Friday, December 21, 2007

Ten Worst Telco Moments of 2007

A few years ago, President Bush pledged that every corner of America would have high-speed Internet by 2007. Well, the year is drawing to a close, and millions of Americans still do not have access. The United States has dropped from fourth to 15th in the world in broadband penetration in the past five years -- a result of a telco stranglehold on both broadband markets and broadband policy that puts their profits before innovation and the public good.

But that's not all. Even when Americans can get online, an open and neutral Internet is not guaranteed. In the past year, phone and cable companies have been throttling the free flow of information on the Internet and cell phones -- giving us a harrowing glimpse of a world without Net Neutrality.

A review of the 10 Worst Telco Moments of 2007 (in no particular order):

1. White House Declares 'Mission Accomplished' for the Internet

"We have the most effective multiplatform broadband in the world," the Bush administration's top technologist, John Kneuer, told skeptical Web experts and the media in June, despite several international surveys that place the United States far behind countries in Asia and Europe.

Kneuer says the real problem is not bad policy, but faulty data in the surveys. While the Bush White House seemed over eager to declare broadband success, America's failing report card told a story of a larger systems breakdown. "Previous generations put a toaster in every home and a car in every driveway as signs of economic progress," Sen. John Kerry wrote in September. "To stay competitive, we should strive to do the same with nationwide broadband." Let's hope our next president understands that ubiquitous broadband access needs to be more than a mirage

2. Telcos Spy on Millions of Americans

For several years now, the nation's largest telecommunications companies have been spying on their own customers without a warrant. In the process, they delivered to the federal government the private records of millions of Americans. Their excuse -- national security in the face of a known terrorist threat -- holds little weight when one considers that they've been spying on us with the NSA well in advance of the September 11 attacks.

Now, they are pushing a bill -- "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" -- that would grant complicit phone companies retroactive amnesty from prosecution for violations of our civil liberties. While a few, brave senators have stood in the way of the bill and refused to let the telcos off the hook, the legislation still stands a good chance of getting through.

3. Comcast is Busted for Blocking BitTorrent

In October, an Associated Press investigation revealed that Comcast - technically a cableco - was secretly blocking peer-to-peer file sharing programs like BitTorrent and Gnutella. Comcast's blocking is a glaring violation of Net Neutrality.

BitTorrent is rapidly emerging as one of the most successful online platforms for the sharing of large files. Comcast has a natural incentive to keep customers watching movies and television shows through their system, not the Internet.. Despite the evidence, Comcast's David Cohen told Ars Technica that Comcast does not block access to file sharing applications and that their practice is just "content shaping." In response, members filed a petition urging the FCC to stop Comcast from blocking Internet traffic and fine them for their violations.

And what can you do if you find out that you've been blocked by Comcast? Switch to AT&T or Verizon and suffer with slow DSL speeds and their own draconian terms of service. Free Press has sifted through the agreements of several Internet and cell phone providers and found similar language that reserves their right to cut off users on a whim.

4. AT&T and Verizon Censor Free Speech

In September, Verizon Wireless blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America's efforts to send mobile text messages to its members. After a New York Times expose, the phone company reversed its policy, claiming it was a glitch.

A month earlier, during the live Lollapalooza webcast of a Pearl Jam concert, AT&T muted lead singer Eddie Vedder just as he launched into a lyric criticizing President Bush. AT&T launched its own bungled PR response after a flurry of criticism. But both companies refused to change internal policies which allowed them to censor in the future.

Their apologies aren't cutting it anymore. Censorship by AT&T and Verizon is further proof that these corporate giants simply cannot be left at the controls of Internet content. These same providers handed customer phone records over to the NSA without a subpoena and are now strong-arming Congress for retroactive immunity (see No. 2). And they want us to trust them with the Internet?

5. Caught Red-Handed, Telcos Change Their Tune

For some time, phone and cable companies and their shills and lobbyists had been spinning Net Neutrality as a "solution in search of a problem." But 2007 brought us a series of violations of Internet freedom which brought the "problem" into vivid relief for millions.

Undaunted, the shills quickly changed their tune, admitting that indeed some mistakes were made, but the telcos were merely implementing "reasonable network management" (aka content discrimination) to bring us the Internet that we all love and cherish. The moral of this story: Follow what the telcos do, not just what they say.

6. Media Insiders Suffer Telco-Vision

Don't always believe the purveyors of conventional wisdom in Washington media. Some of these pundits are so steeped in their own "knowledge" that they get stuck spinning in place when faced with evidence to the contrary. This was the case for a chosen few who in 2007 hunkered down behind their laptops to write commentaries to convince the world that Net Neutrality was dead and gone. The issue is a "fading memory," one crowed. It "barely raises a yawn" said another.

Their view of the world, however, rarely extends beyond the Potomac, where the Net Neutrality issue was leading the news and being vigorously debated along the campaign trail. Indeed, Net Neutrality emerged as the No. 1 issue that thousands of visitors to TechPresident selected to be answered by all the presidential candidates. So the next time an insider tells you that Net Neutrality is dead, I advise you to check his pulse instead. Then point out the more than 1.5 million Americans who are taking action to protect the free and open Internet.

7. The iPhone Gets Shackled

The introduction of the iPhone over the summer highlighted both the promise and the problems of America's wireless marketplace. On the one hand, it demonstrated the promises of a truly mobile Internet. On the other hand, the iPhone raised serious questions about the fact that most every mobile phone consumer is locked into a long-term contracts, using a phone that has been "crippled" by carriers, with significant penalties for switching to a new provider.

The iPhone was shackled to AT&T. The reason? We have allowed carriers to exert almost complete gatekeeper control over all devices, services and content in the wireless sector -- a move that has left U.S. innovation generations behind other nations. Reviewing the state of the wireless market in America, New York Times blogger David Pogue called American carriers "calcified, conservative and way behind their European and Asian counterparts." Despite recent efforts to open devices, the lockdown of cell phones remains the dominant characteristic of most every user agreement in the country.

8. Bush's Justice Dept. Files Against Net Neutrality

In September, departing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales filed a brief with the Federal Communications Commission, urging the agency to oppose Net Neutrality. The DOJ stated that broadband companies like AT&T should be able to erect toll booths and filter traffic -- upending the even playing field that has made the Web an unrivaled engine of democratic discourse and new ideas.

The DOJ move once again proved the point: Powerful corporate and government gatekeepers are working together to dismantle Internet freedoms and impose their will upon the Web. By moving against Net Neutrality, Gonzales was merely pulling last-minute favors for friends in high places. Soon thereafter, Free Press submitted a FOIA request to shed light on the DOJ's recent hit job against Net Neutrality and uncover whether industry lobbyists or White House politics had a hand in this unusual action. We're still waiting for a response.

9. FCC's Rosy Broadband Report Wilts Under Scrutiny

In February, the FCC released its biannual report on the U.S. broadband market. On the surface, the numbers sounded good. High-speed Internet lines increased by 26 percent during the first half of 2006, and broadband was reportedly available in 99 percent of all U.S. ZIP codes. But the broadband reality is much darker. According to Free Press Research Director Derek Turner, the FCC used an "absurd standard" to measure broadband -- 200 kilobits per second. "That was barely fast enough to surf in 1999, but is far below what's needed to enjoy streaming video, VoIP, flash animation or other common Internet applications."

Indeed, speeds are much slower than what's available in the rest of the world. Half of all U.S. broadband connections are slower than 2.5 megabits per second -- yet in countries like Japan and South Korea, they're rolling out 100 megabit services. And there's no real competition. 98 percent of high-speed residential lines in America are provided by incumbent cable or telecom companies. Using ZIP codes alone vastly overstates the availability and competition for broadband services. While the FCC's data has been widely debunked, the telco lobby crowed that the FCC had proven beyond a doubt that the American broadband marketplace was a haven of free-market competition -- which leads us to our final "worst moment."

10. More Astroturf Sprouts Up, Speads Lies

Washington policymaking has spawned a cottage industry of phony front groups put in place by phone and cable companies eager to spread misinformation about anything that threatens their control over the network. Nowhere is this more evident than in their campaign to defeat open Internet initiatives.

Throughout the year, companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have funneled millions of dollars toward "Astroturf" front groups such as the disingenuously named, Hands Off the Internet and The Future Faster. For example, Hands Off the Internet -- which sounds like a citizens group to protect the Internet from gatekeepers -- is actually a telco-backed lobbying group that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on video PSAs and "grassrootsy" Web campaigns aimed at eliminating efforts to restore Net Neutrality protections and spread open access.

True to form, these front groups spent much of 2007 cranking out phony PR, mouthing telco taking points and casting doubt against any effort to ensure that the Internet is open, neutral and free of interference by gatekeepers. And these groups aren't going away soon. Expect to see them on our worst moments list at the end of 2008.

-- Co-authored by Lynn Erskine

[Tune in next week for the Ten Best Open Internet Moments of 2007]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Martin's Tunnel Vision for Big Media

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is one shrewd operator. When it comes to media policy, this Bush-appointed bureaucrat will do whatever it takes to get it done his way. Unfortunately, Martin's way has nothing to do with his sworn duty to serve the public -- or pay attention to the facts.

It's more about his unyielding drive to allow the nations most powerful companies media conglomerates -- including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and Sam Zell's Tribune Company -- to swallow up more of our local news outlets.

The Public's Last Stand?

His goal: lifting the longstanding "cross-ownership" ban that keeps one company from owning both the daily newspaper and radio or television stations in the same town. Martin is now attempting to jam through these radical rule changes to meet a self-imposed December deadline.

Why Martin is doing this is the subject of considerable speculation. It's certainly not because the public wants Big Media to gain control of more local news.

Damn the Public. Full Speed Ahead

Earlier this month the FCC convened the final of six public hearings to air out concerns about this proposed rule change. I have watched, listened to or attended all of these hearings and one thing is clear. The public is single-mindedly opposed to more media consolidation.

Martin himself admitted recently that he remembers "only one" public witness calling for relaxation of media ownership rules at these hearings.

This public opposition is not just evident in the passion of the thousands of people who testified against consolidation at FCC hearings in Seattle, Los Angeles, Nashville, Tampa, Harrisburg and Chicago. It's a fact reflected in the public record.

The last time the FCC tried to change the rules in 2003, millions of people contacted Congress and the FCC to oppose the changes, which were ultimately thrown out by the courts. My organization, Free Press, checked the public comments of those who have written the FCC since June 2006 and found that more than 99 percent opposed changing the rules.

Despite the massive outcry, Martin has not wavered in his rush to let loose a new wave of consolidation by the end of the year.

Damn the Evidence. Full Speed Ahead.

So, why does Martin remain determined to turn a blind eye to the public?

Stopping Big Media

It's not because the evidence suggests otherwise. On Nov. 13, Martin penned an op-ed in the New York Times, in which he argued that a "relatively minor loosening of the ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations," would help save the American newspaper from certain death.

In a new report released on Monday, Free Press found that Martin's claim that the newspaper is an "endangered species" is greatly exaggerated.

Consider this: Revenue per circulated newspaper copy increased from 2005 to 2006. Industry-wide, newspapers still enjoy operating profit margins near or above 20 percent -- higher than the S&P 500 average.

Recent mergers and acquisitions further demonstrate that newspapers remain highly valued properties. Prices paid for newspaper companies have been above 10 times cash flow, with average stock prices at eight times cash flow. These values are considered quite healthy by financial industry standards.

Damn Local Control. Full Speed Ahead.

There's more. Martin's FCC has claimed that cross-owned stations do more local news, but we found using the FCC's own data that markets with cross-owned stations produce fewer total minutes of local news.

Higher levels of local ownership lead to more local news at the market level, while increasing market concentration decreases the production of local news.

Martin is not unaware of this. The evidence was filed in the official FCC docket and presented to him by Free Press Research Director Derek Turner during an Oct. 31 localism hearing in Washington, D.C.

That's not all. In making his case for consolidation, Martin claims that the Internet has wrought considerable changes to the media marketplace. The stripping away of cross-ownership rules is essential to the survival of newspapers and broadcasters, he concludes.

This simply isn't true.

Only a small percentage of the public uses the Internet as their primary source for local news, and those that do are visiting the Web sites of their local broadcasters and newspapers. The Newspaper Association of America found that nearly 60 million Americans visited local newspaper Web sites during the second quarter of 2007 -- and that newspapers online readership has grown five-fold since 2000.

The challenge for newspapers is not to rewrite rules that would allow them to merge their newsrooms with those of local TV and radio stations. It's to figure out new and inventive ways to capitalize on the remarkable increase in online traffic to their sites.

Damn Diversity. Full Speed Ahead.

If that wasn't enough, there's a real bombshell in all of this. It's the FCC's charge to ensure diversity in media. But Martin's proposed new rules would make the glaring lack of diversity in media even worse.

Again, the evidence speaks for itself. According to a Free Press study from October 2006, people of color - representing a third of the nation's population -- own little more than 3 percent of commercial TV stations in the country.

What's worse, an updated analysis released today suggests that the future of minority TV station ownership is in jeopardy. From October 2006 to October 2007, African-American TV station ownership dropped by 60 percent -- falling from 19 stations to eight stations in just a single year.

The situation has become so precarious that Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps called it a "national disgrace."

The real disgrace though is Martin's efforts to spawn further consolidation without addressing the lack of diversity with policies that foster more -- not fewer -- minority voices in the media.

Replacing Martin's own Rhetoric with Reality

Martin Accuses Others of Rhetoric

So there you have it. Overwhelming public passion agrees with the empirical data.

Can you think of any other policy issue where the evidence falls into such neat alignment with public opinion? The only thing standing in the way is one powerful man who has determined to ignore the facts and write another blank check to Big Media.

During the FCC's final public hearing in Seattle, Martin labeled as "rhetoric" the many speeches by those opposing media consolidation. But isn't rhetoric the final refuge of those who can't marshal facts to make their argument?

Above it all is the need to revitalize our media system in service of better democracy. The ideals of an open and free press that once set our nation apart from the rest have been ransacked for too long by corporate profiteers and fawning bureaucrats.

No matter what your political beliefs, bringing more diversity of ownership and local control to our media would help boost our ability to engage in the issues of our time.

That should seem obvious to everyone. The real challenge is to make public officials like Kevin Martin more accountable to the Americans he's supposed to serve.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Suckered By Astroturf

USA Today joins the illustrious list of news organizations to be taken for a ride by Astroturf.

In an article earlier this week, the paper's media beat reporter David Lieberman writes that the end of the Internet is nigh. It will start crashing down around us by the year 2010, he adds, citing a recent "study" by Nemertes Research.

Fake Grass Roots

The Not-So-Real Thing

The reason for our demise? We dastardly Net users have gone too far. According to Nemertes, we're not just sending email and surfing Web sites but also downloading and uploading data rich files like video and music. Net Neutrality would further unleash this unruly mass upon the Internet grinding the network to a halt.

"The Web will start to seem pokey," Lieberman writes, "as use of interactive and video-intensive services overwhelms local cable, phone and wireless Internet providers."

Saving Us from Ourselves

The underlying message is this: By taking control of our own media, users are straining the Net to the limit. The only way to save the Internet from the coming "exaflood," the report concludes, is to pay more federal money to the likes of AT&T and let them gut Net Neutrality protections so they can fix the problem.

The real problem here isn't the looming demise of the Internet, but USA Today's failure to question the motivations of its sources.

In their ceaseless efforts to become the gatekeepers to what we do online, the phone and cable companies funnel money to unscrupulous think tanks, which, in turn, churn out research, painting a picture of Internet Armageddon that can only be averted by giving the telcos exactly what they want: more money and control.

The Roots of Astroturf

In this case, Lieberman might have told readers that Nemertes is a wind-up research group funded by the Internet Innovation Alliance, an "Astrtoturf" group underwritten by AT&T.

"The IIA has been pushing the idea of a looming 'exaflood' for some time, with the primary goal being industry deregulation," writes Karl at Broadband Reports. "The argument being that if these companies don't get exactly what they want from lawmakers in Washington, the entire Internet collapses and we're back to using soup cans and string."

The USA Today story leaves readers with the impression that Nemertes reached its conclusion for the good of the public interest and not simply by following a script that was pre-ordained by the telcos.

Digging Beneath the Surface

Lieberman might have cited the several other reports and studies that claim the opposite.

Analysts at the D.C.-based market research firm TeleGeography, call "foolhardy" the idea that an exaflood "is going to break something or kill something." Video traffic and demand growth have been accounted for, he told CIO Insight, and “the network operators know how to scale.” TeleGeography research shows average global utilization of core Internet capacity in mid-2006 was only 34 percent, with peak utilization of 47 percent of available capacity.

Greg Collins, director of network and data center engineering for Earthlink Inc., added, "I don’t see anything specific in the way of capacity problems today, and my job is to manage capacity and growth in our network."

Recent research notes that investment in backbone upgrades is exploding, with just about every network operator already working on upgrades or planning to do so in the next year or so.

Recent figures from Infonetics Research find that telecom global capital expenditure will exceed $220 billion in 2007. "Carriers are obviously not short of money, but rather than spend it on new infrastructure, many are looking at less capital-intensive strategies to reduce the strain, such as bandwidth shaping," writes Dave Bailey of ITWeek. "This is carrier-speak for putting the brakes on your broadband connection, which is unlikely to go down well with most customers."

Michael Masnik of Techdirt sums it up: "If there's real demand for more capacity, there will be business models to support it, whether or not network neutrality is in place."

Duped and Duplicitous

These types of studies often boil down to pure posturing and polemic against Net Neutrality, bought and paid for by AT&T. When researchers stumble across inconvenient points, such as the current boom in infrastructure investment, they dismiss them in favor of doomsday scenarios and call for an end to the one rule that allows online users to innovate without permission.

USA Today is not alone. Reporters and editors from the New York Times, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal to Xinhua have been snared in Astroturf , taking at face value data from coin-operated research groups without digging into their bank accounts to sniff out the payola.

Journalists should know better. These corporations claim that lawmakers should grant them control of Internet to safeguard the best interests of all Americans. But since when was AT&T elected to determine what is best for us?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Net Neutrality's Second Coming

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

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

Mark Twain

Greatly Exaggerated Rumors of a Death

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

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

The Road to Recovery

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

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

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

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

On the Hill and in the Media

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

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

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

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

Gatekeepers in Need of a Solution

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

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

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

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

Life Beyond the Beltway

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

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2007

Verizon's Crocodile Tears Mask a Threat to Democracy

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

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

Verizon's Gag Rules

Verizon's Gag Rule

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

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

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

Verizon Is So Very Sorry

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

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

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

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

A Wild West View of the Internet

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

So, do you trust Verizon to serve your interests?

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

Policies not Apologies

Sen.Dorgan Takes a Stand

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

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

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

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

Free Speech for the 21st Century

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


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

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

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

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

Please take the game for a spin:

My best score is 520.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bush and the Phone Companies: Partners in Crime

Originally published at Huffington Post

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

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

George Bush

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

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

Money, Politics and the Law

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Brave Congress People

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

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

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

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

Protecting Free Speech Everywhere: Democracy's Last Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's the Biggest Threat to Free Speech

Originally published at Huffington Post

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

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

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

Censorship Is in the Details

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

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

You got that?

You're Busted!

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

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

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

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

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

Guess what? You're doing that right now.

Free Speech Everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 29, 2007

My Letter to the Washington Post

You may have missed it. A couple of weeks back, Washington Post senior business writer Steve Pearlstein took a shot at blog readers who support Net Neutrality -- calling them "economically illiterate." I fired off a letter expecting a circular filing -- but three weeks later ...

= = = = =

Saturday, September 29, 2007; Page A17

In his Sept. 9 commentary "Whiny Techies, II" [Sunday Briefing, Business] Steven Pearlstein called net neutrality supporters economically illiterate for demanding that consumers "be able to pay the same monthly fee for using the Internet, no matter how much bandwidth they use."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Supporters of net neutrality aren't asking that users pay one fee for all grades of access. We want a truly competitive marketplace where people can choose from numerous broadband companies offering access at different speeds and costs.

What we are demanding is a better system, where the few phone and cable companies that dominate the market can't leverage their control over Internet access to become gatekeepers of Web content.

If AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are allowed to discriminate against Web sites that don't pay their new tolls, the free-flowing Internet that has driven economic growth and innovation will come to a screeching halt.

Pearlstein took a shot at people who get their news from "The "Daily Show" or "Daily Kos." But who can blame them for going elsewhere? When it comes to news of the policies that shape the Internet, they're getting a lot closer to the truth than The Post's business pages do.

-- Timothy Karr

The writer is campaign director for Free Press, which coordinates the SavetheInternet Coalition, an advocate for net neutrality protections.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Verizon Scrambles Lawyers to Keep Wireless Market Closed

Verizon Wireless, America's second largest mobile phone service, is suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over its recent decision to unlock cell-phones from restrictive carrier agreements.

The FCC decision, limited to cellphone use on the 700 megahertz band "C block," had been heralded as a landmark move by the FCC -- one that would benefit consumers by unshackling mobile phones and bringing competition and innovation into the wireless devices marketplace.

Locked Down

Verizon Locked Down
(photo courtesy of Wired)

In reality, it was a small step on the long road to breaking up the anti-competitive, anti-consumer oligopoly that controls nearly every level of the wireless marketplace: devices, services, networks and applications.

Send Lawyers, FUD and Money

Yet even such a minor gesture towards consumers was enough to unleash Verizon's lawyers.

In a Monday court filing at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, Verizon claimed that the FCC decision was "arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by substantial evidence and otherwise contrary to law." It also accuses the Commission of exceeding its authority under the 1934 Communications Act, the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure's Act, without offering further detail.

Reading between the lines we see a brazen effort by Verizon to use the courts to deprive consumers of choice in America's wireless marketplace.

Locking in a Frozen Business Model

America lags far behind other technologically developed countries. A lack of competition has left wireless companies complacent and stifled innovation. At the moment a consumer can't use his or her cellphone with other wireless carriers, and many of the devices themselves are "crippled" by carriers so they can't perform to their full potential

"Many consumers feel trapped having bought an expensive device or having been locked into a long-term contract with significant penalties for switching," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said during a July House Subcommittee hearing on wireless freedom.

This system has left the U.S. generations behind the rest of the developed world, a failure that prompted New York Times blogger David Pogue to call American carriers "calcified, conservative and way behind their European and Asian counterparts."

"For some reason I have never been able to understand, I have to ask permission of Verizon Wireless to attach a computer or the computers that they now call phones to their wireless networks," Jason Devitt, co-Founder and CEO of Skydeck testified during the Markey hearing. "I have to ask their permission to run applications and services on those phones."

Half Gestures in Small Slices

The FCC's July 31 order was meant to remedy this. In a four-to-one vote the agency moved to follow the "Carterfone" provisions that were imposed on the AT&T monopoly in a groundbreaking 1968 telecommunications decision.


Life without Carterfone

Prior to Carterfone, AT&T controlled every phone on its network, as wireless providers do today. The 1968 ruling pried opened the devices marketplace so that numerous new phone products -- including answering machines, fax machines, cordless phones, and early computer modems -- could be introduced by other manufacturers.

Applying Carterfone rules to the wireless marketplace could open the market for a similar revolution in gadgets while freeing up users to bring their handheld devices with them from one carrier to another. But the FCC order only applied to a slice of the 700 MHz band.

The FCC's move was praised in the trade press, even though it was a "half gesture" towards consumer and public interest advocates who have been calling for rules to foster innovation and create real open access standards across the entire spectrum.

But as with any change to the system, no matter how small, it posed a creeping threat to those that now dominate the marketplace.

And that's why Verizon sent in their lawyers.

Uncovering DOJ's Hit Against an Open Internet

Net neutrality supporters today submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Justice to shed light on their recent hit job against net neutrality.

The request, submitted by Free Press, the media reform group that coordinates the Coalition, seeks to uncover whether industry lobbyists or White House politics had a hand in the Justice Department's unusual, and unusually late, action.

Lame Duck Alberto

Gonzales: Mum for Now

On Sept. 6, the FCC received an ex parte filing nearly two months after the FCC's formal comment period on net neutrality had closed, raising significant questions about timing and intent. The filing encouraged the FCC to allow phone and cable companies to filter Web traffic and wall off parts of the Web for those that pay an extra toll.

Prying Open Justice

"We want to know what motivated the Department of Justice to oppose net neutrality this late in the process," said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press and author of the request.

"The filing lacks any evidence of serious investigation into this critical issue and fits into a pattern of politically motivated decisions coming out of the Justice Department. We want to know if the Bush administration's lawyers reached out to any of the thousands of groups, businesses or individuals who support net neutrality -- or if they only talked to industry lobbyists at AT&T and Verizon."

The DOJ ruling raises legitimate concern that powerful corporate and White House gatekeepers are working together to dismantle Internet freedoms and impose their will upon the Web.

Between the White House and AT&T

The Justice Department filing parroted phone and cable industry arguments against net neutrality. It's also part of an emerging pattern of collusion between the White House and those companies that control access to high-speed Internet service for more than 96 percent of residential users in America.

In late 2006, the DOJ's antitrust division rubber-stamped AT&T's takeover of BellSouth -- the largest telecommunications merger in history -- without seeking any consumer protections. The FCC ultimately required AT&T to respect net neutrality for two years as a condition of approving the deal.

Last month the U.S. Director of intelligence revealed that the government and AT&T had conspired in far-reaching efforts to spy on Americans without legal warrant -- efforts for which the Bush administration is now seeking to give immunity from prosecution to AT&T and other phone companies.

Lastly, the filing came during Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' final days at the helm of Justice -- raising concerns that the departing attorney general was seeking to deliver last-minute favors for White House allies.

Short Changing the Public on Universal Access

The Bush administration has fallen well short of its goal of universal access to the Internet by 2007, instead opting for policies that support the duopoly of cable and telephone companies and stifle free market competition.

Actions taken against privacy and the open Internet by AT&T, Verizon and the Bush administration are precisely why we need to make net neutrality the law. The lack of broadband competition has given giant companies like AT&T enormous power to advance their own interests -- at a huge public expense.

By replacing duopoly control with healthy competition on open and free networks we can achieve universal and affordable high-speed access for everyone. Net neutrality would protect Americans from the types of Internet gatekeeping favored by the White House and their phone and cable allies.

Today's FOIA request could dig up more evidence of efforts in Washington to dismantle basic Web freedoms and distort the Internet for financial and political gain. It's now up to the Justice Department to respond.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Guess Who's Afraid of an Open Internet?

Open Internet advocates just received a parting gift from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

In a Thursday filing to the Federal Communications Commission, Gonzales' Department of Justice urged the agency to oppose Net Neutrality -- the principle that all Internet sites should be treated equally.

Lame Duck Alberto

Last-minute favors for friends in Texas

The DOJ stated that broadband companies like AT&T should be able to erect toll booths and filter traffic -- upending the even playing field that has made the Web an unrivaled engine of democratic discourse and new ideas.

The DOJ ruling once again proves the point: Powerful corporate and government gatekeepers are working together to dismantle Internet freedoms and impose their will upon the Web.

While Gonzales' feckless reign at Justice is near an end, his legacy at the department is becoming clear: The DOJ has established itself as a friend to the powerful and enemy to the basic freedoms that Americans once took for granted.

As Gonzales slinks back to Texas, he is merely pulling last-minute favors for friends in high places. This week's filing reeks of the same sort of cronyism that has left a slime trail wherever the attorney general has gone.

Going AWOL on Internet Freedom

In October 2006, the DOJ went AWOL in its duty to protect consumers and competition when it rubber-stamped AT&T’s bid to gobble up BellSouth. It was left to the FCC to step in and restore Net Neutrality safeguards to the massive merger.

When AT&T was accused of illegally tapping its customers' lines, it was DOJ lawyers that moved in under the cover of night with an attempt to dismiss the suit.

It was late last month that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell admitted the extent to which the government and AT&T had conspired in far-reaching efforts to spy on Americans without legal warrant. The Bush administration is now pushing for immunity from prosecution for telecom firms that eavesdrop on customers.

AT&T has long sought to use "deep packet inspection" tools to sift Internet user content. The company has already "demoed" this technology to the RIAA and MPA as part of a plan to scour the Web for file sharing that doesn’t conform to the industry’s draconian interpretation of copyright.

Without Net Neutrality protections, it was only a matter of time before phone companies and government used this same technology to spy on the everyday activities of Net users.

Parroting Ma Bell

Thursday’s filing by a lame duck Attorney General is instructive in this context. According to public interest lawyer Harold Feld of Media Access Project, the DOJ document reads like the "Cliffsnotes version" of AT&T’s own anti-Net Neutrality filing.

"The filing parrots the industry arguments that adopting a rule that would prevent telephone and cable companies from monitoring and filtering internet traffic would harm investment and innovation," Feld writes, "despite mounting evidence from Europe and Asia that the opposite is true."

Indeed, the DOJ filing uses hollow industry rhetoric about market forces to provide cover for more nefarious aims. According to the filing:
Other proposals would require interconnection, open access and structural separation of companies offering both Internet access services or transmission and content or applications deliverable over the Internet.

The Department submits, however, that free market competition, unfettered by unnecessary government regulatory restraints is the best way to foster innovation and development of the Internet.
This is utter nonsense. The DOJ knows, as does anyone paying attention to American broadband, that there is no "free market competition" or consumer choice when high speed Internet services are controlled by so few.

Open Internet = Free Market

Free market competition is exactly what we need. To get it, we must move beyond the broadband duopoly that has left America far behind the rest of the world in services and connectivity.

Moreover, we need to safeguard Internet traffic from the types of surveillance and "content shaping" now being deployed by these same companies.

Net Neutrality should be the cornerstone of any national broadband plan. It frees the types of economic innovation and competition that have been a hallmark of the Internet’s development.

Net Neutrality guarantees that each of us gets an equal voice and equal choice without meddling from the likes of Gonzales and his friends at Ma Bell.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Media News Group's Cluster F@!k

The nation's fourth-largest newspaper company is using a regional consolidation strategy to break the backs of local unions and lay off journalists and other staff.

Media News Group (MNG) -- the national chain that owns 57 daily newspapers, regionally "clustered" throughout California, the Mountain West and the Northeast -- solidified its control over Bay Area news by buying up the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News in the wake of Knight-Ridder's recent fire sale.

SingletonSingleton: King of Cluster
With the move, MNG now owns every daily newspaper in the region except the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner.

It's trying to use this leverage to break the back of unions and jettison editorial staff.

Cluster, Consolidate and Cut

Earlier this summer, MNG management circulated a hit list of 46 Mercury News journalists to be laid off or not replaced. Typographers also lost 22 positions in San Jose when MNG outsourced production work to India and to nonunion contractors.

Other job cuts are reportedly on the horizon. But first MNG had to remove an obstacle.

In a letter to Newspaper Guild leaders earlier this month, Marshall Anstandig, the company's attorney, stated that MNG's corporate restructuring diminished the Guild's representation to "significantly less than 50% of the newly consolidated editorial group." In his view, this allows the company to dismiss the Guild as a bargaining representative of its employees.

"It follows [MNG CEO] Dean Singleton's business pattern of cut, consolidate and cluster," Guild organizer Amanda Ballantyne told Media Minutes this week. "But it was done in a way we believe to specifically bust the union, to get the union out of the whole scheme of things."

Bad Local News: The Offspring of Inbreeding

The Newspaper Guild has filed several unfair labor practice charges at the National Labor Relations board --- alleging that MNG violated federal law when it refused to hire union workers and transferred jobs to non-union employees.

Spokespeople for newspaper giants like to sugar-coat these sorts of cost-cutting efforts with terms like "clustering" and "synergy." In reality they translate to mean layoffs and cheapened news. Creating an inbred relationship between regional newsrooms degrades coverage, demoralizes staff and discourages readers.

We a recently received a letter from San Jose Mercury News reader who used to enjoy the paper with her morning cup of coffee.

"Since it has been taken over there is not much 'news' to read," she writes. "[And] this was a paper that has won awards for journalistic investigation, and was highly respected. ... My subscription is getting tenuous because my reason for reading the morning paper is being eroded daily."

From Anger to Action

Canceling subscriptions is one form of reader activism. But there are perhaps more productive ways to improve local media.

"We desperately need rules to prevent one-size-fits-all news from becoming the standard in our communities," FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps wrote in a recent op-ed.

We need your input," they wrote. "We believe we have the best chance in our generation to settle this issue of who will control our media and for what purposes."

The FCC will soon decide whether to allow a small number of media giants to buy up more local media outlets across the land.

While this specific ruling may not stop MNG's assault on quality journalism in the Bay Area, it has helped amplify calls for more accountable news at the local level.

This noise can be turned into action by urging the FCC to protect localism and supporting the Guild's ongoing efforts to safeguard local journalism across the country.

-- For more, listen to this week's "Media Minutes"

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The One Campaign Issue Ignored By Big Media? Themselves.

That more presidential candidates are speaking out against media consolidation should signal the importance of this issue in 2008 election cycle. But it's a signal that's not getting a clear reception in the newsrooms of the nation's largest media companies.

The issue bubbled forth during a raucous presidential forum at Saturday's Yearly Kos Convention in Chicago, blogger Jason Rosenbaum rose before seven Democratic candidates to ask:

Dodd and Clinton Speak Out
"With only a handful of companies controlling the majority of news and information Americans consume, media consolidation and a lack of diverse viewpoints in the news is threatening American democracy. How do you plan to support equal access to broadcast media?"

Senators Chris Dodd and Hillary Clinton took the bait. Dodd said that "consolidation ought to be one of the great concerns of every person in this country … I'll do everything I can to see that that is broken up, as president of the United States."

Clinton followed: "I think that we have got to do everything we can to open up our media environment ... We have to have more competition, more voices and [keep] the Internet open so that we don't put it in the domain of any one or a couple of the media or utility owners."

Sending a Signal to Big Media: Pay Attention

Over the past four years, millions of people have spoken out to Congress and the FCC against letting a few companies control so much of the national news agenda. These concerns became more acute over the summer as Rupert Murdoch circled Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal.

As so much media continues to fall into the hands of people with an overt political agenda, it's no wonder candidates are seeking to push the problem into the limelight. But is the message really getting through?

We surveyed the 40 mainstream media outlets that covered the Saturday forum -- including MSNBC, ABC, CBS, the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, Associated Press and local and regional conglomerate-owned newspapers -- and not one mentioned the media consolidation question or the candidates' reply.

"I thought it was the right question for the Yearly Kos because it's not going to get asked at any mainstream network debate," Rosenbaum said about his decision to question candidates during the blogger convention. "This event was the right format."

Blitzer Tries to Change the Channel

John Edwards: Malkin and Blitzer Dodge the Real Issue
It seemed to resonate -- at least with the candidates. On Tuesday, Sen. John Edwards brought the issue before the cameras again. During an appearance on CNN opposite a jumpy Wolf Blitzer, Edwards said:

"I don't want to see Rupert Murdoch -- or anybody else for that matter -- owning every newspaper in America. What we have seen with consolidation of the media is not healthy for this country. We need divergent opinion expressed in this country and if the media is consolidated that runs completely contrary to that."

Blitzer dodged the issue by shifting the discussion from policy to questions about proceeds from a book Edwards wrote for HarperCollins, a News Corp subsidiary. Elsewhere, on Fox News, host Michelle Malkin disparaged Edwards' concerns about her parent company by calling the candidate a "hypocrite" for accepting Murdoch money to publish the book. Neither Spitzer or Malkin cared to respond to Edwards specific concerns or to mention that the North Carolina Senator contributed all proceeds from the deal to charity.

"If you stand up to them and say consolidating the media is a bad thing, it's an unhealthy thing, what they do is attack you," Edwards replied. "They can continue to attack. They will not silence me. We are right about this. The media should not be consolidated and Rupert Murdoch should not own every newspaper in the United States of America"

Blitzer shifted gears again trying to close rank with CNN's cable news rival and defend News Corp's line of attack -- ignoring the larger point about "unhealthy" consolidation at the hands of companies like CNN's own parent Time Warner.

Crossing Party Lines

Rumblings about the threat of powerful media have been heard all along the campaign trail -- from both Democratic and Republican contenders.

Over the past year, nearly every Democratic presidential candidate, including Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Joe Biden and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, have spoken out against efforts by phone and cable companies to stifle an open Internet and gut "Net Neutrality" -- the fundamental principle that prevents network providers from discriminating against online content and services.

They have been joined by Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, who told Republican bloggers in May that Net Neutrality must be preserved. Candidates including Sen. John McCain and Rep. Ron Paul have also expressed support for a more democratic media, backing initiatives to protect Low Power FM and Internet radio.

But mainstream media has remained mute, perhaps loath to focus on issues that butt against the narrow interests of their owners.

MediaVote 2008

In 2008 though we have a more media-savvy citizens -- people like Rosenbaum -- who find new ways to jam mainstream media and push this issue before the lens. More candidates should follow our lead and take a loud public stand that media conglomerates can't ignore.

Big Media may try to keep this issue in the shadows. With more public activism, before the cameras and the candidates, we can be spark a broader public conversation in 2008 -- one that exposes the many ways the special interests of Big Media owners infiltrates the news that they serve up to millions.

AT&T Plays Gatekeeper. Censors Pearl Jam.

Over the weekend AT&T gave us a glimpse of their plans for the Web when they censored a Pearl Jam performance that didn't meet their standard of "Internet freedom."

Pearl Jam: Seen But Not Heard
During the live Lollapalooza Webcast of a concert by the Seattle-based super-group, the telco giant muted lead singer Eddie Vedder just as he launched into a lyric against President George Bush. The lines -- "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush find yourself another home" were somehow lost in the mix.

"What happened to us this weekend was a wake up call, and it's about something much bigger than the censorship of a rock band," Pearl Jam band members stated after the incident in a release that urged people to take action.

Indeed. AT&T routinely rails against Net Neutrality as a "solution without a problem." They say Net Neutrality regulations aren't necessary because they wouldn't dare interfere with online content. At the same time they tout plans to become gatekeepers to the Web with public relations bromides about "shaping" Web traffic to better serve the needs of an evolving Internet.

Such spin needs to be held up to the light of experience. AT&T's history of breaking trust with their customers includes handing over private phone records to the government, promising to deliver services to underserved communities and then skipping town, pledging never to interfere with the free flow of information online while hatching plans with the likes of Cisco, Viacom, RIAA and MPA to build and deploy technology that will spy on user traffic.

The moral of this story is never trust AT&T at their word. The company acts in bad faith toward the public interest and will do whatever it can get away with to pad its bottom line -- including sacrificing the freedoms its users have to choose where they go, what they watch and whom they listen to online.

The Future of Music Coalition have done great work to mobilize hundreds of rock bands against such censorship but it's a threat that concerns everyone.

AT&T's vision of a better Internet -- "Your World Delivered" -- is not one that is shared by the more than 1.5 million people who have spoken out in favor of a neutral, affordable and accessible Internet for everyone. For us, the Internet isn't about one company delivering our world. It's about simply offering a high-speed connection at competitive and reasonable rates -- and then getting out of our way.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The FCC Closes a Window to an Open Internet

Too often in the give and take of media policymaking it's government officials that are giving, corporate giants that are taking, and the public that's left with little in the exchange.

This was the case yesterday as the Federal Communications Commission decided to sell off licenses to an invaluable chunk of public airwaves with few conditions to ensure that Americans gain from the deal.


FCC Commissioners

The spectrum in question -- the 700 MHz band – will be returned to Americans after TV broadcasters shift from an analog (and spectrum hogging) format to a more compressed digital signal.

Closing the Gap

These airwaves represent our last best chance to connect tens of millions of Americans to an open and affordable Internet. They can carry a wireless Internet signal through concrete buildings and over mountains – a signal that can single-handedly close the digital divide for people in both rural and urban America who are now being bypassed by the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

With the agency’s decision, however, it’s more likely that this same phone and cable cartel will use their political and financial muscle to control wireless Internet access in the country. The same companies already dictate “wired” broadband access for more than 96% of residential users.

These politically-connected corporations don’t see this new spectrum as a chance to blow open the marketplace. Rather they’ll squander it to protect the status quo – an Internet business model where Americans pay them higher prices for slower speeds compared to access in many Western European and Asian countries.

Open the Network, Unleashing Competition

Had the FCC opted to attach open conditions to these airwaves, the agency would have unleashed the creative forces of the marketplace onto an Internet that is now suffocating under the weight of a few cozy providers.

More than a quarter-million citizens filed comments to the FCC urging the agency to inject such broadband competition into the marketplace by creating a so-called “third pipe,” a national wireless Internet network to compete head-to-head with DSL and cable.

A proposal put before the agency by public advocates, consumer organizations and technology companies would have helped make this "third pipe" a reality. Their solution: create one nationwide wireless Internet license that would be offered to new competitors on a wholesale basis – a model known as "open access" that has proven immensely successful for European nations.

Repercussions from a Bad Decision

In America, open access would pry open the market to new businesses, start ups, entrepreneurs and providers, spurring competition and innovation while driving down costs to the consumer. It would be a boon for the mobile Internet, at a time when a flurry of new devices such as the iPhone are coming available to users.

Instead the FCC chose a course that will keep us behind the pace of countries that have embraced open networks.

Our last, best chance to propel us into an era of Internet innovation and creativity was squandered by an agency that too often confuses corporate welfare with public service.

The FCC decision should be a call to arms for consumer advocates, public interest groups, Internet entrepreneurs and concerned citizens across the country. Unless we amplify calls for true open access, the repercussions of this sell off of the airwaves will be felt for generations to come.