Thursday, December 08, 2011

Verizon's Broadband Bunk

A recent letter to the editor of the New York Times from Verizon Chairman Ivan Seidenberg had many scratching our heads today.

Seidenberg wrote to rebut a Times Op-Ed by former White House technology adviser Susan Crawford, in which she argues that the United States high-speed Internet marketplace suffers from a lack of competition, a problem that drives broadband prices up and services down for American Internet users.

"Over the last 10 years, we have deregulated high-speed Internet access in the hope that competition among providers would protect consumers," Crawford wrote. "The result? We now have neither a functioning competitive market for high-speed wired Internet access nor government oversight."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg's First Amendment Problem

AFP reporter Jennifer Weiss films her own arrest
Since the beginning of his crackdown against the Occupy Wall Street movement, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has gone to great lengths to present himself as a champion of the First Amendment. But the free speech rhetoric coming from City Hall hasn't matched the brutal reality experienced by journalists at the front lines of the protest.

In the two months since the movement began 25 journalists have been arrested covering events across the country. More than half of these arrests have occurred in New York City, including 13 journalist arrests in the last week.

My colleague Josh Stearns, who maintains a running tally of media arrests and harassment, said that the NYPD's early morning raids on Zuccotti Park on November 15 resulted in the "single worst day for journalist attacks and arrests to date."

"From the beginning, I have said that the City had two principal goals," Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement following the raids, "guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protestors' First Amendment rights."

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Saving the Democratic Internet

Opponents of the open Internet like to portray its guiding rule, Net Neutrality, as "a government takeover of the Internet."

They argue that from the day of its inception the Internet has existed free of regulation — a perfect expression of the marketplace at work.

What they don’t understand is that the Internet is a far better expression of democracy, and as such needs rules like Net Neutrality to ensure all users have equal access to online content.

And in reality the Internet as we now know it would never have existed were it not for rules and regulation, beginning with the openness standards created by the Internet’s founders some 40 years ago, codified in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and updated in recent orders by the Federal Communications Commission.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Why Is Justin Bieber So Hackin Mad?

Justin Bieber is pissed off and you should be, too.

What's made Bieber so angry? A bill in Congress that could rip apart the open fabric of the internet and let corporations censor free speech.

The "Stop Online Piracy Act" or SOPA gives private entities the power to blacklist websites at will. And it violates the due process rights of the thousands of users who could see their sites disappear from the Internet for doing something as innocent as posting a video of them singing along to their favorite song.

Learning from China?

These are the sort of heavy-handed Web control you'd expect to see in China, not in the United States.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

What's Going On?

Photo: Timothy Karr
Three progressive minds attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the #OccupyWallStreet protests, which have moved with tremendous speed from the margins to the mainstream.

For evidence of this look no further than the protest coverage that made the front and editorial pages of today's New York Times. For the first two weeks of these protests the Times' editors for the most part had joined with other establishment media in a communal snub of the "Occupy" activism and its relevance.

There's a reason for the rapid, organic spread of the Wall Street actions, write Glenn Greenwald, Matt Stoller and Micah Sifry, three passionate thinkers on the evolution of movements in the age of open networks.

In his Wednesday commentary for Salon, Glenn Greenwald blasted the media and establishment Democrats for their smug dismissal of the protests, diagnosing their scorn as a form of self hatred that strikes those who "feign populist opposition to Wall Street for political gain."

Friday, September 30, 2011

High Noon for Internet Freedom

As democracy movements worldwide struggle to speak out via the Internet, many here in the U.S. may have overlooked an effort in Congress to undermine this basic freedom.

It takes the form of an arcane "resolution of disapproval" now wending its way through the Senate. If it passes, the resolution would void a recent Federal Communications Commission rule that seeks to preserve long-held Internet standards that protect users against blocking and censorship.

The resolution would remove these protections. It was put forth by industry-funded members of Congress who don't mind letting the few corporations who sell Internet access in America decide what we get to see, hear and read on the Internet.

These senators are also hoping the resolution will appease the most paranoid among the Tea Party faithful, who equate any consumer safeguard put in place during the Obama era with myriad and shadowy government plots.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who pushed a similar measure through the House earlier this year, stoked these fears when she said, "the FCC is in essence building an Internet Iron Curtain that will restrict more of our freedom."

Blackburn's rhetoric puts her and other supporters of the resolution far outside of the mainstream of Americans, who believe that neither the government nor corporations should be able to censor lawful content online.

If Congress succeeds in passing this measure, it will go well beyond deciding whether the FCC's recent rules are appropriate. The resolution will prohibit the agency from engaging in any effort to protect Internet freedom. The move opens the path for corporations eager to take a wrecking ball to the open architecture that has made the Internet a great equalizer for all users.

Lobbyists and lawyers working for the likes of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have argued that these companies need to take control of your clicks to more efficiently — and profitably — manage the abundance of user-driven innovations online. They promise to be good stewards of this unruly medium if only regulators will take away the one network protection that ensures everyone's right to connect with everyone else on the Internet.

That's not what the Internet's founders intended. They built the network to be free of gatekeepers, giving each user equal access to all the legal content and applications online.

These engineers couldn't have envisioned that this open design would, in a relatively short time, evolve to make the network a potent political tool for freedom movements and democratic organizing worldwide.

But it has. Think of the explosion of Internet organizing and political expression that has swept the world in 2011, from Tunisia to Tehran to Beijing, and is now being embraced in America by protesters determined to Occupy Wall Street.

Americans cherish freedom of speech as much as people across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. An open Internet allows all sides of contentious issues to be heard by anyone who chooses to listen. It opens up a global pipeline for protest movements, a window for millions to witness injustices and a platform on which to organize for a better future.

So ask yourself this: Do you want Congress to surrender your right to choose online to a company whose sole motive is to generate as much profit as possible? Do you want to wipe away the only protection that prevents any entity — be it corporate or government — from blocking our right to connect with one another?

The hardliners in Congress who support this resolution have joined in a pact with powerful Internet providers and free-market extremists to kill off your most fundamental online right.

It's now up to us users to use the open Internet to reclaim it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Welcome to Your Hungarian Internet

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the U.S. has sunk to 25th in a global ranking of Internet speeds, just behind Romania.

Why? Because our nation's regulators abandoned an earlier commitment to foster competition in the marketplace for Internet access providers.

In the years that followed the signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, lobbyists working for powerful providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon pressured a compliant FCC to tear down all of the important safeguards established by Congress.

Under the Bush administration, the FCC tossed out competitive broadband safeguards such as open-access requirements, which opened lines to other providers. In 2002 the agency declared that high-speed cable Internet access would no longer be considered a telecommunications service that opened the network to competitors, but rather an “information service” that did not. Following a 2005 court decision, the FCC also reclassified broadband delivered by the phone companies as an “information service.”

These were radical policy shifts that went against the long-held assumption that open communications in competitive markets were essential to economic growth and innovation.

While the U.S. blindly followed a path of "deregulation," other nations in Europe and Asia beefed up their pro-competitive policies. The results are evident in our free fall from the top of almost every global measure of Internet services, availability and speed.

About this my Free Press colleague Derek Turner writes:
"By turning its back on the 1996 Act, the FCC ordered up a future of digital mediocrity and stuck American consumers with the bill. Americans pay more per month for broadband than consumers in all but seven of the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ... When price and speed are considered together as a measure of value, we see that Americans pay more per megabit per second than consumers in many other countries. The value of U.S. connections is some four times less than that of countries like France, and is only slightly better than the value of connections in Hungary, a country with a per capita GDP nearly two-and-a-half times lower than the United States."
The lack of competition has turned America into a broadband backwater. In the aftermath of the FCC’s decisions, powerful phone and cable companies legislated and lobbied their way to controlling 97 percent of the fixed-line residential broadband market — leaving the vast majority of consumers with two or fewer choices of land-based providers in any given market.

The absence of true consumer choice has driven prices up and services down. Wednesday's New York Times reports that in some parts of the country the situation has had a direct impact on economic growth, education and public safety.

"This is about our overall competitiveness," Jonathan Adelstein of the Rural Utilities Service told the Times. "Without broadband, especially in rural areas, kids might not reach their full potential. And we can’t expect to be competitive in a global economy."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vast Wasteland Revisited

On Monday, the top thinkers in new and old media gathered at Harvard to discuss the state of the media, 50 years after FCC Chairman Newton Minow slammed the nation’s broadcasters for creating a “Vast Wasteland” across the television dial.

Though I did not attend the event, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman did an excellent job of reporting out via Twitter and his blog.

What’s remarkable in Ethan’s summary is the sense that, while the technology and players have shifted, the problem of U.S. media remains the same: A failure to foster the sort of public interest, independent and noncommercial media system to serve as an antidote to the dreck of commercial news and information that infects America's political discourse.

I could go on about that, and will at a later date. For now I want to put a placeholder in the important comments that were made in Cambridge (Again, as reported by Ethan).

Fifty years on and Minow still seems to have kept a Gimlet eye on the state of our media. He told participants at yesterday's event: "Politicians need massive amounts of money to buy radio and television ads. They raise money from the public to gain access to something the public owns: the airwaves."

This is because the U.S. is one of a few developed democracies that has not offered candidates free access to our airwaves. Why? Because the powerful broadcast lobby makes too much money selling ad space to them -- a number estimated to soar near $3 billion in the 2012 cycle -- and have blocked every political attempt to introduce free time.

Meanwhile their reporting on political candidates and campaigns has devolved into horse race coverage and gotcha moments, devoid of discussions of the issues that Americans say matter most in an election.


Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter noted that today's news business is "largely dysfunctional." Much of the political news we get isn't news at all, he says, but "people like me babbling on MSNBC or Fox," rather than the sort of expensive newsgathering required to report facts on the ground.

These are common complaints made by media reformers such as myself, my colleagues at Free Press, and across the larger movement.

What's less common is the direction the discussion then takes, towards the shifting political power dynamic of social and mobile media.

Yochai Benkler, one of the world's leading thinkers on new networks, helps make the transition:

"Because we all now carry sound, video and text generating and disseminating tools – phones – we’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to close the gap between what costs a great deal of money and what we all need as citizens."

Benkler alludes to something that we've been saying at Free Press for some time now: "Your phone is political." We recognize that our right to connect via mobile devices is vital to the future health of our or any other democracy.

Broken Promises

Mass media once promised to engage millions in democracy, making information available to people who were previously excluded from the political process. But the age of television seems to have done the opposite.

A survey of voter turnout in the age of television elections (1960 through 2008) shows a national average of 55 percent. In the presidential elections that occurred from 1860 through 1956, voter turnout reached an average 67 percent.

"The political conversation involves a maximum of 10 to 15 million people," Alter says, "but 130 million vote in Presidential elections."

Moreover, a survey published late last year by CTIA counts more than 300 million mobile accounts in the U.S. -- or some 95 percent of the population.

What Mobile Movement?

The link transforming mobile phone users to political speakers and participants remains tenuous, but the potential for inserting new voices in the political process is immense, as is the importance of protecting their freedom to connect.

Susan Crawford says that control over this freedom now rests in the hands of new players, not the broadcasters of old but the distributors of new. She includes massively and vertically integrated companies like Comcast among a rogues gallery of the few cable and telecommunications colossi that control both our wired and wireless worlds.

Ethan adds that "In this new world, the FCC may not be the prime mover -- the real power is located in intermediaries like Google, and if we were to push for the public interest, that’s where we’d apply leverage."

Indeed, if only we had a broader movement to do just that.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BART and the New Era of Censorship

I have spent most of the week poring over news stories, blogs and commentary on last week’s decision by Bay Area Rapid Transit officials to shut off cellphone service to quash planned protests on its trains and platforms.

Opinions are many and range from BART spokesman Linton Johnson, who says constitutional rights end the moment people walk through transit-authority turnstiles, to “X” of the hacker collective Anonymous, who protested BART’s action and said our freedom to connect should be absolute and universal.

I tend to agree with “X,” but adding my criticism to what has already been heaped on BART seems of little consequence at this point.

What does matter is the dangerous precedent set by public agencies that silence new media, and the need for clarity about our free speech rights regardless of the medium.

The San Francisco incident is not unique. Earlier this summer Cleveland’s City Council passed an ordinance outlawing the use of Facebook and other social media to assemble unruly crowds. While a mayoral veto struck down the Cleveland ruling, the overreaction is part of a spreading official backlash against political organizing on new media.

Other governments have responded the same — see China, Burma, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and beyond. In many instances they simply direct the state-run service provider and cellphone carriers to shut down their networks.

In the U.S., though, companies often flip the kill switch on their own. Verizon Wireless blocked text messages in 2007 that a reproductive rights group sought to send to its members. The carrier decided that the texts were “controversial and unsavory” and implemented a rule buried deep within the company’s terms of service that gives Verizon the power to cut off mobile communications “without prior notice and for any reason or no reason.”

That Verizon reversed its decision after its censorship was exposed by the New York Times should offer little comfort — neither should the notion that fierce public criticism has sufficiently warned BART against switching off mobile communications in the future.

These incidents reveal a growing pattern of abuse and a great measure of confusion over free speech rights in the tangled realm of new media.

“We have free speech rights everywhere. Or at least everywhere in the U.S. when government applies its power,” argues First Amendment scholar Marvin Ammori.

“If the spokesperson for BART reflects BART’s understanding about freedom of speech at stations, then BART’s leadership is wrong,” Ammori says, adding that dismissing the free speech rights of citizens in such a reckless and all-encompassing fashion puts BART on shaky legal ground.

While these are new technologies, this isn’t a new issue. People have sought to speak out using the best means available, whether that’s strapping a note to a pigeon’s leg, handing out printed pamphlets on a street corner or tweeting from the subway.

Governments have routinely sought to shut down technologies that disrupt their authority. But our basic freedoms should remain intact. Whether public and private entities have the right to silence social media and cellphone networks has become a question for the courts.

That’s why the recent uptick in U.S. censorship is cause for real concern — and reason enough for our judicial system to provide clarity on behalf of free speech everywhere.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Murdoch Façade Crumbling as Scandal Takes Root in America

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) is reportedly preparing to deliver subpoenas to News Corporation employees and others as part of its expanding investigation into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

A separate FBI investigation is underway in response to reports that the company may have hacked into the phone messages of victims of the September 11 attacks. (Free Press is part of a larger coalition of groups urging Washington to call News Corp. executives including Rupert Murdoch to testify before Congress )

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act holds U.S. companies legally accountable for crimes committed abroad, especially bribes that are paid to foreign officials to protect and expand the company’s business interests.

News Corp. is running its own campaign to downplay these allegations, distance father and son from the alleged crimes, and contain the scandal to the U.K. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News Channel are leading the charge with carefully contrived editorials and on-air stagecraft. One person with ties to News Corp. told The Journal that the DoJ subpoenas are “a fishing expedition with no evidence to support it.”

Not according to British investigators, who received a trove of documents and emails from News International that identify at least $160,000 in bribes paid to police officers. This handover of evidence has been confirmed by more credible news outlets, including the New York Times and the Guardian, that have covered the unfolding investigations.

Robert Lenzner of Forbes writes that News Corp efforts to cover-up the scandal are now “cracking” as two former executives come forth to claim that James Murdoch wasn't telling the whole truth during his testimony before Parliament on Tuesday. One former executive, Tom Crone, should know. He served as part of the legal team that advised Murdoch, Jr. during an earlier investigation that involved phone hacking.

“When the full extent of the hacking and the amounts paid to police are known, the Murdochs’ claim [that] they knew nothing of these activities – and were betrayed – will go up in smoke,” Lenzner writes.

And as more leads indicate that crimes were indeed committed on U.S. soil -- including actor Jude Law's claim that his phone was hacked as he was passing through New York City’s JFK Airport -- the likelihood increases that this scandal will create heat for the Murdochs on this side of the Atlantic.

More fish for the frying pan.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Washington Slowly Wakes Up from AT&T's Fantasy

Congress may be finally waking up to the obvious: that the massive merger of AT&T with T-Mobile just doesn't make sense.

No amount of contributions from AT&T, or visits from AT&T lobbyists, will alter this simple truth.

On Wednesday, the Senate's top antitrust official, Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, weighed the facts and wrote a letter urging Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to reject AT&T's proposed takeover.

Sen. Kohl wrote that "the acquisition, if permitted to proceed, would likely cause substantial harm to competition and consumers, would be contrary to antitrust law and not in the public interest, and therefore should be blocked by your agencies."

Sen. Kohl's joined a growing chorus of opposition in Washington to the proposed merger. Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) also submitted a letter on Wednesday stating that they believed AT&T's takeover of T-Mobile "would be a troubling backward step in federal public policy -- a retrenchment from nearly two decades of promoting competition and open markets to acceptance of a duopoly in the wireless marketplace."

Opposition to this unprecedented consolidation is growing, and will only continue to grow once policymakers and the public see that the facts contradict AT&T's propaganda.

In his letter, Sen. Kohl provides a detailed analysis of the deal, and notes that T-Mobile is one of the sectors strongest price competitors, with services costing from $15 to $50 less than comparable plans on AT&T. T-Mobile is a "competitor that disciplines price increases from all three other national cell phone competitors," Sen. Kohl writes, adding that approval of the merger "raises a substantial likelihood that prices will rise."

He also notes that the merger would hand AT&T and Verizon control of 80 percent of the market, Kohl cites antitrust law, which explicitly forbids mergers that "may tend to substantially lessen competition."

Despite a mountain of evidence to support Sen. Kohl's claim, AT&T continues to say, as it did in its filing to the FCC, that "the wireless marketplace will be more competitive" as a result of this merger.

It gets worse. In response to Sen. Kohl's letter, AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said that the senator's view "is inconsistent with antitrust law, is shared by few others and ignores the many positive benefits and numerous supporters of the transaction."

Think about that for a second. A top AT&T flack is saying that a highly respected leader of the Judiciary Committee, who is considered an expert in matters related to antitrust, knows nothing about antitrust law, or knows less than AT&T's public relations department.

While their false claims about competition seem obvious to everyone, especially those who can count, convincing Washington to question the gospel of AT&T is no easy task.

The phone giant has spent $200 million on lobbyists and campaign contributions over the years. This astronomical sum goes a long way toward explaining why earlier this month a sum a cabal of House Democrats looked the other way and signed a letter stating that the merger would lead to billions of dollars in new investment and create thousands of new jobs.

Never mind that the opposite is true, that the merger will mark a net drop in capital expenditures for network build out and likely result in layoffs for more than 20,000 "redundant" T-Mobile employees.

In Washington, the facts too often don't hold a candle to a phalanx of industry lobbyists and a pile of campaign checks. Until now, this toxic blend of misinformation and cash has hijacked the debate surrounding this merger, and just about every other effort to reform the forces of the status quo.

The good news is that the common-sense efforts of Kohl and others are staring to unravel AT&T's fantasy. More people inside Washington have begun to see its lobbying juggernaut for what it is: a well-funded push for a government handout, instead of competing fairly in the free market.

AT&T doesn't need to acquire T-Mobile to serve rural America or improve the quality of its service. And as more members of Congress point out, this merger will kill competition and lead to higher prices, reduced investment and more unemployment.

As Washington separates fact from fantasy, the regulators at the DOJ and FCC simply need to do their jobs. They will surely have no choice but to reject this takeover outright.

Imagining what those T-Mobile ads would look like

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Murdoch Scandal Jumps the Pond

The media scandal that's snared Rupert Murdoch and other News Corporation executives in Great Britain has crossed the Atlantic, and could cause more homegrown trouble for the U.S.-based media company.

In the past 48 hours, Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller, Frank Lautenberg, Barbara Boxer and Robert Menendez have called for an investigation of News Corp., saying that the behavior of Murdoch's executives and staff in England raises serious questions about the legality of the conduct of the company under U.S. law.

And the calls haven't been exclusively partisan. On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Peter King said the allegations of News Corp phone hacking were "disgraceful" and warranted an FBI investigation.

Already a range of groups including Free Press, Public Campaign, ThinkProgress, CREDO Action and Media Matters for America has collected signatures from 100,000 Americans demanding an investigation. is organizing a sizable protest to occur outside Murdoch's Manhattan townhouse on Thursday.

New Allegations to Come

It's clear from reports in the media that more allegations are going to surface, and that they'll not be limited to crimes committed in the United Kingdom.

Reporters at the Murdoch-owned news properties allegedly hacked the phone messages of more than 4,000 people, including the voicemail of a 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler, which set off a furious public backlash in Britain. But News of the World journalists were based in the United States during the time the paper allegedly hacked into people's phone records.

We already know that some reportedly tried to pay a New York City police officer to hack into the phone messages of the American families and victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

We also know that News Corp., as an American company, is accountable to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which states that U.S. companies can be prosecuted for crimes committed abroad. (Part of the investigation unfolding in the UK involves $160,000 in bribes allegedly paid to police by Murdoch executives to stifle an investigation of the phone hacking).

On Tuesday, former New York State Governor and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer wrote that the Justice Department has been very actively prosecuting FCPA violations in recent years. "The News Corp. case presents a pretty simple test for Attorney General Eric Holder," Spitzer wrote. "If the department fails to open an immediate investigation into News Corp.'s violations of the FCPA, there will have been a major breach of enforcement at Justice."

Murdoch Not Above the Law

Murdoch has amassed a worldwide media empire, which in America includes Fox News Channel, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, and hundreds of local broadcast stations and cable channels.

For too long, Murdoch has leveraged his enormous media power to get what he wants from leaders in Washington and London, and to insulate himself and his company from official scrutiny.

This is exactly the problem that media reformers have been warning about for years. When one company amasses too much control over a nation's public discourse, democracy suffers.

It seems clear now that Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. colleagues believed that their tremendous media power placed them above the law.

But fortunes are turning, and Rupert Murdoch must now answer for all that has happened under his watch. If he or his executives broke the law, they need to be held accountable in the United States.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Trouble with Rupert

There are many reasons that the scandal that's engulfing Rupert Murdoch has riveted public attention over the last seven days. It's a story that features all of the classic elements: twists of fate, betrayal, deception, abuse of power, and, even, murder.

But beneath Murdoch's meltdown lies a bigger problem, and its one that's not confined to the United Kingdom. It plagues all consolidated news organizations that reach a certain size and stature, but especially News Corp: The problem of media that get too cozy with power.

There's a disturbing parallel between Rupert Murdoch's methods in the UK and those he deploys in the US. More than any of the current crop of media moguls, Murdoch accrues political influence through aggressive manipulation of News Corp's many media outlets. It's not just in the ways they cover the news but how they use this coverage to gain favorable access to elected officials.

Consider the easy rapport struck among Murdoch's London executives and conservative candidate David Cameron. After he was elected Prime Minister, Cameron tapped a top News International executive to be his spokesman.

Compare that to the way Fox News Channel has courted GOP presidential candidates, many of whom have served as paid commentators for the network, in expectation that one may succeed in his or her bid for the White House.

In Sunday's New York Times, David Carr wrote: "News Corporation has historically used its four [London] newspapers... to shape and quash public debate, routinely helping to elect prime ministers with timely endorsements while punishing enemies at every turn."

Look at how control of media outlets in another powerful city -- New York, where he owns the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, two television stations, and where both News Corp and Fox News Channel are headquartered -- has placed Murdoch on the A-list among Manhattan's glitterati.

Comforting the Comfortable

Murdoch's relentless pursuit of political power has turned Finley Peter Dunne's famous quote about the role of journalism on its head. News Corp sees its purpose as "comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted."

It was a fortunate twist of fate -- thanks in large part to the dogged reporting of The Guardian -- that the afflicted would eventually have their say.

Reports revealed that News of the World staffers had hacked into the phone messages of a kidnapped and murdered 13-year-old to get a scoop. They even deleted messages in order to listen to more of the parents' desperate pleas, and, in the process, misled investigators to believe that the victim was still alive.

Now, the Daily Mirror reports that Murdoch's journalists at the News of the World had offered to pay New York police officer to hack into the phone messages of victims of the September 11 attacks here in the States.

Until now Murdoch's comfy ties to leadership have proven fruitful in promoting candidates, and winning official approval of the policies and mergers he has sought over the years.

But this could be changing. As A.C. Grayling wrote in a Friday Times op-ed, "News International's bid to take control of the television company British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB, was, in the opinion of many, a step too far, given that, even before the hacking revelations, its influence on politics and public conversation had become deeply corrosive."

This corrosive influence over London's political class is no less true of News Corp here in the US, where Murdoch displays a ruthless drive for access and control. That's why it was reassuring when a federal appeals court last week rejected a 2007 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that would have let media giants amass more power by buying up more local news outlets.

The move no doubt delivered a blow to Murdoch's ambitions. And if past is prologue his reaction will be harsh.

In the 1990s, when the FCC was threatening to take away a single News Corp broadcast license, Murdoch's chief in-house lobbyist, Preston Padden, warned then FCC Chairman Reed Hundt's chief of staff that he would not be able to "get a job as dog-catcher" if the agency proceeded with its plans.

Murdoch later assailed Hundt in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, which triggered widespread attacks against the FCC chair by Congressional Republicans.

But the tables may now have turned against the media mogul. Had the FCC been allowed to loosen its curbs to consolidation this time around, Murdoch could have moved to control many more broadcast and print news outlets in New York, and elsewhere.

Last week's appeals court ruling was not only a rebuke of the FCC's decision, but also of the idea that the amassing of more media power posed no threat to our democracy.

America's founding fathers understood that media are essential to an informed electorate. What they may not have foreseen was rise of a media mogul like Rupert Murdoch, for whom the media serve merely as a means to his political ends.

The misdeeds of Murdoch's empire -- both here and abroad -- serve as plain evidence that last week's appeals court decision to curb consolidation was the right move.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Difference Between 'Town Halls' and Town Halls

Twitter's #AskObama question selection process was "like panning for gold in the wrong stream," tweeted Economist political writer Will Wilkinson.

Wilkinson should know. He was one of the "curators" asked to sift through the feed and select questions for President Obama during Wednesday's live event.

According to CNN, the so-called "Twitter Town Hall" was so heavily moderated and filtered that only 0.045% of the 40,000 questions asked were actually posed to the president.

While it's not realistic to expect the president to answer all 40,000 questions, we can hope for a process whereby questions are selected in a more democratic or even random way.

In real town hall meetings, any person who gets to the microphone gets to ask a question of officials. If you've witnessed a local city council meeting, you know that this often makes for odd, populist political theater (with a fair dose of paranoid ranting thrown into the mix).

And yet unfiltered questions often throw officials off script and make for revealing moments that feel much more like the truth. The end result is far more participatory and democratic than any of the recent "Town Halls" run by Facebook and Twitter.

Jack Dorsey, the Twitter co-founder who delivered the questions to Obama, is open to changing up the play on future Twitter Town Halls. After the event he tweeted that the event was a "great first step for future Town Halls," and he asked his nearly 1.7 million followers for advice: "How can we make Twitter @TownHalls better in the future?"

Any ideas?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Google+ vs. Facebook: Should Human Rights Factor in Your Choice of Social Network?

Question: What would billionaire Mark Zuckerberg lose by refusing Chinese demands that he censor Facebook? What would he and his company gain from being more principled?

This came up after reading Christopher Luna's analysis of Google+ as an alternative to Facebook, Zuckerberg's social networking colossus that boasts 750 million users globally.

Google+, which launched in beta last week, has been Topic One among the “digerati,” who've spent much of the week kicking the tires of Facebook's new competitor and reporting back to followers and friends.

But Luna, a masters student at Harvard Divinity School, looked at the competing services through a different lens.

He wrote that he’s come to trust Google more because of its refusal to buckle to Chinese censors:
Google is currently in a power war with China, and Google has made the correct choice in its difficult decision between compromising with a totalitarian government that would exert every pressure possible, legal and illegal, to use the information that we trust to Google to continue its campaign against freedom and dissidence.
Facebook, Cisco and Microsoft have shown themselves to be much more willing to comply with Chinese gatekeepers in order to gain access to the nation’s vast marketplace of users.

For Luna, Google's stance on behalf of free speech and human rights should be the deciding factor for social media users.

"The choice here isn't just about business. It's about whether a capitalist economy can show that the bottom line is not the only thing in the world that matters," he writes. "It's about whether a corporation can exist and thrive while standing by principles that support the value of human beings."

In 2011, networked technology has become a megaphone for freedom movements from Tunisia and Yemen to Burma and Vietnam. Yet at the same time new media companies have provided repressive regimes with the means to turn technology against their citizenry -- to spy on communications, censor content and, even, track down dissidents for arrest.

And while I agree with Luna that Google has a better record than Facebook on several open Internet and human rights issues, both are in the business of selling us, their users, to advertisers. For some people, that basic fact -- including their need to gather as much data as possible about us whether we are aware of it or not -- compromises their products too much. (Wouldn't it be great if those 750 million people used Diaspora's open social network instead?)

In a more perfect world tech companies that stand up for freedom and justice should naturally be more successful economically. This isn't the way our globalized markets have functioned over the centuries, but perhaps we've reached a point in our newly connected world where principles can lead to profits.

For this to succeed, though, consumers will need to become more engaged in corporate behavior both at home and abroad, and to vote with their wallets (and clicks) for the company that takes the high road.

For Luna, the choice is obvious: "I'd like to see Google win this war [with Facebook], and I know who's side I'm on here. I kind of think that leaving Facebook is one way that we can participate…"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The U.S. Congress: Where It Pays to Deceive

Why are more than 70 House Democrats helping AT&T lie to you?

They just signed on to an industry letter that was so riddled with misinformation about AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile it’s shocking that anyone would put their name on it.

All told these representatives raked in more than $1.8 million in campaign contributions from AT&T. That money likely helped convince them to look the other way as they signed a letter in support of AT&T's attempt to form a telecommunications colossus that rivals the Ma Bell monopoly of old.

These members of Congress should be working for us. But sadly, that’s not the way Washington works in the new era of corporate politics. After the Citizens United decision, the cost of running for Congress has spiraled upward giving cash-rich corporations even more power to dictate policy to money-hungry candidates.

This letter is no exception.

Fewer Jobs

In it the Democrats write that AT&T's takeover will "require billions of dollars in private investment capital and create thousands of jobs."

That’s untrue: AT&T has already told Wall Street that “synergies” from the merger will result in billions of dollars less investment and massive layoffs. Analysts estimate that between 20,000 and 25,000 T-Mobile employees will lose their jobs if regulators approve the deal.

I challenge any one of these signing Democrats to find a large merger in the long history of telecommunications that hasn’t led to extensive layoffs.

And AT&T has a frightening track record on firing. Over the past decade, as it grew massively through mergers, AT&T has shed more than 100,000 workers -- reducing its employee rolls in eight of the last nine years. AT&T laid off 12,000 workers in 2009; in 2010 its number of employees dropped by more than 15,000. And the company has let go nearly 6,000 employees in the first quarter of 2011.

Universal Access

In the letter the Democrats also state that AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile would “be a significant benefit for the millions of Americans that may not otherwise see those benefits, including our constituents living in rural and underserved communities.”

This is also false: Earlier this month, AT&T told the FCC that, even without the merger, it will deploy next generation “4G” services to 97 percent of the population by the end of 2012. And AT&T’s rival Verizon has pledged to cover its entire footprint with 4G LTE service -- 98 percent of Americans -- by 2014.

So it’s fair to assume that competitive pressure will force AT&T to serve these areas with its own advanced network, regardless of the merger. If AT&T fails to offer wireless coverage to consumers, there is no doubt that it will cede significant market share to Verizon – something AT&T is loath to do.

The Facts

These members of Congress seem willing to overlook evidence that's obvious to anyone following the debate.

If this deal goes through, just two companies, AT&T and Verizon, would control nearly 80 percent of the mobile market in America. With too few choices, mobile phone users would face higher prices and poorer services. The lack of competitive pressure will stifle the sorts of innovation that the U.S. needs to stay ahead in a world where billions of people are using their mobile phones in increasingly inventive ways.

In any other industry, allowing this much concentration, especially without any meaningful regulatory oversight, would be unthinkable.

By comparison, the top 10 oil producing firms combined control less than 80 percent of the U.S. market, but this merger will give that level of market dominance to just two wireless companies.

AT&T knows that it can't win approval of this merger by telling the truth. That's why it has spent $200 million on lobbyists and campaign contributions over the years — to get people like these Democrats in the House to do whatever AT&T wants.

Our elected officials should be looking out for us, not just big corporations. Opposing this massive merger would be a good start.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Anonymous Declares Cyberwar Against ‘the System’

On Tuesday, someone claiming to speak for the underground group Anonymous released a video declaration of war against "the system."

The YouTube manifesto is a call to everyone in the online world to get off the couch, pick up their cell phones and laptops and join a revolt against governments and corporations that are intent upon stifling free speech online.

"It's time to hack the planet. It's time to turn the tables on the powers that be and show them that we have had enough," a narrator declares in a computer-generated voice used to mask his or her identity.

"This is our challenge," the narrator continues:
The revolution must take hold as a peaceful revolution. We must build our strength and unity through ideas, ingenuity and creativity. We must tear down the barriers that have existed to this day only because we allowed them to. The revolution must be televised. We must utilize the tools that we have and apply them with existing technology: computers, cell phones, internet and media.
Anonymous consists of a loose-knit collective of underground hackers and Internet freedom advocates that grew out of the 4Chan forum and other online networks of political activists.

The group seeks to unite hackers and culture jammers behind a singular purpose: to tear down digital-age barriers to free expression. With Tuesday's video manifesto, Anonymous has apparently widened its target to wage war against all entities that "are taking steps to make the Internet a less friendly and tolerable place for expression."

Given the elusive nature of the group, it's hard to determine whether this Anonymous manifesto came from the organization's leadership -- if they exist at all -- or simply bubbled up from within its loose structure.

It is, however, something that should not be taken lightly.

Anonymous has launched several successful "operations" to bring down the websites of governments, corporations and political groups it sees as oppressors. Earlier this week a NATO report warned member states of a serious Anonymous threat to their military security.

It has also followed up on WikiLeaks, hacking into the confidential files of these groups and releasing them to the public.

Earlier this year Anonymous released the emails of Aaron Barr, the executive of security firm HBGary, including a PowerPoint proposal to smear writer Glenn Greenwald, who is one of the most outspoken defenders of Wikileaks.

In March, Anonymous released emails it claimed to have obtained from Bank of America, allegedly exposing corruption and fraud related to mortgage foreclosures in the U.S.

The manifesto is pretty compelling stuff, written by someone familiar with the history of seminal political texts. And it's told to a danceable backbeat:
[the revolution] must begin immediately because as you are listening to this address world governments are taking steps to make the Internet a less friendly and tolerable place for expression. This is a direct attack on your rights.
As a response Anonymous calls upon "all those who possess the ability to alter cyber barriers" to hack the oppressors using peaceful means, including art, graffiti, fliers, music, lectures, assembly and protest. It also called upon those with technical know how to use their skills to become "digital warriors of the underground," presumably to help hack into systems of the groups they oppose.

"This is not anarchy this is resistance," the manifesto claims. "The time is now. The revolution has begun."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

FCC Commissioner's Comcast Dash Triggers a Wave of Disgust

It's fair to say that media and the public have responded with disgust to news that FCC Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker had cut short her public duties to lobby for Comcast, the company whose takeover of NBC Universal she had just approved.

Baker's Comcast dash raised the eyebrows of even the most seasoned Beltway insiders -- including those who tend to see public-sector service as the farm league for "K" Street jobs.

But the criticism hasn't been limited to one bureaucrat's shameless decision to abandon her 2009 oath to serve the American people. Baker's move may become the tipping point for new rules to stop Washington's revolving door from tempting any bureaucrat to exchange a light regulatory hand for the promise of a high-salaried job.

The New York Times has called on Congress to pass stronger measures to prevent government employees from jumping ship so soon; more than 55,000 people have already written the chair of the House Oversight Committee demanding action.

Can you blame people for being so angry? With public trust in government at a 30-year low, its time Washington recognized that "business as usual" isn't good enough.

Follows is a survey of prevailing opinion:

The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 14:
"There's something particularly unsettling about a regulatory official who voted only four months ago to approve the $13.75 billion merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal turning around to take a high-profile job with that firm... [T]he move threatens to further undermine public confidence in the government's ability to make objective decisions that put ordinary citizens' interests first."
TIME Magazine, May 13:
"The revolving door has spun in exactly the way that people outside the beltway have long feared it would. And it happened without any rules being broken. Baker may not have known that NBC-Universal or Comcast would be offering her a job when she argued on their behalf. But everyone in town knows that if you stand up for wealthy interests while serving the public interest, chances are there is a nice fat paycheck waiting for you somewhere when you choose to leave government."
The Seattle Times, May 13:
"Unseemly does not begin to describe Baker's actions. Even the most jaundiced critic of the FCC should be taken aback by the Republican commissioner's new job and the blink of time between her vote and her announcement. Factor in the time consumed by the hiring process, which apparently began last month, and it's even worse. It is actions like Baker's that turn people against government."
The New York Times, May 12:
"Congress should expand the definition of lobbying beyond face-to-face encounters to any effort to influence government decisions for their clients. It should also set tight caps on what former officials, including former lawmakers, can earn from lobbying before they must register as lobbyists. Americans don't need any more reasons to mistrust Washington."
Rolling Stone, May 12:
"Rarely are revolving-door stories this revolting. Just months ago Meredith Attwell Baker voted -- as a commissioner on the FCC -- to approve Comcast's controversial merger NBC Universal. Baker is now taking a job as a senior vice president in Comcast's lobbying shop in Washington. 'No wonder the public is so nauseated by business as usual in Washington,' said Craig Aaron, chief executive of media watchdog Free Press."
Wired, May 11:
"The revolving door between the public-private sector is now so taken for granted that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski applauded the move... 'I wish her well in her new role at NBC Universal,' Genachowski said in a statement, hours after Baker announced she was 'privileged to have had the opportunity to serve the country.' What's more revolting, Baker's move or Genachowski's reaction? Let us know."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

One More Washington Regulator Cashes in at Your Expense

Federal Communications Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker will reportedly depart the agency in June to occupy a corner office at Comcast-NBC -- the company whose multi-billion mega-merger she approved just months ago.

In so doing she joins a long line of "public servants" who have spun government jobs into gold at the expense of the American people they're supposed to represent.

Many have found the FCC to be a particularly lucrative launching pad. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell now earns millions as the top lobbyist for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a trade group that lobbies for the industry he was tasked to regulate.

Commissioner Baker's move to Comcast comes less than four months after she voted to approve the cable giant's takeover of NBC Universal. As recently as March, she gave a speech lamenting that the agency's review of the Comcast-NBC deal "took too long."

"What we didn't know then was that she was in such a rush to start picking out the drapes in her new corner office," Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement after news of Baker's new job broke.

With behavior like this it's little wonder that American people are so nauseated by business as usual in Washington. Inside the Beltway, the complete capture of government by industry barely raises any eyebrows. Outside of Washington, people of every political stripe have expressed near unanimous contempt for a system of government that favors powerful corporations at the expense of the many.

A Pew Research Center aggregate poll finds public trust in government to have reached a 30-year low, dipping beneath 20 percent. With shameless moves like Baker's it's surprising that trust is that high.

The continuously revolving door at the FCC and across all DC agencies continues to erode any prospects for common-sense public policy... the kind that's supposed to promote the general welfare and not simply line the pockets of DC careerists.

Let's hope that her replacement will be someone who is not just greasing the skids for their next industry job. (Don't hold your breath).

Coincidentally, this news came on the same day that another massive corporation was working the halls of Capitol Hill for approval of its merger.

A Wednesday Senate subcommittee hearing on AT&T's proposed takeover of T-Mobile had CEO Randall Stephenson glad handing members of Congress and the FCC for approval of a deal many inside Washington see as inevitable despite a growing public outcry.

The outcry is well justified. As GigaOM's Stacey Higginbotham detailed, there is very good reason to believe that regulators are ill prepared to conceive of the impact the AT&T merger would have on everyday cellphone users. They're working from an old playbook, one where Beltway manipulators like AT&T's team of lobbyists know how to work the refs.

But DC isn't worried about doing right, right now. The head of the company that makes more political contributions than any other -- and spends tens of millions on lobbyists each year -- has graced our capital with his presence.

The only question on the minds of many is how to press a resume into Stephenson's hands before he wraps his visit and returns to AT&T headquarters.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Throw Your Smartphone down the Rabbit Hole

Do you believe in fairy tales?

AT&T wants you to. The phone giant is trying to make everyone believe that its takeover of T-Mobile would be good for jobs, innovation and the economy, while saving you hundreds of dollars on your smartphone.

The opposite is true. But that didn't stop AT&T from making these claims in a 381-page FCC filing that was so filled with half-truths and fantasies that the Los Angeles Times said it came from Alice in Wonderland.

"The wireless marketplace will be more competitive," AT&T claims in the filing. For those keeping score, the phone company is actually saying that consumers will gain more choice among mobile phone carriers by subtracting T-Mobile from your options.

Gobbling up T-Mobile’s 34 million users and absorbing their workforce will "create new jobs and economic growth," AT&T adds. Never mind the tens of thousands of T-Mobile technicians, customer-service reps and storefront salespeople to be “made redundant” soon after the deal goes through.

Such AT&T mythmaking is part of its shameless campaign to convince Washington that the takeover of T-Mobile would be harmless.

It's now left to Congress, the FCC and the Department of Justice to sort fact from fiction and decide whether the runaway consolidation of America's mobile phone sector is in the interest of the American people.

AT&T has already hired an army of lobbyists to make its case. Next Wednesday, they're marching before the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee to woo support for this disastrous deal from our elected officials – many of whom receive handsome campaign contributions from… that’s right… AT&T.

The Los Angeles Times is not alone in its appraisal of the deal. The word from Wall Street to Main Street is that allowing such runaway consolidation of the mobile sector is pure craziness. T-Mobile customers, who stand to have AT&T jack up their rates more than 20 percent are already raising a stink at the FCC, which recently opened a docket for the public to comment on the proposed merger.

The truth is that consolidation of the scale being proposed by AT&T resembles the old railroad and oil trusts of the 19th century. It seems unthinkable to suggest that turning one of the economy’s most innovative and important sectors into Standard Oil would be good for any of us. But that's pretty much how AT&T adds things up.

And with tens of millions of Americans relying on smarter iPhones, Android systems and Blackberry's to do what we want to do, go where we want to go, and say what we want to say, the impact of this merger would be felt dearly.

So should it be left to Washington and one exceedingly powerful company to decide the fate of our communications? (If you're thinking "no," you can help stop this merger by contacting the members of the Antitrust Subcommittee and urging them to grill AT&T next Wednesday.)

If Congress, the FCC and Department of Justice hear from enough people like you and me, they can muster the courage to ask the right questions of AT&T.

Next Wednesday's hearing on the Hill is our first chance to expose this merger for the nightmare that it is, and save our smartphones from following AT&T down the rabbit hole.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Astroturfing Net Neutrality

Free speech online has come under withering attack from the astroturf lobby -- corporate front groups that are determined to hand control of the Internet to companies like AT&T and Comcast.

They've joined the forces of the Tea Party with pro-corporate attack groups like Americans for Prosperity to urge weak members of Congress to betray the public interest by voting to strip the Federal Communications Commission of its ability to protect our basic freedom to access an open Internet.

And betray us is exactly what House representatives did earlier this month, passing a "Resolution of Disapproval" (H.J. Res. 37), which is designed to let phone and cable companies block any speech they don't like, charge users anything they can get away with, and hold innovation hostage to their profit margins.

If this resolution gets by the Senate and White House, there will be little anyone could do to stop these companies. The good new is that President Obama has already vowed to veto this resolution. (You can make sure that it doesn't get to his desk by urging your senators to kill H.J Res. 37).

The aim of the front groups supporting this industry agenda is to stoke partisan rancor and fear over a principle called Net Neutrality -- a basic rule that keeps service providers from deciding what content we get to see and share via digital networks.

A favorite line of theirs is to portray Net Neutrality as part of a Marxist conspiracy, dismissing the vast coalition of people of every political stripe who believe that an open Internet is a basic requirement of a healthy, modern democracy.

An article earlier this month at Andrew Breitbart's website Big Government painted Net Neutrality as "oppressive" and "leftists policies" and urged readers to phone up Democrats and urge their vote for a Congressional "Resolution of Disapproval" that had been embraced by Rep. Michele Bachmann and pushed by House Speaker John Boehner.

Americans for Prosperity, the industry-funded astroturf group with deep ties to the Koch Brothers and telecommunications companies, had asked its members to send letters to these and other congressional offices calling Net Neutrality "Obama's Internet takeover."

"Regulating the Internet under the banner of so-called network neutrality has been a far-left obsession for years," argues Americans for Prosperity VP of Policy Phil Kerpen.

Rhetoric aside -- it’s worth noting that companies like AT&T and Comcast have delivered truckloads of money to the re-election campaigns of most of those who voted against Net Neutrality. A recent report by illustrates the corrupting influence corporate donations have had in “convincing” members of Congress to turn against the interests of their constituents on this issue.

In the House, front groups' targeted Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire (PA-4), Sanford Bishop (GA-2), Leonard Boswell (IA-3), Jim Costa (CA-20), Henry Cuellar (TX-28), Reuben Hinojosa (TX-15), Tim Holden (PA-17), Rick Larsen (WA-2), Mike McIntyre (NC-7), Jerry McNerney (CA-11), Gregory Meeks (NY-6), David Scott (GA-13), and Heath Shuler (NC-11).

Of these, only two – Reps. Bishop and Scott – caved to industry pressure by voting for the resolution. But most every one has received considerable sums from the phone and cable lobby.

Now members of the Senate are hearing the same.

This push comes at a time when phone and cable companies have begun limiting our ability to connect with others and share information. Some like MetroPCS have already announced plans to block certain video applications via the mobile Web. Corporations like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are seeking to degrade access to competing services or sites that might threaten their bottom line; they’re also moving to penalize users who use their Internet connection for more data-intensive purposes than simple Web surfing.

Net Neutrality, like the First Amendment itself, is an issue that should transcend politics. It has received support from all corners -- from the socially conservative Christian Coalition to the rights advocates at ACLU, from librarians and educators to video gamers, journalists, musicians and even Harry Potter fans.

More than two million Americans have sent letters to the FCC and Congress urging leaders to "stand with the public by protecting Net Neutrality once and for all."

That's what real grassroots look like.

Just last week, Internet pioneer and die-hard Net Neutrality supporter Tim Berners-Lee said that access to the open Internet is a "human right" that we all have a "duty" to protect.

He’s right.

But that won't stop the hyperventilating among Beltway hacks intent on turning this into a divisive and politically charged issue.

Members of Congress without regard to party or ideology should ignore the astroturfing of a few to protect an open Internet that helps so many.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

NCMR: A Curated Guide for You and Your Clone

Thank god for science. It's now easy to clone oneself, making the saying "being two places at once" more medical reality than sci-fi fantasy.

And what better opportunity to avail oneself of this new, new thing than the National Conference for Media Reform. With so much on offer, it's humanly impossible to fit it all in... and that's where your clone can come in handy.

My clone -- Let's call him "Tom" -- and I will be splitting time in Boston from April 8-10. If you or your clone run into one or both of us be sure to say hello. (Please don't buy Tom any beer. He's untested there.)

Where you will find at least one of us:

Friday, April 8

8:00am - 9:00am:
9:00am - 10:30am:
10:30am - 11:00am:
  • Book Signings -- Glenn Greenwald latest chronicle of the hypocrisy that lies at the core of zombie politics.
11:00am - 12:30pm:
12:30pm - 1:00pm:
  • Book Signings -- Tom chats up Jessica Clark on all things public media.
1:00pm - 2:15pm:
  • Caucuses -- Choose your affinity. Alas, still no caucus for mutants.
2:30pm - 3:45pm:
4:30pm - 6:30pm:
7:00pm - 8:30pm:
8:00pm - 9:30pm:
  • Film: Barbershop Punk -- Tom to enjoy original in action in this retelling of the punk-rock heroics of Robb Topolski.
9:00 til midnight:
Saturday, April 9

9:00am - 10:30am:
11:00am - 12:30pm:
2:00pm - 3:30pm:
4:00pm - 5:30pm:
7:30pm - 9:30pm:
Sunday, April 10

10:00am - 11:30am:
12:00pm - 1:30pm:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Corporations and the Arab Net Crackdown

[Originally published at Foreign Policy in Focus]

By Timothy Karr and Clothilde Le Coz

Springtime in the Arab world is looking bleaker now that despots in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen and reactionary elements in Egypt have gained an upper hand against the pro-democracy protesters who have inspired the world. And the Internet, hailed sometimes in excess as a potent tool for these movements, has itself come under increasing fire from these and other autocratic states seeking to crush popular dissent.

In Libya, the Gaddafi regime plunged the nation into digital darkness during the first week of March, where it has remained. In Bahrain, the kingdom reacted swiftly to pro-democracy demonstrations by filtering sites that let locals share cell phone videos, blocking YouTube pages containing videos of street protests, and taking down a large Facebook group that called for more demonstrations. And even in Egypt, despite the departure of Mubarak, the interim military authority has taken a harsh stand against pro-democracy activists, while trying to stop the sharing of looted state security files, which reveal the extent to which the government uses the Web to spy on Egyptians.

These accounts of Internet abuse have not gone unnoticed. Less known, however, is the degree to which U.S. and European companies have enabled the crackdown.

Corporate Enablers

Egypt’s Internet crackdown appears to have been aided by Narus, a Boeing-owned surveillance technology provider that sold Telecom Egypt "real-time traffic intelligence" software that filters online communications and tracks them to their source.

Israeli security experts founded Narus to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients. It is known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system that is allegedly being used by the National Security Agency and other entities to provide a “full network view” of suspected Internet communications as they happen.

Narus has also provided surveillance technology to Libya, according to James Bamford, author of 2008’s The Shadow Factory. In 2005, the company struck a multimillion-dollar agreement with Giza Systems of Egypt to license Narus’ Web-sleuthing products throughout the Middle East. Giza Systems services the Libyan network.

British-owned Vodafone shut down its Egypt-based cellphone network following a request from the Mubarak regime and then restored it only to send pro-Mubarak propaganda to text-messaging customers across the country. When digital rights groups like protested Vodafone’s actions, the company stated that it could do nothing to stop those texts, because it was forced to abide by the country's emergency laws.

Bahrain reportedly filtered and blocked websites using “SmartFilter” software supplied by the U.S. company McAfee, which Intel acquired late last year. Despite widespread reports of its use, company executives claim that they have “no control over, or visibility into how an organization implements its own filtering policy."

Cisco Systems a leading manufacturer of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) systems , a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track, and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, is a major partner in Bahrain. In 2009, the San Jose, California-based company joined with the kingdom to open an Internet Data Center in Bahrain’s capital “as an essential component in the drive to improve government services to the populace.”

The extent to which Cisco’s own DPI products are part of this deal remains to be seen. Executives at Cisco would not return our requests for comment on the nature of its involvement in Bahrain.

Nokia and Siemens also support Libya’s cell phone network. A joint venture between these two firms was heavily criticized in 2009 for reportedly assisting the Iranian regime’s crackdown against cyber-dissidents. It’s difficult to know whether they assisted the Libyan government, since Nokia Siemens' PR didn’t return our call, either.

Leading by Action

In mid-February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about a new U.S. Internet freedom policy designed to help democracy movements gain access to open networks and speak out against authoritarian regimes. As part of this initiative, the State Department will provide tens of millions of dollars in new grants to support "technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression."

Secretary Clinton spoke of the Obama administration's belief in our universal "freedom to connect," something the White House sees as a natural extension of our longstanding rights to free speech, assembly, and association.

Yet it's hard to claim the moral high road and lecture other countries on the importance of online freedom when U.S. companies are exporting DPI systems and other technology to regimes intent on spying on their own people and turning the open Internet into a means of repression.

Asking Clinton’s deputy director James Steinberg about this inconsistency during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in February, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)brought up Narus’ dealings with the Mubarak regime. “It is an awful tool of repression,” Smith said, “and Narus, according to these reports, is enabling this invasion of privacy.”

Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA) continued the questioning, going so far as to say that "people are losing their lives based on this technology." Keating called on Steinberg to investigate U.S. companies that sell DPI technology overseas. In a subsequent press statement, Keating pledged to introduce legislation "that would provide a national strategy to prevent the use of American technology from being used by human rights abusers."

Earlier this month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, penned a Politico op-ed slamming the U.S. technology industry for “failing to address serious human rights challenges.” He wrote, “If U.S. companies are unwilling to take reasonable steps to protect human rights," Durbin wrote, “Congress must step in.”

Pledges to act are encouraging, but far less so than action itself. As of now, we have seen little of substance to defend our freedom to connect against companies and their despotic clients that seek to take it away.

-- Clothilde Le Coz is the Washington director of Reporters Sans Frontieres, which just released the 2011 Enemies of the Internet report. Timothy Karr is the campaign director of Free Press, the nation’s largest media reform group where he oversees all campaigns and online outreach efforts. Both are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.