Not-So Smart Mobs: The Wireless Industry War Against Net Neutrality

It’s not just the biggest phone and cable companies opposing a open Internet (net neutrality). It’s also the wireless industry—including companies providing cellular and mobile communications. One of the principal characteristics of our expanding ubiquitous digital media environment will be its reach—on the street, in transport, and everyplace else. New forms of political action and cultural expression could evolve if the U.S. can have a non-discriminatory mobile environment.

But that’s not what the CTIA-The Wireless Association wants. They are opposing network neutrality safeguards. In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this month, CTIA’s chief Steve Largent warned of “many of the unintended consequences that would flow from some of the Net Neutrality regulations being considered [that] would have a particularly negative impact on wireless consumers.” What Largent really meant was that the wireless industry hopes to impose the same kind of toll booth regime for mobile communications. In their vision, ads and content supported by a McDonalds, P&G soap, Fox News or Disney will have preferential access. CTIA’s board includes T-Mobile, Cingular (AT&T), Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless and most of the key manufacturers. As we mentioned in yesterday’s entry, CTIA is also a member of the anti-open Internet group called (It’s time, by the way, we had a real anti-trust investigation of the mobile industry).

The united front of cable, wireless phone and wireless/mobile companies fighting against network neutrality is a good example of why we need serious policy safeguards (going beyond network neutrality) to protect freedom of communications in the U.S. Without such rules, the civic potential of Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs will be thwarted by powerful commercial forces. Distortions and Cable/Telco Flackery

We are disappointed that Scott Cleland would act as “chair” and chief advocate for this anti-open Internet group. Its “members” (really its financial backers) are a rogue’s gallery of some of the most powerful and avaricious big media companies: Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, Advance Newhouse, and AT&T. This front-group also includes industry lobbying heavyweights NCTA, CTIA, USTA, and ACA. In other words, it’s a cable and Telco joint lobbying venture. The role that the cellular lobby (CTIA) plays here illustrates how both the wireline and wireless industries wish to jointly create a cash and carriage broadband distribution system.

But the “research” and information on is shoddy and reflects a vision promoting monopoly power and greed. Mr. Cleland and his allies should know better. Net Neutrality is about democracy—removing barriers to the distribution of content essential for a civil society to function. That’s why nearly all the consumer and good government groups support network neutrality. It’s not about the corporate welfare of a Google or Microsoft. It’s about ensuring there are as few gatekeepers as possible for content promoting such applications as political speech, civic engagement, non-profit arts and culture, education, life-long learning and everything else we require in a digital society. I don’t have time here to rebut all their assertions (they all all shamefully misleading). This is a mean-spirited, propagandistic website. Mr. Cleland should have the group change its name to more honestly reflect what they are about: netmonopoly.con

Communications Workers: Selling out the U.S. Internet and the Union Movement

For years, one of the biggest impediments to organized labor’s goals to promote a more democratic America has been the media/telecom policies of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Now, with CWA’s active lobbying against a federal network neutrality safeguard, CWA once again reveals its misguided, wrong-headed, short-term approach to communications policy. This week, CWA sided with Verizon, AT&T and other phone and cable giants who are fighting tooth and nail to derail Internet freedom legislation. On May 24, CWA President Larry Cohen sent a letter [PDF] opposing the network neutrality bill offered by House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner, Jr. CWA became a flack for Verizon and others when it claimed that his bill, which would ensure an open Internet, “would retard” the “deployment of universal, affordable high-speed networks…” (Thanks to great work by advocates, the bill passed the committee 20-13).

Over the last decade, CWA has not served its members and the larger union movement well. Instead of advocating for an open media system, CWA has frequently sided with “big media” interests, especially the largest phone companies. For example, CWA supported the Comcast takeover of AT&T Broadband. CWA representatives will claim that by opposing network neutrality, they are helping the economic interests of their employers (and helping promote job security at Verizon, AT&T, etc.). But it is shortsighted thinking. Only with a truly open digital media system will Labor be able to get its message out and mobilize supporters. A democratic media system—with a non-discriminatory Internet/digital medium at its core—will help fulfill the goal of Labor for a more democratic U.S. CWA has largely set the communications/media policy agenda for the AFL-CIO. It has helped the union movement think “small” and short-term at precisely the point when a bold and forward-thinking approach is required for it to thrive in the new media era. Sadly, CWA also violates the best interests of the journalists it represents through its Newspaper Guild affiliate. In essence, CWA is opposed to the free flow of information online. (In its letter, CWA claims that while it opposes network neutrality, it supports an “open Internet.” But it does so by backing the toothless provisions in the “COPE” bill that would have the FCC set up a Bell/cable friendly “complaint adjudication process.”)

CWA has lots of high-minded communications policy rhetoric on its website. But it might as well replace its union logo with that of AT&T, Comcast and others who are engaged in a digital land grab of the Net. The leaders of CWA should be ashamed of themselves. And its members should demand the union reverse its position and join with others supporting network neutrality.

PS: Read a brief commentary from SEIU’s Andy Stern supporting network neutrality. Here’s a union leader who gets it.

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NSA, the FCC and White House Martin’s, and Sen. Stevens: Beyond Cover-up

It’s not surprising that FCC chair Kevin Martin refused to investigate how the phone companies he oversees have turned over our personal records to the National Security Agency. Martin—who is supposed to be running a so-called “independent agency”—said he was obeying “the representations” of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Negroponte and NSA chief Keith Alexander. In a letter to Rep. Ed Markey (who has been doing a terrific job all around on communications issues), Kevin Martin said that the DNI and NSA had warned him that such a study would require the FCC to examine “highly sensitive classified information.” Kevin Martin, of course, is part of the Bush White House conservative cabal that is behind the violation of all our privacy. Martin’s wife Catherine is an assistant to President Bush. Before that, she was an assistant to Vice President Cheney. Her relationships with Texas allies of Pres. Bush go back a number of years as well.

Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee chair Ted Stevens, who termed the call for an FCC investigation “misguided,” revealed once again how out of touch he is. Stevens is quoted in Communications Daily (May 24, 2006) saying that he had been briefed on the NSA phone record collection effort. The newsletter reports that Stevens “believed the information the companies gave the NSA was equivalent to creating a database of the names and phone numbers in a phone book.” And Stevens thinks that fine! Can’t wait until he helps wreck U.S. broadband/digital media with his forthcoming bill.

Meanwhile, Kevin Martin should be asked to resign. He isn’t running an independent agency; it’s now just a creature of the defense intelligence establishment

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U.S. Broadband and the Public Interest: A Deafening Silence? Now is the Time to Raise the Stakes

As the Senate considers legislation that could set the framework for U.S. digital communications for years to come, we are disappointed about the narrowness of the debate. Network neutrality, while vitally important, should not be the “end-all” in terms of addressing how the public interest must be served in the emerging digital era. Public interest groups and others should be pressing members of Congress and other allies to address how, for example, broadband communications can generate financial and other resources for Americans trapped in poverty. We should be asking now how phone and cable high-speed systems can be used to improve public education. Where are the calls for policies that would break open the lock that cable, phone, and broadcast companies will still have over digital television services? The time is also ripe to address campaign reform in the era of targeted digital advertising (where big money will still largely determine one’s political reach). Privacy, including protections from both government and commercial surveillance, should also be on the agenda.

Two weeks ago, NY State Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer decried the “lack of vision and investment” when he released a “universal broadband access” plan for New York. Spitzer was referring to his state. But we believe there is overall a “lack of vision” coming from those who care about the future of the country. Everyone who knows digital media recognizes that it will be one of the most powerful forces shaping our society. We will be defined as a culture by what we do with the ubiquitous, interactive, personalized, and virtual system that is about to unfold.

Network neutrality has justly generated a tremendous response—thanks to the good folks at Free Press, Common Cause and many others. But it is the `no-brainer’ of broadband politics. Stopping a Bell/cable takeover of the Internet is clearly required. But so are policies that ensure that today’s network neutrality proponents—such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and Goggle—aren’t just allowed to privately prosper. They and the phone and cable companies ultimately share the same business model—a broadband system where consumerism plays the dominant role in our lives. We must demand more than just an Internet that can deliver interactive ads.

Once legislation passes, our U.S. broadband system will quickly evolve. Market structures will be created. It will be harder to make changes. We understand that with a heavily business captured Administration, Congress, and FCC, a public interest agenda would be impossible to get. But it would set the stage for what should be raging and passionate action in the years to come to create a digital media system that nurtures free speech, civic participation, and social justice. With Senate Commerce Co-chair Daniel Inouye now in support of net neutrality and greater community control, groups may have an ally to begin such a call.

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NSA, Network Neutrality and Domestic Spying: There’s More Data Collecting to come from AT&T, Verizon, and others

All along, the move by the Bush Administration to permit a few giant telecom companies to control the flow of all the data coming into to our PC’s, mobile devices and (very soon) digital TV’s have raised concerns about the government’s ability to more effectively monitor our communications and behavior. The fight for network neutrality has always also been a way to throw some kind of digital monkey wrench into the kind of one-stop eavesdropping our government likes to do. The Bush broadband plan, initiated by former FCC chair Michael Powell and continued by current chair Kevin Martin, permits just a few to control our broadband communications. Among them, of course, are the phone companies nailed yesterday by Leslie Cauley in USA Today: AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon.

The Bush plan has turned over a great deal of the U.S. digital distribution system to these three domestic spying allies. But as cable companies expand their voice service over the Internet, don’t think Comcast and Time Warner won’t also be asked—and line up– as well. These few broadband gatekeepers will know more than our phone calls; they will know where we go in cyberpace and–through location identification technologies–also know we are on the street. It isn’t healthy for a democracy to only have a handful of giants in two industries controlling all broadband traffic. Companies who are always interested in playing ball with Washington. Indeed, it’s the convenience of one-stop domestic spying that may be one reason why the Bush Administration supports the broadband giveaway to the Bells and cable.

Of course, both the phone and cable industry plan to do a lot of spying on us anyway—for commercial purposes (see this page for industry documents from Cisco and others that explain further how much personal info will be collected). Groups such as the ACLU and others had wanted a policy where the U.S. would have thousands of ISP’s—hence making it more difficult for the Feds to line-up everyone’s data. The Bush folks made sure we lost that (they got some help from a number of Dems as well). Now the only choices we may have are companies in bed with the NSA and DOJ. That’s why we need a network neutrality safeguard. It must be at the foundation of digital era civil liberty safeguards protecting our privacy from both commercial and governmental surveillance.

Verizon’s “Community Studio”—Civil Rights Digital Tokenism?

Last week’s announcement of a “new pilot program” from Verizon’s FIOS digital TV service that it will offer on-demand “public interest and civil rights content” needs to be seen in the context of U.S. media history. It’s not surprising that as Verizon and the other phone companies lobby to change U.S. media law—including sweeping away the open and non-discriminatory nature of the Internet in the U.S.—they would make such tentative promises (notice the word “pilot” in its release). Call us cynical. But we can’t really believe that the phone giant’s announcement, which “emerged in discussions between Verizon and more than 35 civil rights leaders” wasn’t timed to undermine the growing public opposition to its plans for a privatized and `command and controlled’ digital communications system. After all, Congress is about to vote—as early as next week—on new national broadband media communications laws.

As we all know, at each point in the 20th Century as a new media technology emerged, corporate interests made many public interest promises. But once the industry had successfully won its political agenda (having disarmed or overwhelmed critics), such commitments were ignored. Commercial broadcasters back in 1934 promised that radio would be a “classroom of the air,” among many other public interest services. Broadcasters were able to split the educational community and win a 1934 Communications Act without any specific public interest mandates. Of course, what Verizon is doing now is lifted entirely from the cable TV industry political playbook. Cable was going to be—its leaders promised back in the 1970’s—a “community communications” service. There were going to be many channels for all, reflecting the nation’s diversity, at the local and national level. Eventually, as we know, cable broke those promises and used its political power (and a conflicted opposition, such as today) to make certain (via the 1984 Cable Act) that it would be able to focus its resources on national, commercial programming. (There were many remarkable and dedicated civil rights activists who fought to make cable truly diverse, including Charles Tate).

We can understand the frustration many groups have with cable TV. After all, the two leading African American channels are either owned or controlled by conglomerates (Viacom runs BET; TV One is a creature of Comcast). Many Spanish-language channels are also owned by giants or major media investors (GE/NBC/Universal runs Telemundo; Univision is run by A. Jerrold Perenchio and gets much of its programming from Latin America).

The Time to Ensure a Diverse Programming Landscape is Now

The stark lack of ownership by persons of color of programming content must be rectified in the emerging digital era. New local and national programming services should emerge that offer a range of meaningful and truly diverse content—including news, public affairs, and culture. In order to ensure this, such programming needs to be within the foundation of the new telephone company deliver system.

That will take a serious and significant long-time commitment in terms of funding and distribution support. Instead of a “pilot” program offering up a rotating monthly assortment of content from 35 groups, our telephone giants should be expected to `pony’ up and do something significant in terms of programming diversity. Otherwise, African-American, Latino/Hispanic and many others will primarily be addressed as consumers—not as citizens and community members (see the Cable Advertising Bureau site for how the African-American and Latino communities are viewed as a marketing bonanza). [Since Verizon makes, according to the same release announcing the “pilot,” some $90 billion in operating revenues, we think they could afford more than a tentative, VOD plan].

There is, of course, a perversity with Verizon calling its new venture “Community Studio.” Verizon, AT&T, Qwest and others are about to destroy much of “community” media, as they get Congress to kill off community oversight of cable/phone digital media (the Barton-Rush bill, for example). Since both the phone and cable industry also seek to permanently eliminate the Internet’s non-discrimination safeguard, online community voices will likely face new obstacles as well.

Behind Verizon’s negotiations with the groups, we understand, was Kathryn C. Brown, a Public Policy VP. Ms. Brown was a former chief of staff to Clinton-era FCC head William Kennard. It was Ms. Brown who replied, when asked to support public interest policies for broadcast digital TV, to tell her what the “low-hanging fruit” was on the issue (meaning some meaningless quid pro quo). Also working with Ms. Brown, we were told, was B. Keith Fulton, head of Verizon’s “Strategic Alliance Group” (“responsible for the company’s outreach to multicultural, senior citizen and disabled organizations”). Mr. Fulton first came to Washington as a National Urban League staffer interested in addressing the digital divide. He was soon scooped up by AOL Time Warner (its foundation) and began his career helping the communications lobby.

Finally, it’s worth noting that on the same day Verizon announced its civil rights and new media pilot, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists blasted the Bush Administration for its plans to not investigate the sorry state of minority broadcast ownership. The last federal report, in 2000, showed that people of color owned less than 3.8% of all broadcast stations. We wonder what a study will find—if one is done a few years from now—of how much major digital content will be truly diversely owned?

Selling Out to Sponsors: Al Gore’s Current

We know it’s the rage on the part of the media/ad industry to encourage users/viewers to create their own content. It’s often touted as a technique permitting greater user interaction with commercial media. But however it’s framed, the motive is about deepening the brand and marketing relationships between advertisers and individuals.

Al Gore has been getting praise for his environmental work, including a new film on global warming (“An Inconvenient Truth”). He deserves it, certainly. But Gore’s new Current video channel—which is billed as “dedicated to bringing your voice to television”—contributes to the growing commercial “pollution” of our culture. As a way to get advertising revenue from sponsors, Current is encouraging viewers to create corporate ads. Right now, they are urging folks to help out Toyota, L’Oreal, and Sony, for example. These companies see it as a cheap way to get commercials made and to also obtain “grass-roots feedback” on what people (esp. younger viewers) think about their brands. If Current airs the spot, producer-viewers can earn $1,000 and more.

The growing role that marketing and advertising is playing in our digital culture will promote higher levels of personal consumption, economic inequities and—yes—environmental pollution. Current encourages viewers to create their own editorial content. But Gore and his partners should not be asking viewers/users to support the efforts of advertisers to further extend their relationships and reach. Otherwise, Current will become nothing more than a network-length infomercial for the Fortune 500.

Telco/Cable TV lobbying Blitz Costing Nearly $1 Mil Per Week in DC Market/ Big Bucks Spent to Pave Way for Broadband Monopolies

Everyone has seen the TV ads from both the phone and cable lobby urging Congress to support their plans to control the future of the broadband Internet in the U.S. Companies such as Qwest, Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T want to be broadband barons—with all other content providers and users reduced to serving as merely consuming digital surfs.

How much is the PR blitz costing? Well, intrepid media consultant Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications has done the math. “About 975K is being spent on Washington-area media buying,” he told us. That sum is mostly for local broadcast TV expenditures. According to Mr. Arlen, the U.S. Telecom Association has been spending $250 K/week (and so far has run-up a six-week $1.5 million ad tab). AT&T is forking out $600K per week (for its “Choice” campaign). TV4US, a telco “Astroturf” group, is spending $75k per week for at least a four-week air time buy. The NCTA, meanwhile, has gone through at least $ 1 million nationally in a year, spending 50K a week in the DC market as Congress meets. [Arlen is one of the most insightful people working in the media biz—and keeps an eagle-like eye on where the business is heading.]

Of course, once Rep. Joe Barton and Sen. Ted Stevens pass legislation giving control over broadband to the country’s cable and phone giants, they will be able to give themselves preferred high-speed interactive video treatment at rock-bottom (free!) rates.

Question: With next week’s House floor vote on Barton-Rush—will Microsoft, Yahoo!, Amazon, Google, eBay, and IAC spend the necessary dough to sound the alarm?

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Sen. Stevens’ Broadband Bill: Building A Digital Bridge to Nowhere

What do you say about a supposed update of the nation’s basic communications laws in the digital era that first starts off discussing low cost calls to home for the armed forces fighting a “war on terrorism.” Or that the 135-page draft released this week is principally about an old technology: TV. What it says is that the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee—and his legion of lobbyist’ allies– can’t be trusted to oversee our nation’s digital future. Let’s remember—Senator Stevens supported the last major media industry give-away: the disastrous and lobbyist written 1996 Telecommunications Act.

His proposed new law doesn’t address how to harness the power of broadband communications to foster civic discourse, democratic participation, or even the arts. Sen. Steven’s bill is primarily about permitting the Bell and cable companies to reap enormous profits from selling captive consumers interactive video services. Under the bill, broadband transmission speeds are set absurdly low (anywhere from 200 kbs to 3mbs per second)—at a time when the rest of the industrialized world offers users blazing fast distribution. Instead of boldly declaring that every U.S. resident should have affordable broadband access [which will soon be a necessity], Stevens asks the Census Bureau to add an “American Community Survey Residential Internet Question” that will ask “what technology…households use to access the Internet from home.” It will take years with such an effort to develop a serious approach to equitable Internet access. In another blow to low-income Americans, the proposed law effectively fails to prevent Bell Co. network redlining. Stevens creates a complaint procedure at the FCC that will ensure discriminated consumers won’t be served for many years.

This legislation turns over the Internet to the cable and phone lobby. It does nothing on network neutrality, save a meaningless study by the toothless and in-the-industry-pocket FCC. Here we can see Stevens and Co.’s close ties with AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner, etc. K-Street crowd. Is it a coincidence—or just a bad joke—that network neutrality is only mentioned in a “Broadband Deployment” bill at the very end of the draft (right after the section of the bill attacking video porn). The bill also breaks the ability of local government to ensure residents reap the benefits of broadband networks (it guts franchising). A more thoughtful piece of legislation would have ensured some serious local oversight and access to broadband capacity, while simultaneously requiring an open network.

But this bill is more about video programming and sorting out the various show-biz industry political wish lists than a forward-thinking, democratically-inspired piece of legislation. It’s time that Sen. Inouye, the so-called co-chair of the Commerce Committee, do a shout-out for the Internet and the public interest in the broadband era (it will help make up for his yea on the 96 Act). We all need to help him listen.