Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Internet Villains and Heroes

If the history of Internet policy were a movie, it would feature the public tied to the tracks before an onrushing train of corporate lobbyists.

The villain, however, is not just the powerful phone and cable companies these lobbyists represent, but the politicians who tightened the knots and then stood smugly by as our interests were crushed.

So how do we change this unhappy ending to one where the power of the Internet remains in the hands of the people who use it?

One politician at a time.

Our policymakers have a civic duty to keep the Internet free and open, tech activist Cory Doctorow writes in Tuesday's Guardian. Internet freedom is essential to our economic recovery, national competitiveness, public health and civic engagement.

"But politicians around the world seem willing to sacrifice their national interest to keep a few powerful phone and telcoms companies happy."

The List of Particulars

By fiddling with the wired Internet -- and walling off content and blocking competing services on wireless networks -- phone and cable companies "are pulling the rug out from under the nations that have sustained them with generous subsidies and regulation," Doctorow said.

The list of particulars isn't pretty.

Comcast was caught red-handed secretly blocking access to popular file-sharing programs. Time Warner Cable is working to impose a metering regime that would impose unfair penalties against those of us who go online for more than simple e-mail and Web surfing.

AT&T is in negotiations with the recording and motion picture industry to sift and filter all Web traffic in search of users they deem inappropriate. This is like letting the post office tear open your mail to determine whether or not it's going to be delivered, or worse, whether to turn you over to the authorities. AT&T's wireless network is crippling innovative new applications that compete with their legacy networks, making the iPhone not quite all it's advertised to be.

All of these network providers reserve the right - via legalese buried deep in their terms of agreement -- to cut off our connections for "any or no reason."

Revolution Limbo

At several points over the past two decades, policymakers have been smack in the middle of decisions to grow the information revolution and safeguard our online rights. But too often, they've stepped aside and allowed good public policy to be undermined by telecommunications giants bent on gaining a stronger hand over the free-flowing Web.

It wasn't meant to be this way.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton made history by signing the Telecommunications Act, which he described as "truly revolutionary" legislation that would "protect consumers against monopolies" and "provide open access for all citizens to the Information Superhighway."

The History of Internet Policy
by Derek Turner
But today, over a dozen years later, "Americans are still waiting on the promise of this digital revolution," Derek S. Turner said last week during the Free Press; Changing Media summit in Washington, D.C.
"But before the ink was even dry on the 1996 Act, the powerful telecommunications giants and their army of lobbyists went straight to work obstructing and undermining the competition the new law was intended to create," Turner said.

In his report Dismantling Digital Deregulation: Toward a National Broadband Strategy, Turner details the failed policies at the root of America's broadband woes.

The blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Federal Communications Commission, which over the last decade ignored the Telecommunications Act's blueprint for a better Internet. Instead, it pushed a regime of deregulation that consistently favored short-term industry interests over the long-term goals of universal broadband, market competition and Internet openness.

As a result, ISPs have stuck consumers with higher prices and slower speeds, while repeatedly threatening to throttle the free and open Internet. And our elected and appointed officials have let this happen.

We're Owed Net Neutrality

Doctorow argues that Net Neutrality -- the principle that protects users' freedom of choice online -- is not only crucial for the future of the Internet, but it is what these network providers owe the public.

"If the phone companies had to negotiate for every pole, every sewer, every punch-down, every junction box, every road they get to tear up, they'd go broke," Doctorow wrote in the Guardian. "All the money in the world couldn't pay for the access they get for free every day."

"Governments and regulators are in a position to demand that these recipients of public subsidy adhere to a minimum standard of public interest," Doctorow concludes. "If they don't like it, let them get into another line of work."

That's a change we can all get behind. But the sad reality of our new policy landscape is that it's much the same as the old.

While President Barack Obama has publicly declared his support for universal and open access to the Internet, his ability to turn support into real reform is constrained by the tremendous influence of money over American policymaking.

One thing is clear: To save the Internet from the lobbyists and their bosses, leaders in Washington must be emboldened by broad-based public support.

Special interests should not be allowed to set Internet policy. Congress and the FCC must protect the Internet's democratic nature. And people who care about their online freedom must let their elected officials know about it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Big Media Myopia

It's hard to empathize with struggling newspapers when those running them continue to suffer from the short-sightedness that got their industry into a mess.

The editors at the Washington Post put on a display of such backward thinking on Saturday, when they published an op-ed by two lawyers from the influential D.C. firm Baker Hostetler.

In writing this op-ed, the lawyers hide certain conflicts of interest that should weigh heavily against their analysis. The Post 's editors might have connected the dots for readers, but didn't.

But the piece is just so stunningly stupid that it falls apart all by itself. In it, Esq. Bruce W. Sanford and Bruce D. Brown call for reactionary legal measures that would stifle access to news and information and return us to the grand old days of consolidated ownership, bloated media giants and information gatekeepers.

To save journalism, Brown and Sanford argue, we must "eliminate ownership restrictions" and open floodgates to a new wave of media concentration.

We should also "grant an antitrust exemption" for consolidated media, allowing them to join together and wall off content from users. "Antitrust immunity is necessary because most individual news sites can't go it alone," they explain in the op-ed. "Readers will simply jump to sites that are still free."

They urge readers to support more stringent copyright restrictions that would bar bloggers, Web sites and all others from the online sharing of even a small portion of mainstream media news content.

Nowhere in this silliness do they see the consolidation and walling off of news for what it is: more the real culprit in the demise of newspapers than is their favorite bogeyman -- the free flowing Internet.

We have nearly survived an era of media mergers that shackled newspapers with massive amounts of debt and high shareholder expectations. Look no further than real estate magnate Sam Zell, who in 2007 purchased the Tribune Company using financial contortions and shifting debt structures that made heads spin among even the most seasoned bean counters.

Zell is not alone. Media consolidation over the last 20 years has been typified by leveraged deals and unserviceable debts.

But consider this. Just a few years ago, the average profit margin for newspapers was 20 percent -- with some raking in twice as much or more.

"Did they use these astronomical profits to invest in the quality of their products or to innovate for the future?" asked Free Press' Craig Aaron on Thursday. "No. They just bought up more newspapers and TV stations." (On May 12 Free Press released a National Journalism Strategy that outlines forward-thinking policies to save journalism, and not merely prop up the creaking old guard.)

This debt-loaded structure began to implode as their monopolies over local advertising revenue were undercut by Internet upstarts such as Craigslist and Google News.

The recent economic downturn was the final straw. And the aftermath has been dire -- at least for journalists. By one count, 24,000 journalism jobs have been lost since 2008. Foreign, Washington and statehouse bureaus have been shuttered. Major news organizations are in bankruptcy. Others, like the Rocky Mountain News, have closed their doors for good. Newspaper circulation is nose-diving. The Seattle Post Intelligencer and Tuscon Citizen have shed their print operations opting (far too late) to take exclusively to the Web.

In Saturday's Post op-ed, both Brown and Sanford are nostalgic for the corporate media oligarchs that predated the Internet. This fantasy is so far removed from the contours of today's media landscape that it's easy to dismiss these two lawyers as ancient barristers who rely on secretaries to print and hand deliver their email.

They aren't. And that is what's disturbing about this article.

Undisclosed by neither Brown and Sanford nor the Washington Post is the A-list of corporate media clients represented by the authors.

Here's what I found from quick scan of the Baker Hostetler Web site: Sanford has been counsel in cases representing publishers E.W. Scripps Co, Tribune Co., the Hearst Corporation, Random House, Simon & Schuster and Bertelsmann, A.G. He also represents consolidated broadcasters Clear Channel Communications, ABC/Disney, NBC, Fox Television as well as AOL/Time Warner. Brown has represented Scripps Howard Broadcasting Co. and the New York Times.

This list is not complete. (I encourage people to use the comment thread to add new names of the firm's mainstream media clients.)

As far as I can tell the Post doesn't seek counsel from Baker Hostetler. But that doesn't preclude the paper's publishers from benefiting from Brown and Sanford's myopia.

That these two lawyers have sold themselves out to corporate media seems no surprise in a city of lobbyists and snake oil. What's disturbing is the lengths to which the Washington Post will go to promote such swill without full disclosure to readers.