Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Washington's Hidden Economy

Astroturf. You may have heard the word or even seen the fake grassroots in action.

Astroturf groups are front operations that take corporate money to promote an industry's policy agenda, covering their tracks behind phony grassroots Web façades.

It's a formula for success that works in favor of deep-pocketed corporations. So much so that astroturf has spread over Washington like kudzu, stifling genuine public debate under a tangle of industry spin.

Astroturf is Washington's new invective. It's hurled left and right to dismiss groups that are engaged on both sides of President Obama's reform efforts.

"I'm pretty sure the grass is Astroturf-er over on the NetRoots [side]," wrote Phil Kerpen, policy director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative forum funded at least in part by big corporate benefactors. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow shot back, calling Kerpen's boss an astroturf "parasite" who "gets fat" taking corporate money to spread fear about reform.

But how can you tell astroturf from... well, the real grassroots?

It should be as simple as following the money. That trail usually leads directly to ExxonMobil (in the case of "Energy Citizens"), Peabody Energy (the "Clean Coal" campaign), the health insurance industry ("Patients United Now"), phone and cable companies ("Information Technology and Innovation Foundation"), and to any number of corporate special interests that are well practiced in Washington's art of deception.

The D.C. Dodge

But following the money is exactly what these groups don’t want you to do. Even when pressed, astroturf spokespeople duck and dodge, often claiming that revealing the identities of their donors would hamper a noble cause -- such as transparency.

Seems outrageous, right? Not to the many Washington insiders who regularly reap the rewards of the astroturf economy. Just look at the money flooding in to oppose Net Neutrality, an issue that has transformed the arcane debate over telecommunications policy into a full-fledged mudfest.

In the first three quarters of 2009, AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Verizon, and their trade groups spent nearly $75 million, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. They have used this to hire more than 500 lobbyists to discredit public interest calls for an open Internet.

Over the last four-year political cycle, they maxed out their legal allowance, contributing $33 million to federal campaigns to win the hearts and minds of elected leaders. And that's just the money we know about.

Because they're bankrolling astroturf behind a fig leaf of "public relations," large corporations aren't legally required to disclose the lion’s share of their funding of these fake grassroots groups.

"The estimates range from double to two to three times the $3.2 billion that was spent [in 2008] on direct lobbying in Washington," says Craig Holman, the legislative representative for watchdog group Public Citizen. "Astroturf work is expensive."

Protecting the Status Quo

These massive undisclosed sums include costs for high-end public relations firms, legal fees, push polling, direct mail efforts, and dubious think tank research.

On Internet policy, astroturf groups have pocketed millions from industry to fulfill Job No. 1: Lock in incumbent phone and cable companies' control over high-speed Internet connections in America. At present, these companies provide 97 percent of fixed connections into American homes, a status quo they are willing to spend untold sums to maintain.

This means hiring astroturf spokespeople to oppose any Internet consumer protections or policy reforms that would open the market to more competitors and consumer choice. In the hands of a skilled astroturf spokesperson, such reforms are radical, untested, and cumbersome regulations designed to smother the cyberspace economy, which has thrived in a magical realm free of government oversight.

Never mind that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules -- from the Carterfone decision to the Part 15 unlicensed ruling and "white spaces" decision -- were responsible for everything from the introduction of the first Internet modems to the proliferation of WiFi, and for prying open spectrum for the next generation of smart phones.

This evidence doesn't stop Mike McCurry from telling the world that "the Internet has worked absent regulation," a song the White-House-press-secretary-turned-hired-gun has been singing to the tune of a quarter-million-dollar paycheck from phone and cable companies.

This is how astroturfers hijack the debate. And if they're not debunked, it's how control over Internet access -- and potentially over content -- will be handed over wholesale to the few ISPs that dominate the marketplace.

That's the destructive irony of the astroturf economy. Millions of dollars are funneled into efforts to spread populist-sounding rhetoric that actually undermines the public, and protects the swindle that has turned Washington into a big company town.

-- Karr’s article was originally published at Internet Evolution.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

John McCain's 'Series of Tubes'

The "Maverick" just played his hand on Net Neutrality, and the cards reveal a man who's outsider image doesn't quite add up.

On Thursday, Sen. John McCain introduced legislation to kill the open Internet, the deceptively named "Internet Freedom Act." The bill would stop all FCC efforts to have an open and public discussion about proposed Net Neutrality rules.

This comes from a senator who has received more money ($894,379) from AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and their lobbyists than any other member of Congress.

McCain also infamously told the media that he is "illiterate" when it comes to using the Internet and computers.

If this latest round of sock puppetry sounds an echo, it's because McCain seems to be channeling Sen. Ted Stevens' "series of tubes" gaffe from 2006.

Stevens' comments erupted forth during a Commerce Committee hearing as the Senator tried to squash efforts to establish Net Neutrality rules in Congress. But rather than beating back popular support for an open Internet, Stevens exposed himself to be a senator who is disconnected from any understanding of the Internet, but determined nonetheless to push forth the agenda of those that filled his campaign coffers.

As it was in 2006, social media has noticed, and is now awash with criticism of yet another Senator getting cozy with special interests. (You can join the critique here.) More mainstream media are starting to pick up on the McCain sellout as well.

This latest episode exposes the right and wrong sides of the Net Neutrality debate. And it poses a fundamental question to everyone:

Whom do you want to determine the future of the Internet?

A senator who is little more than a mouthpiece for the same phone and cable lobby that's vying to rig the Internet and control your clicks, or the more than 1.6 million people who have called for Net Neutrality -- a group that includes the geeks who created the Internet to be an open platform.

McCain has built his reputation as an alleged "straight shooter." If he is truly a person of integrity, he would return the tainted $894,379, spike this bad bill and get behind Net Neutrality.

But don't be surprised if this "Maverick" just keeps playing the cards that AT&T has dealt him.

Friday, October 23, 2009

AT&T Asks Employees To Fake It

AT&T has "asked' its employees to fake it in the fight against Net Neutrality.

The company’s top policy officer sent a memo to workers on Monday urging them to hide their company affiliation before posting anti-Net Neutrality comments to the Federal Communication Commission’s Web site.

"We encourage you, your family and friends to join the voices telling the FCC not to regulate the Internet," AT&T Senior Executive Vice President James Cicconi wrote in an internal communiqué forwarded to Free Press (and posted here). "It can be done through a personal e-mail account by going to and clicking on the ‘Join the Discussion’ link."

On Thursday, the FCC will vote to proceed on a rulemaking process that will establish the Net Neutrality rules that millions of Americans have been fighting for since 2005.

And AT&T is going crazy at the prospect of an Internet that they can't control. The memo to AT&T employees, coming from one of the company’s most senior executives, would be hard to think of as merely a suggestion.

If that weren’t bad enough, Cicconi urges them to choose from a list of talking points sanctioned by the PR department -- fearful perhaps of what employees might say if they went off script.

Some of the talking points are hard to read without rolling your eyes.

For example: Cicconi suggests that employees write that Net Neutrality will “jeopardize efforts to deliver high-speed Internet services to every American.” Yet he’s unable to provide any rationale for this claim, other than saying that universal access is a goal that “can't be met with rules that halt private investment in broadband infrastructure.”


AT&T is loath to mention that it made considerable network investment when it had to abide by Net Neutrality conditions, and invested considerably less when it didn’t.

As a requirement of its 2006 merger with BellSouth, AT&T agreed to operate a neutral network (by adhering to the four principles of the FCC’s Internet Policy Statement as well as a fifth principle of nondiscrimination) for two years.

AT&T’s network investments increased immediately following the imposition of the Net Neutrality merger condition and continued to rise over the two years of the merger agreement. When the neutrality condition expired on Dec. 29, 2008, the company sharply reduced its investment.

So when Cicconi says that Net Neutrality means no buildout, the opposite is true.

By pressuring the company’s employees to pose as average citizens and post AT&T talking points, Cicconi is asking them to be doubly deceptive. Not only are they asked to hide their true identities but also to spread misinformation on behalf of a company that seems to be getting more desperate by the day.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

'Blue Bell' Dems Must Fix Mistake on Net Neutrality

Every now and then Democrats in Washington forget whom they really work for.

Friday was one such day as several dozen Democratic representatives buckled to phone and cable lobbyists and signed on to a letter designed to sow doubt about Net Neutrality.

Too often, in complicated matters of communications policy, members will take industry lobbyists at their word and sign on to whatever is foisted upon them. The phone and cable lobby funnel so much cash into campaign coffers that it’s easier to wave off the wonkery and just go along.

But these Dems should have thought twice before signing this letter (pdf). It was orchestrated by the phone and cable lobby as a warning shot across the bow of new Democratic majority at the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC’s three Democrats are poised to fulfill Obama's pledge to make Net Neutrality a reality. It's an action that has received strong support from Democratic leadership across the board. If the FCC Dems succeed it would mark a massive win for the millions of people and many progressives who have fought so hard for this.

But deep-pocketed telco lobbyists have launched an all-out assault to derail the FCC. Phone and cable companies have hired more than 500 lobbyists, spent tens of millions of dollars, and unleashed sleazy Astroturf groups to mislead politicians, distort the facts, and resurrect long-debunked myths.

One letter signer, Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, may have just realized his mistake. He is now in damage control here on DailyKos where he wrote:
I strongly support Net Neutrality and have been working on a letter to circulate advocating a regulatory approach that keeps the internet public and free… I'll post my own letter on dailykos later this week, and encourage you to ask your reps to sign it.
This new letter is a good start. I can't wait to read it. But if Polis truly wants to make amends, he should sign on with Rep. Waxman, Eshoo and Markey as co-sponsors of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009 (HR 3458). He should also write a separate letter to Chairman Genachowski of the FCC pledging his support of strong Net Neutrality rules.

The other Dems who signed Friday’s letter should do the same.

The fight for Net Neutrality is very real, and it's getting nasty. You can send a message to Washington by adding your name to the 2-million-person call to action.

And if you see your representatives' names at the bottom of that telco letter, you might want to give them a call and remind them who's really the boss.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where Does Astroturf Go To Die?

How do we rid Washington of astroturf? It's a blight that's spread over the Capitol like kudzu, smothering genuine public debate under a tangle of misinformation.

Sporting names like "Tea Party Patriots," "Energy Citizens" and "Americans for Broadband," astroturf groups have pocketed millions from industry to prop up the status quo and denounce an overhaul of health care, curbs to carbon emissions and Net Neutrality protections.

These fake grassroots groups have scored some amazing successes. Working together with lobbyists and a pack of sputtering media pundits, they've bullied Washington's timid leadership -- on both the left and the right -- into inaction, or worse, outright opposition to the changes that a majority of Americans, in poll after poll, say they want.

Salon journalists Gabriel Winant and Tim Bell chronicle the way ideas forged in the crucible of Fox News and astroturf become GOP gospel. Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson traces the money that connects astroturf lies to corporate checking accounts.

But what happens when the corporate spigot gets turned off? Does astroturf still wield its power to frighten politicians and sway the media, or does it simply wither up and blow away?

The Rise and Fall of 'HandsOff'

The story of one noted astroturf group is instructive. In 2006, the world was first introduced to "Hands Off the Internet," a well-oiled group led by former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry and funded by AT&T and other Internet service providers.

HandsOff pulled out all of the standard astroturf tricks to stifle popular enthusiasm for Net Neutrality - the principle that keeps Internet users, not ISPs, in control of the Net. HandsOff purchased millions of dollars' worth of ads in trade journals and the Washington Post to spin Net Neutrality as a government crackdown on the free-flowing Web.

McCurry worked his media connections to appear before cameras as an "independent expert" carrying on the legacy of the Clinton administration. He and his HandsOff Co-chair Christopher Wolf wrote Op-Eds for prominent publications like the New York Times without disclosing who was punching their meal tickets. They went before the cameras of mainstream cable stations. Soon, politicians were regurgitating HandsOff talking points (fed directly to the astroturf group by AT&T) without blinking.

HandsOff figured it was easy enough to extend these deceptive practices into cyberspace. The group built a Web site with a grassroots feel, blanketed all the leading blogs with ads, and dispatched McCurry to prominent online sites to trade on his reputation as a loyal Democrat.

What the Netroots Hates Most

The only problem with this strategy: HandsOff forgot about the netroots and their loathing of fakes -- a loathing that would come into full force as readers at Huffington Post, MyDD, DailyKos and FireDogLake reacted to McCurry's phony overtures.

McCurry first submitted a commentary to Huffington Post (he's since removed it but his follow-up post is here), in which he called Net Neutrality "a solution in search of a problem."

Readers weren't fooled. A cursory peak behind the curtain of revealed a sponsor list of telecommunications companies and industry front groups. McCurry's post soon received hundreds of angry comments accusing him of "selling out" his progressive beliefs to corporate interests.

Matt Stoller, then writing for the popular progressive blog MyDD, led the charge. Stoller is a bloggers' blogger, who has worked tirelessly to organize the netroots and alert them to new issues, messages and ideas. Author Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point might classify him as a connector -- like Paul Revere on his midnight ride. Stoller sounded the alarm and people listened.

In a post on MyDD titled "Mike McCurry: Mouthpiece for Deception," Stoller accused McCurry of operating in bad faith: "McCurry is deceiving the public, and it's making my blood boil," Stoller wrote. "Working as a lobbyist for telecommunications companies is fine... What's NOT fine is that he's misrepresenting the fight."

Other prominent bloggers like Atrios, David Sirota and Arianna Huffington piled on. Soon, McCurry's byline stopped appearing on Huffington Post altogether, and he was so frequently called out in public appearances for shilling that he retreated into the safe enclave of phone- and cable-company sponsored events.

Make Phoniness a Liability

Within a year, the companies that funded HandsOff realized that it was more of a liability than an asset. Lobbying payments to McCurry and Wolf dried up -- from more than a half million dollars in 2006 to nothing in 2008, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act Database.

By then, both McCurry and Wolf were long gone. McCurry had scampered off to shill for another AT&T front group; Wolf continues to lobby for corporate interests as a highly paid D.C. lawyer. Both have scrubbed HandsOff from their online resumes.

And while some functionary still posts a rare update to the group's darkly illegible blog, the rest of the site has fallen into disrepair, serving more as a tombstone for astroturf gone awry than as a legitimate voice in the debate.

This epithet for HandsOff is itself a testament to the power of an open Internet. The group's efforts to mislead the public would have gone unnoticed were it not for an active netroots, ready to call out fraud in the mainstream media and speak up in support of Net Neutrality.

But is that enough? While this astroturf group is dead, the companies behind it have simply moved their chips to other front operations.

Like the plastic product itself, astroturf never really dies. As long as corporate special interests see value in bankrolling phony front groups, they will. And as long as mainstream media air astroturf spokespeople without revealing their sponsors, the business of fakery will remain a feature of Washington's political landscape.

The good news is that more people are becoming aware of the problem and taking to the Internet to kill astroturf before it tightens its hold on democracy.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Glenn Beck's Crazy Train Makes Stop Out Back

Today, I'm especially proud of the work that I do.

You too can be a part of our sinister plot by becoming a member of the Free Press Action Fund.

UPDATE: This pretty much says it all:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bend It Like Beck
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Washington Post Needs to Come Clean on Net Neutrality

A Washington Post blog post published Monday hits on one central reason for making Net Neutrality the law.

In "Protecting Free Speech in the Digital Age, " guest blogger Dawn Nunziato says that free expression on the Internet is too important to be subject to the whims of powerful phone and cable companies -- companies that have already demonstrated their willingness to block new ideas and innovations via the Web.

Nunziato is spot on. But a blog post doesn't go nearly far enough to right the wrong the Post's editors committed the Monday before. On Sept. 28, the paper printed a full-fledged editorial against Net Neutrality without revealing to readers that the Washington Post Co. has an economic incentive to block online speech.

The Post editorial, "The FCC's Heavy Hand," was gift wrapped for the narrow special interests of the influential phone and cable lobby. And it's been cited ad nauseum by phone and cable company shills intent on removing the last protection of an open Internet.

The Post's editors state that Net Neutrality would hurt investment in a "vibrant and well-functioning marketplace" when, in fact, the opposite is true: Carriers working under neutrality conditions have invested tens of billions of dollars in network buildout and improvements.

(For more on this and other industry falsehoods read our recent brief: Digital Déjà Vu: Old Myths about Net Neutrality.)

The Post editorial suffers not only from inaccuracy, but also from lack of disclosure. One of the companies that stands to gain from a world without Net Neutrality is Cable One, an Internet service provider active in 19 states that hopes to pad its already considerable profits by stifling the free flow of online communications. One of the principal owners of Cable One is - you guessed it -- the Washington Post Co.

Cable One Chief Executive Tom Might has been an outspoken opponent of Net Neutrality, calling it "a very, very clever D.C. campaign" designed to intimidate politicians "because it sounds so wonderful, like Mom and apple pie."

Given the Post's recent controversy over paid editorial salons, the paper would do well to better mind the firewall that allegedly separates news and editorial operations from business back offices.

Readers should demand that the Post's ombudsman and editorial page editor clarify this obvious oversight. You can prompt them to respond by sending an e-mail to: Fred Hiatt, the editor of the Post's editorial page, can be reached at .

The Post needs to come clean whenever it presents as honest opinion a view that also protects its commercial interests.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

FCC Makes Move on Net Neutrality

The fight for Net Neutrality took a big step forward on Monday with the chair of the Federal Communications Commission announcing plans to expand the rules to protect a free and open Internet.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Julius Genachowski said the FCC must be a "smart cop on the beat” preserving Net Neutrality against increased efforts by providers to block services and applications over both wired and wireless connections.

Genachowski’s speech comes as a breath of fresh air in a Washington policy environment that has long stagnated under the influence of a powerful phone and cable lobby.

“If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late,” Genachowski said citing a number of recent examples where network providers have acted as gatekeepers:

We have witnessed certain broadband providers unilaterally block access to VoIP applications (phone calls delivered over data networks) and implement technical measures that degrade the performance of peer-to-peer software distributing lawful content. We have even seen at least one service provider deny users access to political content.

A Call for Wired and Wireless Neutrality

The agency has earlier noted concerns about the blocking of applications and services on new handheld Internet devices such as the iPhone.

Ben Scott of Free Press responds to Genachowski's speech
Genachowski, who was an architect of President Obama’s technology agenda, proposed that the agency adopt new principles that would prevent discrimination and require full transparency from ISPs that seek to manage their networks. The new principles are additions to the “Four Freedoms” endorsed by the FCC in 2005.

Genachowski asked the FCC to adopt all six principles as Internet rules that are “essential to ensuring its continued openness.” FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn have already indicated they support stronger Net Neutrality rules.

“The rise of serious challenges to the free and open Internet puts us at a crossroads,” Genachowski said. “We could see the Internet’s doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised. Or we could take steps to preserve Internet openness, helping ensure a future of opportunity, innovation, and a vibrant marketplace of ideas.”

The Right Rules, Right Now

In a panel of experts following the speech, David Young of Verizon Communications stated that his company is able to “live with” Internet openness standards. “Openness and innovation are keys to our success,” Young said, but added predictably that he prefers a “hands off approach.”

Young later added a familiar lobbyist refrain that he "doesn't understand what the problem is that we are trying to solve" with openness rules. Verizon has already deployed 194 lobbyists at a cost of more than $13 million this year to fight Net Neutrality both at the FCC and in Congress.

"The Internet is inevitably going to have a regulatory structure around it," Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott said in response to Young. "What we're deciding is: What is it going to look like?"

“What we heard today is a very common-sense approach,” Scott said. “But in this town, doing something common sense is considered bold.”

“[This is] about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet,” Genachowski concluded. “We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.”

The FCC Opens Its Doors

Now the FCC has to actually write the new rules and invite comments from the public and interested parties.

To engage more public participation in the process, Genachowski announced that the agency would hold a series of public workshops on openness. In addition, the FCC launched a new Web site,, so the public can “contribute to the process.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Beck, Dobbs and Limbaugh Are Really Afraid of

Can you smell the fear? Switch on cable news or tune in to talk radio and it comes wafting in.

Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck has bottled his own scent. Lou Dobbs' fear gives off a distinct undertone of racial intolerance. And Rush Limbaugh takes to the air to spread an odor that's designed to make Americans angry at, well, other Americans.

It's a fear that's laced with paranoia, stoked by misinformation and prejudice and fed to millions of people via powerful media. But most of all, it's a fear of the changes that an overwhelming majority of Americans called for when they stepped into voting booths last November.

Since then, the old guard has fallen into alignment with old media to hijack the public debate over reform, and vilify reformers as anti-American. And to them the most anti-American notion of the lot is the idea that we need to reform the media itself.

"Part of the strategy of this fundamental 'transformation' of America is to silence dissent," Glenn Beck said on Fox last month. The "most diabolical, hidden parts of this plan," according to Beck, are efforts to reform media through "localism and diversity" -- two principles that have grounded modern communications policy for decades.

Beck was later joined on the program by Rush Limbaugh, who called localism and diversity part of the growing tyranny of the left. This issue is "simply un-American," Limbaugh crowed. "They're trying to do this back-door route with diversity... to shut you up by shutting us down."

Not to be outdone, Lou Dobbs stated falsely: "When you talk about diversity, [you aren't] talking about ethnic, racial or religious diversity, [you 're] talking about more liberals on the air."

The cloud of media hysteria could have been waved off by more sensible voices on cable's evening news roster. But few have stepped forward to challenge Beck, Limbaugh and Dobbs, to replace their fomenting with facts. More worrisome, voices of reason seem to be absent from the media "pundocracy" altogether.

While Beck and his ilk want to portray diversity and localism as a dangerous conspiracy to censor, the fact remains that these ideas have been staples of communications policy since the beginning. The central mandate of the Federal Communications Commission -- as enshrined in the Communications Act of 1934 -- is to promote localism, diversity and competition in the media. This same principle of localism has been a rallying cry for several generations of true conservatives.

Broadcasters get hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of subsidies and the right to use our airwaves in exchange for a basic commitment to be responsive to the interests of local communities.

Moreover, the Supreme Court recognized that "safeguarding the public's right to receive a diversity of views and information over the airwaves is ... an integral component of the FCC's mission."

Sadly, the FCC has failed to live up to this standard. And what mainstream media's fear-merchants are most afraid of is not censorship, but an FCC that actually does its job -- creating more opportunities for people like you and me to participate in media.

We don't have that now. Washington bureaucrats have allowed powerful media corporations to control the public airwaves and dominate local cable networks. We have reached a nadir where the free press that Thomas Jefferson hoped would open "all the avenues to truth" has devolved into a media system that's a megaphone for the few.

Beck and Limbaugh, in particular, are two corporate welfare babies who owe much of their existence to this regulatory failure, which handed control of our airwaves to massive conglomerates like Clear Channel and ABC Radio to broadcast their fear agenda via a syndicated network of centrally owned radio stations.

The cable sector that carries Beck and Dobbs' nightly paranoia is itself a gigantic bundle of government handouts, having built invaluable local monopolies via granted rights-of-way that beam these two into nearly every den in America.

Try calculating what it would cost to get your content across America without a local or federal government clearing your path, and you quickly realize that blowhards like Beck, Dobbs and Limbaugh are three of the nation's biggest beneficiaries of public largesse.

And while they're raking in millions in salaries via their government-granted fiefdoms, you, the owner of the airwaves and roads and telephone poles over which they transmit, are getting nothing in exchange.

The ultimate irony of Beck, Dobbs and Limbaugh is that they couch in populist rhetoric a message that, in its very essence, is anti-populist -- designed to protect the swindle at the core of our media system's failure.

And that is why the media's old guard is targeting the idea that this system needs to change.

In his media and technology agenda, President Obama took up the cause of reform by committing to "diversity in the ownership of broadcast media," and pledging to "promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints."

Obama is right, but he needs to get started on fulfilling that commitment.

Winning real change and giving more people a media voice is ultimately the best response we have to fear campaigns.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Roadside Tour of Telco Talking Points

Click on the image below to begin your roadside tour of telco talking points.

Follow this link to reveal the money behind the Astroturf spin.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

NYT: Time to Make Net Neutrality the Law

The New York Times gets Net Neutrality right again, and again, and again. In their fourth editorial in support of Net Neutrality the newspaper’s editors write:
"A good bill that would guarantee so-called net neutrality has been introduced in the House. Congress should pass it, and the Obama administration should use its considerable power to make net neutrality the law. "
Why? According to the Times, we can't let Internet service providers prioritize certain content over others.

Allowing these companies to become the Internet's gatekeepers would undermine the democratic nature of the Web, which has made it such a great engine for free speech and economic growth.

"[I]t would be bad for everyone but the service providers," the Times editors write. "Businesses could slow down or block their competitors’ Web content. A cable company whose leaders disapprove of a particular political or social cause could block sites supporting that cause."

The Web was invented using open, decentralized architecture in a way that allows anyone with a computer and a connection to begin receiving and sending information. This opened up the world to a new concept, "innovation without permission," whereby every idea had an equal chance to be heard, and to rise to the top free of gatekeepers or corporate and government discrimination.

Net Neutrality is the principle that keeps the Internet's great marketplace of ideas churning.

Saturday’s editorial echoes earlier efforts by the Times. In 2006, the paper wrote:
"[The] democratic Internet would be in danger if the companies that deliver Internet service changed the rules so that Web sites that pay them money would be easily accessible, while little-guy sites would be harder to access, and slower to navigate. Providers could also block access to sites they do not like."
Later in the same year the Times’ Adam Cohen wrote that the phone and cable companies fighting Net Neutrality have been waging a "misleading campaign" using slogans like "hands off the Internet" and phony spokespeople like Mike McCurry and Scott Cleland to pose as genuine grassroots and private-sector voices against Net Neutrality.

(To expose the depth of telco Astroturfing, visit

"What they actually favor is stopping the government from protecting the Internet, so they can get their own hands on it," Cohen wrote.

On Saturday, the Times' editors wrote that the fate of Net Neutrality may lie with the Obama administration, which has been outspoken in its support of the principle:
"A good bill that would guarantee so-called net neutrality has been introduced in the House. Congress should pass it, and the Obama administration should use its considerable power to make net neutrality the law."
The article also calls on Julius Genachowski, Obama’s new chair at the FCC, to adopt stronger rules that could also have the force of law.

The Times is not alone among major US dailies in support of Net Neutrality. The list of supporters includes the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg Times and the Houston Chronicle.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Unmasking Astroturf

If you haven't been paying attention to the rise of Astroturf in Washington, in the media and at your local town hall meeting, now's the time to tune in.

Astroturf front groups have been everywhere this summer -- spreading misinformation about health care reform, carbon emission caps and financial regulation.

Astroturf shills, notably FreedomWorks' Dick Armey and Americans for Prosperity's Tim Phillips, surface wherever and whenever reform policies threaten the corporate or political status quo.

Armey Spins for Supper
Next on their hit list is Net Neutrality, the principle that prevents big phone and cable companies from deciding what you can and cannot do online.

They're already painting new Net Neutrality legislation as an attempt to "socialize the Internet."

They dismiss as "extremists" the more than 1.5 million who support a free-flowing Web. The national coalition that supports Net Neutrality includes such "far-left elements" as the Christian Coalition, The Gun Owners of America and the American Library Association.

Astroturf red-baiting has only just begun.

The Boy Who Cried Socialism

Cleland Sees Red
All Net Neutrality really does is protect market competition, consumer choice and online innovation. But don't tell that to the astroturfer-in-chief, Scott Cleland of His group is funded by phone and cable companies to attack legitimate consumer organizations and to confuse the public about Net Neutrality.

In testimonies before Congress, Cleland supported Net Neutrality before being paid by AT&T to oppose it. And oppose it he has: "Just like the Soviet socialists, the Net Neutrality movement blatantly misrepresents the facts," Cleland once said.

Take that, librarians!

Behind their Cold War rhetoric is a dirty little secret: Astroturf groups are paid by corporations to erect Potemkin Villages of public support for any given issue, to sway politicians with PR and junk science, and to fool members of the media into putting them on the air.

Phillips Earns His Keep
Typically, these groups won't reveal their sources of funding, and with very few exceptions, the media forget to ask about it.

That's why Armey and Phillips squirmed under the lights when Rachel Maddow broke with the mainstream this month and pressed them about the money propping up their operations.

And it's why Free Press just released "Astroturf: Exposing the Fake Grassroots," an interactive online tool that makes it easy to view the seedy underbelly of the Astroturf groups bankrolled by big phone and cable.

The tool tracks the huge amounts of money moving from companies like AT&T and Comcast to lobbyists and political campaigns, and links it to the deceptive activities of coin-operated groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Heartland Institute.

$incerity vs. Sincerity

Bast: Hiding Behind Transparency?
The Heartland Institute, in particular, is a poster child for deception. This coin-operated "think tank" specializes in aping industry talking points to downplay global warming, oppose health care reform and attack Net Neutrality. Its Fortune 500 clients include Philip Morris USA, the ExxonMobil Corporation and major telecommunications companies.

When asked to report the sources of its funding, Heartland President Joseph L Bast said Heartland "now keeps confidential the identities of all our donors" because revealing it would give fodder to those who want to "abuse a sincere effort at transparency."

Like the others, the Heartland Institute seems to think a lack of transparency gives more credence to their arguments, when in fact, it simply demonstrates what more people are coming to realize: Astroturf has no place in politics.

A healthy 21st-century democracy doesn't need phony front groups. We need openness, accountability and real debate. And we need to know whom we're talking to -- and who's talking to us.

The crucial policy decisions being made right now must be based on independent research, reliable data and honest brokers.

Powerful special interests must stop distorting the issues and hiding behind Astroturf.

-- Timothy Karr is the campaign director of Free Press, the national, not-for-profit media reform group. Free Press accepts no money from industry, industry groups, political parties or government.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No Love Lost for the Mobile Phone Networks

"U.S. carriers are some of the most backward, unscrupulous and anti-customer companies in the nation," writes Mike Elgan of IDG News Service. And he tells us why in a list of the 10 best reasons to hate your mobile network provider.

While Elgan’s reasons for hating the telcos may come as little surprise to visitors of FreeMyPhone, many are worth repeating here:

1. Carriers overcharge shamelessly.

The OECD reports that U.S. consumers pay much more than people in developed countries across Asia and Europe for the privilege of calling and texting on the go. While the industry has attempted to debunk the OECD numbers, there’s no denying that they’ve more than doubled prices for texting in just two years -- for a service that costs virtually nothing to provide.

The phone companies also tack on extra fees in myriad and opaque ways. Who among us understands the many separate charges we see on our monthly bill? "Carriers employ experts to examine all the angles," Elgan writes. "It's not about charging more money for better service. It's about charging more money for the same service."

2. Handset exclusivity "deals" are a shell game.

The carriers justify the shackling of phones to specific networks as a special deal for the consumer, whereby the cost of the device is subsidized in exchange for customer loyalty.

Don’t be fooled. "When you get a ‘discount’ on your cell phone, YOU pay the difference, not the carrier, not the handset maker," Elgan writes. "Sure, they'll bury the costs in a muddled monthly bill. But believe me, you're the one paying." To top it off, they lock you into contracts that levy high penalties against anyone who opts to leave for a better network -- if one exists.

3. Carriers oppose Net Neutrality.

The phone lobby has spent tens of millions of dollars on hundreds of Washington lobbyists to fight efforts to open up wired and wireless markets to more consumer choice, connectivity and innovation.

The carriers’ No. 1 enemy is Net Neutrality, the founding Internet principle that ensures that everyone can connect online without discrimination or blocking by the network owners. Their fight against Neutrality has put the carriers in an untenable position: promising customers open Internet access via their latest crop of smart phones, while strong-arming Washington to allow them to deliver much less -- an Internet where you only get to go where they want you to go.

4. Remember who owns the airwaves.

"Companies that are granted licenses to use the publicly owned airwaves should be required by our government to meet certain standards of fairness, equal access and competitiveness," Elgan writes.

The FCC of old had taken a backseat on spectrum policy, acting more like a passenger than a steward of this great public asset. It’s been this way for decades and the foxes have nearly cleaned out the coop. Fortunately, there's a new boss at the agency: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seems intent upon ending the carriers' run. Late last month, he launched an official inquiry into the blocking of Google's free voice application, Google Voice, by Apple (seemingly in collusion with AT&T).

It's time we returned control of the airwaves to their rightful owner -- us. The new FCC action shows some promise that a better wireless future may be at hand.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Seven Reasons: Why We Need Net Neutrality Now

On Friday, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) marched across Independence Avenue and up the steps of the Capitol Building to introduce a bill that could stand as the First Amendment of the Internet age.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009 establishes the basic rules of the road for an open Internet. And its arrival couldn't be more timely.

We are amid the greatest technological transition in our media since the invention of the printing press. An open Internet is driving this change. It's a communications tool that, while still in its infancy, is already storming the gates of media's old guard. But they're not letting us in without a fight.

Traditional media fear a system that is more decentralized, participatory and personal. While their outlets still dominate, mainstream media are threatened by a generation of users who have embraced the Internet to control their information experience.

Net Neutrality's Moment
These users no longer passively consume the news; we actively participate in it. We no longer limit our civic involvement to watching television ads and reading editorial pages. We Google candidates to learn more, create our own political networks on Facebook, and use Twitter to stay on top of the issues we care about most.

As the Internet breaks down old political, economic and social barriers, it raises new concerns about free speech, control, opportunity and equality.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act will safeguard the basic rights of our emerging media democracy. It makes Net Neutrality the standard, locking in the network's greatest strength: its ability to give everyone a chance to be heard - whether a little-known blogger, local environmental group or giant multinational corporation.

Without Net Neutrality, this democratic Internet could fall prey to the companies that deliver Internet services. For them our new found media freedom is a threat that needs to be controlled for commercial gain.

We must act now to pass this bill. Here are seven reasons why:

1. Economic Recovery and Prosperity

"The Internet has thrived and revolutionized business and the economy precisely because it started as an open technology," Eshoo said in a statement on Friday. The Internet is so closely tied to U.S. economic recovery that President Obama and Congress earmarked more than $7 billion to help build out more high-speed connections at a time when our economy needs it most.

Obama and Congress also recognized that the economy cannot benefit by building a closed Internet. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act requires that all federally funded networks be services that meet "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations" -- that abide by Net Neutrality.

"The Internet is an essential infrastructure," declares Markey and Eshoo's bill. "The national economy would be severely harmed if the ability of Internet content, service, and application providers to reach consumers was frustrated by interference from broadband telecommunications network operators."

2. Free Speech

Freedom of the press extends only to those who own one -- or so the saying goes. It once rang true in a world ruled by newspaper chains, radio and television broadcasters, and cable networks. But the Internet has changed all that, delivering the press -- and in theory its freedoms -- to any person with a good idea and a connection to the Web.

This extraordinary twist to "mass media" has catapulted many an everyday YouTube auteur to celebrity-status, while turning ideas born in a garage or dorm room into Fortune 500 companies. It is the reason so many Americans are now passionate about protecting their free speech rights on the Internet.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act would stop would-be gatekeepers from re-routing the free-flowing Web. "To meet other national priorities, and to our right to free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States," the bill says, "the United States should adopt a clear policy preserving the open nature of Internet communications."

3. Civic Participation

New media are more participatory and personal than ever before and have opened up new avenues for people to become involved with local, state and national politics. We saw it during the 2008 presidential election when tens of millions expressed their support for Obama and McCain via interactive Facebook, Twitter and e-mail forums. We are seeing it in 2009 from the streets of Tehran to the work of organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics, which use the Internet as the means to open governments to public scrutiny and accountability.

This wave of digital empowerment is the gathering force for a healthier democracy, and it all depends upon a more open, affordable and accessible Internet for everyone. Expanding Internet access alone doesn't erase concerns over what kind of information people will find when they get online. Net Neutrality guarantees that we all have an equal opportunity to play a part.

4. The Marketplace of Ideas

The Internet was the great surprise of the 20th century. Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the standard that opened the World Wide Web to everyone with an idea and a connection. At that time, few could imagine that this open architecture would fuel such a powerful eruption of economic, social and political creativity.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act "will protect consumers and content providers because it will restore the guarantee that one does not have to ask permission to innovate," Rep. Markey said when he introduced the bill.

This is true regardless of your age, social status or location. Net Neutrality safeguards everyone's fundamental right to an open Internet, making it possible for one person's good idea to blossom into the next big business or, even, a movement of millions.

5. Social Justice

Broadband in America today is not equally accessible: Users are predominantly middle- or upper-class and live in urban or suburban areas. Poorer communities and communities of color, as well as communities in rural areas, have been largely left off the grid.

Imagine what it would mean, then, to provide a connection to disadvantaged areas without also extending to them Net Neutrality's guarantee of openness. Dominant ISPs have argued for this exception, saying Net Neutrality prevents them from connecting more people. But it's a false choice and far too high a cost to give network owners the power to shunt ideas percolating up from these communities to a digital backwater.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act guarantees equal and unbridled access to the Internet's engine of opportunity, leveling the playing field so that we all have a chance to be heard.

6. The Rise of the Gatekeepers

A high-speed connection is useful only if you can connect to everyone else online. Net Neutrality leaves control over your Internet experience with you, the user. Yet network operators are considering charging extra money depending on where you want to go and what you want to do online. Some are deploying technology that would sift through and filter the content that you share with others online. Such discrimination endangers the open and level playing field that has made the Internet so democratic.

As more of us rely upon a high-speed connection to do all things media -- watch and make video, follow the news, listen to music, Tweet, email and call our friends -- legacy media are too tempted to get in our way, steering us back via old channels where they make all decisions for us. But there's no going back to the analog oligarchy. The Internet Freedom Preservation Act keeps the gatekeepers at bay.

7. The Obama Opportunity

Forces are coming into alignment for Net Neutrality. We have a president who is an outspoken supporter, congressional leadership willing to fight for an open Internet, and a pro-Neutrality chairman newly ensconced at the Federal Communications Commission.

Since the fight for Net Neutrality began more than three years ago, 1.6 million Americans have picked up the phone, signed petitions, spoken out publicly and written letters to urge their members of Congress to get behind Net Neutrality.

The tides have shifted. Still, giant phone and cable companies aren't going away. They think they can squash our movement -- and over the past six months alone, they have hired 500 lobbyists in Washington to try to stop this bill.

This is our best chance to beat them back once and for all.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Is AT&T Secretly Controlling Your iPhone? The FCC Wants to Know (And So Should You)

The Federal Communications Commission's plan to investigate the blocking of Google Voice over the iPhone signals the agency's new resolve to address public concerns about carrier control over an exploding mobile phone marketplace.

And the move couldn't have come soon enough. As millions of users are opting to upgrade to Internet-enabled "smart phones," carriers have begun blocking access to applications and the free-flowing Web by controlling what these phones can and can't do.

The agency's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau on Friday sent letters to Apple, AT&T and Google seeking answers to a series of questions about the blocking of the new Google application.

The FCC Steps Up

It's just the latest in an unfolding agency investigation into wireless practices.

Earlier Apple and AT&T decided to block Skype and Sling Media in the App Store, programs which compete directly with AT&T services. The carriers continue to maintain that the blocking of services and applications over the wireless Internet doesn't violate the established FCC standard for openness.

The FCC's New Enforcer: Chairman Genachowski
After less than a month in office, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is not buying it, and is taking a serious look at the lack of competition, consumer choice and openness in the wireless Internet sector.

The FCC announced in June that it would investigate exclusivity agreements that lock particular phones to carriers, while soaking consumers with high termination costs should they decide to go elsewhere.

But Friday's move takes the issue one step further, indicating the FCC's new "proactive approach to getting the facts and data necessary to make the best policy decisions," according to Chairman Genachowski.

The data on market concentration are pretty damning for carriers: Four wireless service providers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) account for 90 percent of the U.S. market. Across the board these carriers seek to have ultimate say over the phones and applications that can run on their networks.

They also limit Internet access to certain services, and keep subscribers locked down via predatory mobile phone contracts that levy massive fines against those who seek a better deal with a competitor.

AT&T Doublespeak

The FCC hopes to determine whether Apple and AT&T are working in collaboration to block certain wireless applications in favor of others. AT&T maintains that Apple makes all decisions on applications. But Apple seems to consistently block applications including Google Voice, Skype and Sling Media that threaten AT&T's bottom line.

This spring, Free Press urged the FCC to confirm that wireless networks must adhere to the Internet Policy Statement, which protects consumers' right to access any online content and services on any device of their choosing.

Surprisingly AT&T has in the past voiced public support for this position when its lead lobbyist Jim Cicconi was quoted in the Washington Post: "The same principals [sic] should apply across the board. As people migrate to the use of wireless devices to access the Internet, they...certainly expect that we treat these services the same way."

But while AT&T has acknowledged that open Internet principles should apply to the industry, it's acting to do the opposite: deciding what iPhone customers can and cannot do.

An Open Internet by Any Means

The FCC investigation is encouraging. At a time when carriers seek to become gatekeepers to the next generation of Internet access, the agency must re-assert our right to an open Internet -- whether accessed by desktop computer, laptop or mobile phone.

The right solution is to allow access to all applications and services without discrimination via any Internet connection.

If wireless carriers continue down the path of anti-competitive blocking and favoritism, Congress and the FCC should step in to set a better course.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Giving Clyburn a Chance at the FCC

Co-authored with Ben Scott

Mignon Clyburn, Barack Obama's choice to fill a vacant Democratic seat at the Federal Communications Commission, will face a confirmation hearing Wednesday in the Senate Commerce Committee.

As the third Democrat on the five-member commission, Clyburn would cast a deciding vote for President Obama's bold technology agenda. And yet, Clyburn's nomination has met with a mixed reaction from FCC-watchers. Some fear she may already have pitched her tent with the entrenched special interests that have controlled media policy for decades.

It's been asked: What do we know about her position on key issues such as Net Neutrality? Can she be counted on to break open wireless markets for more innovation and consumer choice? Will she stand with Obama's reform agenda and help overhaul an agency that's long been in the thrall of corporate lobbyists?

Getting to Know Mignon Clyburn

Here's what we do know: Clyburn is the daughter of powerful South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), the House Majority Whip. Clyburn's nomination for the FCC post was met with apprehension about her family ties and her history as chair of South Carolina's Public Service Commission, which is reputed to be close to the phone and cable industries.

The big fear among open Internet activists is that a president who has said he will "take a back seat to no one on Network Neutrality" may have just nominated an FCC commissioner who's not even riding in the same car.

As veterans of the Net Neutrality wars and backers of many of the most progressive ideas in the Obama platform on technology and media, we encourage the Clyburn critics to take a step back. We don't know for certain how Clyburn will think, act and vote as an FCC commissioner. But there are reasons for optimism.

The Reform Opportunity

The path before her is pretty clear, and the opportunity for reform is profound. The FCC is now crafting a national broadband plan to deliver Internet access to every American, weighing reforms to free up valuable wireless spectrum, and undertaking crucial efforts to diversify media ownership.

Obama's technology agenda -- the blueprint for the new FCC -- strongly supports an open Internet, universal Internet access and more voices in the media. In Congress, the leadership within the Senate and House commerce committees has aligned itself with the president's agenda. Others in Congress have already asked for an investigation of anti-competitive communications markets long under the control of powerful media conglomerates.

Clyburn could follow the well-worn path toward upholding the status quo, but she has the opportunity to become a strong leader for change, a voice for new stakeholders that have long been out of the picture at the FCC. With a broader frame in mind, let's take a look at what her nomination represents.

The Luxury of High Expectations

As the first African-American woman commissioner, she represents progressive change that is deeply in sync with the transformation of D.C. politics that Obama is trying to realize.

Working alongside new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski as well as Commissioner Michael Copps, a longtime public champion, Clyburn has the opportunity to diversify media ownership to include women and people of color long absent from corporate media boardrooms.

Communities of color, the urban poor and rural residents are those most often stranded on the wrong side of America's digital divide. Clyburn has a historic opportunity to help close the gap.

The open Internet has been under assault from the same Internet access companies that routinely pass over these communities. Clyburn can stand alongside Obama, Genachowski and Copps in support of an affordable, free-flowing Web that discriminates against no one.

Naturally, if the commitment to these ideals falters, we'll be among the first to cry foul. But for now, we have the luxury of high expectations.

She could be an agent of change at the FCC like none before her. She deserves that chance.

Helping Iran Hunt Down Iranians

What more can be said about the Internet's role in the popular uprising that has shaken the Iranian regime since its widely contested election?

The power of open social networks is undisputed. The Internet's three favorite offspring -- Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- have been heralded by mainstream media as flag-bearers for a new era of citizen journalism and activism.

But the open Internet's power cuts both ways: The tools that connect, organize and empower people can also be used to hunt them down. The companies that profit from sales of this technology need to be held to a higher standard.

Of particular concern is the use -- and easy abuse -- of Deep Packet Inspection. DPI is a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, as it passes through routers on the information superhighway.

'Lawful Intercepts' in Lawless Regimes

European and North American companies are selling DPI to enable their business customers "to see, manage and monetize individual flows to individual subscribers." But this "Internet-enhancing" technology has been sought out by regimes in Iran, China and Burma for more brutal purposes.

TehranUBasij forces target computers during a June 14 midnight raid on Tehran University
Nokia Siemens Network reportedly set up a part of this technology in Iran for "lawful intercept," only to have Tehran allegedly use it to stifle free speech, pinpoint the location of online protesters and arrest them.

Nokia Siemens' attempts to dodge responsibility for Iran's reported abuse of their technology is typical corporate hand-washing.

"If you sell networks, you also, intrinsically, sell the capability to intercept any communication that runs over them," a Nokia Siemens spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. He added that the company "does have a choice about whether to do business in any country."

A Growth Industry

Had Nokia Siemens chosen not to sell spying technology to Iran, another global competitor likely would have taken its place. This list of DPI providers includes Zeugma Systems (Canada), Camiant (USA), Openet (Ireland), Procera Networks (USA), Allot (Israel), Ixia (USA), AdvancedIO (Canada), Arbor Networks (USA) and Sandvine (Canada), among others.

These companies typically partner with Internet Service Providers to insert DPI along the main arteries of the Web. (Sandvine, for example, just announced a "global distribution agreement" with -- you guessed it -- Nokia Siemens Network.) All Net traffic in and out of Iran travels through one portal -- the Telecommunications Company of Iran -- easing the use of DPI.

Yankee Group analysts assert that U.S. ISPs are currently deploying advanced DPI equipment, although many do not disclose it publicly. Through these secret arrangements both in the United States and abroad, the DPI industry is experiencing remarkable growth.

The Nature of the Beast

"A company has a nature. Its nature is to produce economic values and wealth for its shareholders," Professor Larry Lessig often says in lectures about corporate ethics and government corruption. "A tiger has a nature, and that nature is not one you trust with your child."

And naturally, the public shouldn't expect corporations to look out for our best interests. Public policy is designed for that role -- to make it profitable for corporations to behave in ways that don't harm the rest of us.

Similarly, the tech and communications companies that are selling content-sniffing tools to governments can't be trusted to safeguard against the horrific state crimes we've witnessed in Iran.

When network operators use Deep Packet Inspection, the privacy of Internet users is compromised. But in government hands, invasion of privacy can lead to human rights violations.

Setting the Bar High for DPI

"Internet Censorship is a real challenge, and not one any particular industry -- much less any single company -- can tackle on its own, " Rep. Mary Bono Mack wrote on Wednesday in a letter to Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the House Commerce Committee. "Efforts to promote freedom of expression and to limit the impact of censorship require both private and public sector engagement."

Rep. Bono Mack's letter echoes Free Press' call on June 22 for a congressional inquiry into the issue. But this is just a start.

Before DPI becomes more widely deployed around the world and at home, the U.S. government ought to establish legitimate criteria for authorizing the use such control and surveillance technologies.

The harm to privacy and the power to control the Internet are so disturbing that the threshold for using DPI must be very high.

The use of DPI for commercial purposes would need to meet this high bar. But it is not clear that there is any commercial purpose that outweighs the potential harm to consumers and democracy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

If You Love the iPhone, Set It Free

Do you want to get the new iPhone?

If so, you're in for a disappointment. If not, you should be worried anyway.

Apple just released the new iPhone in a hail of hype, promising that it would be "the Internet in your pocket." If only. The smart phone's groundbreaking technology has been hijacked by AT&T. In a move reminiscent of old Ma Bell, the telephone giant has struck an exclusive agreement with Apple that ties the hands of all iPhone users, restricts their Internet use and prohibits access to any other network.

And the iPhone is not alone. Nine of the 10 most popular phones are locked into exclusive deals with the few wireless carriers that dominate the market. That means that as long as carriers reserve the right to cripple the phone's best features, block full access to the Internet and stick customers with astronomical bills, you're not getting the real Internet from your shiny new handheld.
Congress Examines Handset Shackling

Exclusivity Sucks

These carrier restrictions are also why there's a growing consumer revolt to free the iPhone and other "smart" phones like it from the control of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile.

The controversy revolves around this simple question:
If we can access the free-flowing Internet via a wireless laptop or desktop computer, why can't we do the same with our new handheld computers?
These "exclusive deals" recall the days when AT&T held a monopoly over all phone communications. For decades, Ma Bell controlled every phone on its grid and banned other companies from connecting new devices or services.

A groundbreaking 1968 policy change, known among tech wonks as the "Carterfone decision," pried open the device marketplace so that numerous new phone products could be introduced -- including answering machines, fax machines, cordless phones and early computer modems. This in turn spawned a flood of innovation in services that greatly benefited consumers.

In 2009, we need to take a serious look at the ways Carterfone rules would open the wireless marketplace to the next wave of innovation. Free Press on Wednesday launched FreeMyPhone, a campaign designed to give new "smart" phone users more control over their handheld Internet experience.

The Mobile Internet

This work is vital because wireless devices are now in the hands of more than 270 million Americans -- that's 87 percent of the population. But as more phones become "Web-enabled," more users are tied to carriers that promise the Internet but don't actually deliver the openness that's its founding principle.

AT&T is a case in point. The carrier just decided to allow Major League Baseball to stream video live to the new iPhone 3Gnetwork, but is blocking consumers from accessing other video services. Had AT&T done the same via it's wired-line services, it would be a stark violation of Net Neutrality, the principle that guarantees users can access any legal application, Web site or service they choose.

Late last year, AT&T's top lobbyist told the Washington Post that open Internet principles should govern wireless communications and that consumers expect unfettered mobile access.

"The same principals [sic] should apply across the board," Jim Cicconi said. "As people migrate to the use of wireless devices to access the Internet, they... certainly expect that we treat these services the same way."

Why then is AT&T now deciding what online video its iPhone customers can and can't watch?

So here we are -- at the dawn of the era of a true mobile Internet with AT&T and the other carriers still playing gatekeepers to the next generation of innovation.

Imagine what the new iPhone would really be if we only set it free.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bill O'Reilly 'Applauds' Cold-Blooded Murderers

David Neiwert of Crooks & Liars reports on a chilling double-murder allegedly committed by members of the "Minutemen" the loose-knit organization of armed citizens who "guard" our borders.

The killings are chilling enough -- as evidenced by the 911 recording of the mother as she witnessed the execution of her 9-year-old daughter and husband. But what's even more infuriating is the way many prominent right-wing media pundits have made this group the darlings of 21st century patriotism.

Neiwert writes:
Remember how all those right-wing pundits proclaimed the Minutemen as being just like a neighborhood watch? Michelle Malkin called it "the mother of all neighborhood watches." Lou Dobbs labeled it "this country's biggest neighborhood watch program". Bill O'Reilly declared: "Talking Points applauds the Minutemen. They are in the great tradition of neighborhood watch groups."
The accused ringleader is Shawna Forde, who is the executive director of Minutemen American Defense and often served as spokesperson for the Minutemen movement. Here she is in that role, dishing up the hatred in a video for German television.

Frank Rich's most recent New York Times column explains how crimes of this sort are part of a bigger problem egged on by right-wing media:
This homicide-saturated vituperation is endemic among mini-Limbaughs. Glenn Beck has dipped into O’Reilly’s Holocaust analogies to liken Obama’s policy on stem-cell research to the eugenics that led to "the final solution" and the quest for "a master race." After James von Brunn’s rampage at the Holocaust museum, Beck rushed onto Fox News to describe the Obama-hating killer as a "lone gunman nutjob." Yet in the same show Beck also said von Brunn was a symptom that "the pot in America is boiling," as if Beck himself were not the boiling pot cheering the kettle on.
We have a real right-wing media accountability moment. Ask yourself how this compares to the mainstream media's current obsession over David Letterman's apology to Palin.

Shouldn't they be more concerned about the harm caused by the shrill pundits of the right?

I would say there's a strange double standard in effect, but this crime (and the rhetoric that fueled the murderers) is so horrible that it's silly to have to compare it to the Letterman-Palin affair.

And yet the mainstream media seems to think that one deserves more attention than the other.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Grassroots vs. Machine

The machine was in full today as it seemed half of the city's police and fire departments took time off from protecting and serving to pass out glossies of Peter Cammarano.

Some donned blue (the Cammarano campaign T-shirt that is) while others had their Hoboken Police and Fire Department baseball caps, decals and shirts on show.

It's a formidable force for the campaign, though some officers didn't do their candidate well by loitering around ferry and PATH terminals, and NJTransit bus stops in packs of five or six.

Let me paint the scene: four to five guys standing around shooting the bull; one guy actually handing out campaign material.

Does that inspire you to vote Cammarano on Tuesday?

For me it offered up a glimpse into the future of a Cammarano administration. As local resident Oanh Nguyen pointed out in her own flier to citizens: "Cammarano says that he will work towards lowering taxes, but I do not understand how that will happen if in his history as councilman, he has not done much that has helped the City save money."

Nguyen, who like me is getting involved in local Hoboken politics for the first time, has done so by passing out fliers to her neighbors (She slid one under the door of my apartment this evening).

"I am concerned that Peter Cammarano and his machine may fool people into voting for him," she wrote. "And a vote for him is a vote to continue the same old politics as in the past."

I wish I had a link or pdf file to share you the whole of Nguyen's handout. She makes a sincere case for voting down the machine, one that's far more convincing than the blue scrum of Cammarano guys hanging out at the bus stop.

Others should follow Nguyen's example, pick up their phones, call 5 friends and urge them to vote. Nguyen inspired me to do more. Now it's your turn.