participate in the conversation other than by reading prepared questions."

"What makes a town hall meeting useful is the reaction of the audience," another panelist wrote. "This would have given us a chance to see how each candidate reacts immediately to public opinion."

Brokaw's Bias? Depends on Whom You Ask.

Despite the format, Obama's supporters were more likely to say their candidate won in Nashville (92% vs. 76% of supporters who rated the Sept. 26 Mississippi debate) whereas McCain's supporters saw no improvement (84% said he won both).

There were few complaints about Brokaw's bias towards one candidate or the other. Most of the members of each group of supporters found no favoritism (74% of Obama's, 70% of McCain's); a minority saw evidence of it, almost always against their preferred candidate (25% and 26%).

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Chicken Little Lobby Comes To New York

An unusual skirmish over the future of the Internet is being waged this week in the velvet cloaked chambers of New York City Hall, where city council members are weighing whether vacant television airwaves should be opened to the Internet.

It’s unusual because spectrum policy of this sort is not often discussed beyond the confines of the Federal Communications Commission and meetings with experts and lobbyists inside the Beltway.

That New York’s City Council decided to take up spectrum access speaks more to the long reach of D.C. lobbyists than it does to the actual oversight of the Council.

white spaces
The powerful lobbyist in question is the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The issue is the use of television “white spaces,” vacant frequencies between TV channels.

New technology can open white spaces to powerful high-speed Internet services -- sending open and ubiquitous broadband signals over mountains and through buildings, potentially connecting tens of millions of Americans to the Web.

Scare-mongering at the NAB

White spaces may become available for use after television broadcasting goes digital in February 2009.

While almost everyone else sees its tremendous potential to serve the public good, the NAB wants to hoard this spectrum.

According to the NAB’s chicken-little lobbyists, white spaces spell the death of television as we know it.

One of them parachuted into New York on Monday to sow fear and misinformation about others using these airwaves. Television screens could go black, he told the City Council; emergency communications could get garbled. The miracle of modern communications would come to a screeching halt. Let anyone other than his employers and their corporate allies gain access to this public spectrum and the sky will fall.

For New York City in particular, the NAB and their sudden allies in the theater lobby are predicting an especially ominous future. In a time when the city has failed to recoup the tourism lost since 9/11, the lobbyists are warning that Broadway shows -- a consistent income earner for the city -- could be disrupted as white space devices interfere with the wireless mics worn by the actors, singers, dancers and stagehands.

When Politics Trump Innovation

As you may have guessed by now, white spaces are very political. And when NAB lobbyists muddy up the debate the political process is not pretty, and rarely productive.

But that’s their intention.

Put clearly, the issue boils down to this: The fight over white spaces pits those who have access to spectrum, and want to keep it for themselves, against those who don’t, and want spectrum to be used to serve other purposes as well.

In the middle of this fight is developing technology, which should make this spectrum useful for more than just TV, without causing interference to anyone. FCC engineers are sorting out the technical specs at the moment. And it’s only a matter of time before they see to it that the haves and the have nots will be able to enjoy this spectrum in ways that benefit us all.

The NAB doesn’t want that. Working with New York’s theater lobby, they have managed to get the City Council to draft a resolution that mangles the issue and throws up all sorts of static about opening up these airwaves to innovation.

Corporate Welfare Bums

It’s a tactic not based in the facts about white spaces, but in the history of a powerful corporate lobby that’s skilled at freezing out innovation that might threaten its near complete control of a valuable slice of airwaves.

For decades NAB members -- deep pocketed commercial broadcasters -- have benefited immensely from free, government-granted access to these airwaves. Now that they’re being asked to grant equal access for the Internet, they’re contriving doomsday scenarios to scare folks off – including the good members of New York’s City Council.

The broadcast companies owe their existence to governmental largesse, including multi-billion dollar FCC licenses handed to them for free. Now they’re biting the hand that’s stuffed them to the gullet in a bid to protect their government granted fiefdoms.

Politics should not stand in the way of innovation, especially technology that could bring vast benefits to so many.

The sky isn’t falling. White spaces should be opened for everyone.