A Slew of Minor Corrections On My Political Advertising Post From the Dean of Public Interest Telecom.

There is an expression that gets used in the Talmud to praise one’s teacher that goes: “My Rabbi is like wine and I am like vinegar,” whereupon the Rabbi actually doing the talking quotes some superior wisdom from his teacher.

 

When it comes to FCC rules governing political advertising, Andrew Jay Schwartzman is like wine and I am like vinegar. Andy knows this stuff backward and forward. So after my recent blog post on Facebook political advertising, Andy sent me a very nice note generally complimenting me on my blog post (always appreciated), but pointing out a bunch of things I either got wrong or could have said more clearly. As Andy observed in his email to me, they don’t actually impact the substance. But in the spirit of transparency, admitting error, and generally preventing the spread of misinformation, I am going to list them out here (a la Emily Ruins Adam Ruins Everything) and correct them in the actual post.

 

List of my goofs below . . . .

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Political Advertising In Crisis: What We Should Learn From the Warren/Facebook Ad Flap.

[This is largely a reprint from a blog post originally posted on the Public Knowledge blog.]

The last week or so has highlighted the complete inadequacy of our political advertising rules in an era when even the President of the United States has no hesitation in blasting the world with unproven conspiracy theories about political rivals using both traditional broadcast media and social media. We cannot ignore the urgency of this for maintaining fair and legitimate elections, even if we realistically cannot hope for Congress to address this in a meaningful way any time soon.

 

To recap for those who have not followed closely, President Trump has run an advertisement repeating a debunked conspiracy theory about former Vice President Joe Biden (a current frontrunner in the Democatic presidential primary). Some cable programming networks such as CNN and those owned by NBCU have refused to run the advertisement. The largest social media platforms — Facebook, Google, and Twitter — have run the advertisement, as have local broadcast stations, despite requests from the Biden campaign to remove the ads as violating the platform policy against running advertising known to contain false or misleading information. The social media platforms refused to drop the ads. Facebook provided further information that it does not submit direct statements by politicians to fact checkers because they consider that “direct speech.”

 

Elizabeth Warren responded first with harsh criticism for Facebook, then with an advertisement of her own falsely stating that Zuckerberg had endorsed President Trump. Facebook responded that the Trump advertisement has run “on broadcast stations nearly 1,000 times as required by law,” and that Facebook agreed with the Federal Communications Commission that “it’s better to let voters — not companies — decide.” Elizabeth Warren responded with her own tweet that Facebook was “proving her point” that it was Facebook’s choice “whether [to] take money to promote lies. You can be in the disinformation-for-profit business or hold yourself to some standards.”

 

Quite a week, with quite a lot to unpack here. To summarize briefly, the Communications Act (not just the FCC) does indeed require broadcast stations that accept advertising from political candidates to run the advertisement “without censorship.” (47 U.S.C. §315(a).) While the law does not apply to social media (or to programming networks like NBCU or CNN), there is an underlying principle behind the law that we want to balance the ability of platforms to control their content with preventing platforms from selectively siding with one political candidate over another while at the same time allowing candidates to take their case directly to the people. But, at least in theory, broadcasters also have other restrictions that social media platforms don’t have (such as a limit on the size of their audience reach), which makes social media platforms more like content networks with greater freedom to apply editorial standards. But actual broadcast licensees — the local station that serves the viewing or listening area — effectively become “common carriers” for all “qualified candidates for public office,” and must sell to all candidates the opportunity to speak directly to the audience and charge all candidates the same rate.

 

All of this begs the real question, applicable to both traditional media and social media: How do we balance the power of these platforms to shape public opinion, the desire to let candidates make their case directly to the people, and the need to safeguard our ability to govern ourselves? Broadcast media remain powerful shapers of public opinion, but they clearly work in a very different way from social media. We need to honor the fundamental values at stake across all media, while tailoring the specific regulations to the specific media.

 

Until Congress gets off its butt and actually passes some laws we end up with two choices. Either we are totally cool with giant corporation making the decision about which political candidates get heard and whether what they have to say is sufficiently supported and mainstream and inoffensive to get access to the public via social media, or we are totally cool with letting candidates turn social media into giant disinformation machines pushing propaganda and outright lies to the most susceptible audiences targeted by the most sophisticated placement algorithms available. It would be nice to imagine that there is some magic way out of this which doesn’t involve doing the hard work of reaching a consensus via our elected representatives on how to balance competing concerns, but there isn’t. There is no magic third option by which platforms acting “responsibly” somehow substitutes for an actual law. Either we make the choice via our democratic process, or we abdicate the choice to a handful of giant platforms run by a handful of super-rich individuals. So perhaps we could spend less time shaming big companies and more time shaming our members of Congress into actually doing their freaking jobs!!

 

(OK, spend more time doing both. Just stop thinking that yelling at Facebook is gonna magically solve anything.)

I unpack this below . . .

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We Need To Fix Media, Not Just Social Media — Part III

This is part of a continuing series of mine on platform regulation published by my employer, Public Knowledge. You can find the whole series here. You can find the original of this blog post here. This blog post is Part 3 of a three part series on media and social media. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here. This version includes recommendations that are my own, and have not been reviewed by, or endorsed by, Public Knowledge.

 

And now . . . after more than 6,000 words of background and build up . . . my big reveal on how to fix the problems in media! You’re welcome.

 

Somewhat more seriously, I’ve spent a lot of time in Part 1 and Part 2 reviewing the overall history of the last 150 years of how technology and journalism inter-relate  because two critically important themes jump out. First, the evolution in communications technology always results in massive changes to the nature of journalism by enabling new forms of journalism and new business models. Sometimes these changes are positive, sometimes negative. But the dominance of the large media corporations financing news production and distribution through advertising revenue is not a natural law of the universe or necessarily the best thing for journalism and democracy. The Internet generally, and digital platforms such as news aggregators and social media specifically, are neither the solution to the dominance of corporate media as optimists hoped it would be or the source of all media’s problems as some people seem to think. Digital platforms are tools, and they have the same promise to utterly revolutionize both the nature of journalism and the business of generating and distributing news as the telegraph or the television.

 

In Part 2, I looked at how activists and journalists connected to social media used these tools in ways that changed the way in which the public observed the events unfolding in Ferguson in 2014, and how this challenged the traditional media narrative around race and policing in America. Combining the lessons from this case study with the broader lessons of history, I have a set of specific policy recommendations that address both the continued solvency of the business of journalism and steps to regain public trust in journalism.

 

More below . . .

 

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Why You Should Treat Any Predictions About Telecom/Tech Policy in 2019 Skeptically.

Under Section 217, Paragraph (b), sub (1) of the “wonk code of conduct,” I am required to provide some immediate analysis on what the election means for my area of expertise (telecom/tech, if you were wondering). So here goes.

 

  1. Everyone will still pretend to care deeply about the digital divide, particularly the rural digital divide.
  2. The MPAA, RIAA and all the usual suspects are probably already shopping their wish lists. This is great news to any recently elected member of staffer who was worried about needing to get tickets to “Fantastic Beasts” or whatever other blockbuster they will screen at MPAA HQ.
  3. Everyone will still talk about the vital importance of “winning” the “race to 5G” while having no clue what that actually means.

These predictions rank up there with “New England Patriots will play football, and everyone outside of New England will hate them” or “The media will spend more time covering celebrity ‘feuds’ than on major health crises like the famine in Yemen or Ebola outbreak in Congo.” They are more like natural laws of the universe than actual predictions. As for substance, y’all remember that Trillion dollar infrastructure bill Trump was gonna do in 2017? I suspect predictions about how federal policy is going to sort itself out will be just as reliable.

 

Why? Because at this stage there are just too many dang meta-questions unresolved. So rather than try to predict things, I will explain what pieces need to fall into place first.

 

Also, it’s worth noting that we had action on the state level that impacts tech and telecom. Start with Phil Weiser winning the election for State AG in Colorado. As Jon Oliver recently pointed out, don’t underestimate the importance of state AGs. This is particularly true for a tech savvy AG in a techie state. Then there is California’s governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who tried to address the digital divide as Mayor of San Francisco with a community wireless network back when people were trying that. Will he continue to make digital divide a major issue? But I’ll stick to my forte of federal policy for the moment.

 

Anyway, rather than try to predict what the policy will be, here’s what is going to have clarify first.

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We Need To Fix The News Media, Not Just Social Media Part I

A substantially similar version of this appeared on the blog of my employer, Public Knowledge.

Focusing blame Google and Facebook for the decline of in-depth news reporting and print journalism ignores the real and long-standing problems that lie at the heart of our troubled relationship with corporate media. Insisting that these companies should fund existing corporate media, or that we should solve the problem by allowing even more consolidation, would be a disaster for democracy.

Almost 20 years ago, I left private practice to work for a nonprofit law firm called Media Access Project (MAP). MAP focused on promoting policies designed to encourage the production of diverse news and views in the electronic media. When I joined MAP in July of 1999, we were facing a crisis of consolidation in the news industry, the rise of polarization, and the dissemination of “fake news” for both commercial and political purposes. Academics and pundits lamented the death of serious journalism, the tyranny of the ever faster news cycle, and the poisoning public discourse with increasingly coarse, angry, and vile commentary that pandered to people’s worst instincts. A new class of wildly popular and increasingly influential pundits sowed distrust for the “MSM” (“mainstream media”) and denounced anyone who disagreed with them as enemies of freedom. Meanwhile, the increasingly vertically and horizontally concentrated news industry cut costs by dramatically cutting reporting staff and reporting resources, and chased “synergies” by using the news to shamelessly cross-promote their entertainment and publishing products. News coverage was increasingly turning into “infotainment” (or, more politely, “soft news”). To the extent political coverage existed outside the polarized world of political punditry, it was reduced from genuine analysis to “horse race” coverage. No one in the news, it seemed, wanted to discuss actual substance – only which political party or politician was “winning” or “losing.” Even worse, a new cottage industry emerged to create and promote “fake news” in the form of Video News Releases and national syndicated broadcasts designed to appear both local and live.

Small wonder that audiences for news increasingly declined, and distrust of the media reached historic levels. To make matters even worse, the “cure” proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was to relax the remaining broadcast ownership rules, inviting further consolidation. Only by increasing consolidation, the industry argued, could the news industry survive in the face of fragmenting audiences, emerging competition from the internet, and declining newspaper revenues.

That was back in the late 1990s and early 00s. To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Except this time, instead of blaming “the internet” and the public’s supposed lack of interest in real news, people now blame Google and Facebook. Why? Because they are big. Because they derive their revenue from digital advertising at a time when print journalism has seen revenue from classified advertising drop precipitously low. Because “Google and Facebook, we hates it precious!,” and one should never miss an opportunity to link a problem to Google and Facebook and proclaim “delenda est!” Likewise, the proposed remedies have a very familiar feel. Allow the news media to consolidate further by relaxing the FCC ownership rules and creating exemptions to existing antitrust law, and/or preserve their historic revenue stream from classified ads (either by destroying Google and Facebook or making them pay tribute to existing media companies). These solutions have particular appeal to incumbent publishers, as they simultaneously absolve the existing media of any responsibility for the current state of journalism and cement the dominance of the existing corporate media giants.

It is precisely because the stakes are so high, however, that we need to look with extreme skepticism at proposals primarily designed to prop up the current consolidated and dysfunctional media landscape. If we want to address the very real problems created by a dysfunctional media, we need to separate which of these problems can properly be attributed to dominant platforms and which to structural problems in the traditional news industry. Additionally, legitimate fears of the ability of dominant platforms to act as gatekeepers, or concerns about their outsized influence on the economics of news production and dissemination, should not justify solutions that destroy the extremely important role these platforms have played – and continue to play – in civic engagement and enhancing the creation of new and independent outlets for news.

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The History of Net Neutrality In 13 Years of Tales of the Sausage Factory (with a few additions). Part I

I keep being asked by people “Harold, can you please summarize the last 20 years of net neutrality for me while I stand on one foot?” Usually I answer: “do not do unto other packets what you find hateful for your favorite bitstream. The rest is commentary — located at 47 C.F.R. Part 8.” Alternatively, I send them to John Oliver’s 2017 piece on net neutrality. Or, if you want the longer story going back to the 1960s/70s, you can read this excellent piece by Tim Wu (who invented the term “net neutrality” in the first place).

 

But, as I’ve mentioned more than a few times in recent weeks, I’ve been doing this issue for a very, very long time. In fact, pretty much since the first time the question of how to classify cable modem service came up in 1998. So, in the spirit of “end of year montages,” I will now take you on a brief tour of the history of net neutrality at Tales of the Sausage Factory (with a few outside link additions) from my first post on the Brand X case back in 2004 to June 2016, when the D.C. Circuit affirmed the FCC’s 2015 Reclassification and Net Neutrality Order.

 

Although I suppose you could read the version I wrote about this in December 2015 to bring everyone up to date before the last court fight. Have I mentioned I’ve been doing this for a long, long time now and am repeating myself an awful lot? That’s why I spend more than 5000 words here and only get up to the beginning of 2009.

 

Prepare you favorite montage music and see more below . . .

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Our Modern Thanksgiving Celebrates The End of Slavery, Not Plymouth Rock.

I have written previously in defense of remembering the First Thanksgiving, and the brief period that followed when the new immigrants and the Massachusetts tribes lived together in mutual respect and tolerance.  As I said then, I believe that ignoring the first 30 years in which the Wampanoag tribes and the original English settlers of Plymouth Colony strove to work together ignores both that a better world was possible and that we can chose to create a better world.

 

But for those who dislike celebrating the First Thanksgiving, I draw your attention to the fact that our modern holiday of Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony and is instead the result of Lincoln’s proclamation calling for a Day of Thanksgiving following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.

 

Gettysburg was the definitive victory of the Union in the Civil War — although that was by no means clear at that time. it marked the high water mark of Confederate military advance and the beginning of consistent Union counter-attack. Ultimately, it was critical to the end of slavery in the United States.

 

For all the failures of Reconstruction, for all that racism and the legacy of slavery persists to this day, there can be no doubt that the victory of the Union over the Confederacy and the end of the institution of slavery in the United States is a cause for which to be thankful. Whether you focus on the slaves who escaped to join the Union army, or the free black volunteers who endured discrimination in the ranks, or simply because our nation survived what Lincoln rightly called the test of whether any nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, there is much for which to be thankful. It is the counsel of cynicism and bitterness to reject the good — or fail to acknowledge it — because evil and injustice have not been banished from the Earth. For if the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery are not causes for which we should all be thankful, then that word has no meaning.

 

Stay tuned . . .

My Response to Charlottesville.

I’m sorry this is off topic for this blog. It doesn’t have anything to do with telecom. But extraordinary events require a response, and now is when all of us who believe in the Rule of Law need to raise our voices.

 

The issue is not right v. left. The issue is those who believe in preserving the fundamental rights of protest and respecting the rule of law v. those who believe they are a law unto themselves.

 

Our country allows supporters of even the most evil, hateful ideologies to preach their beliefs on the principle that it is the right — nay, the duty — of those who oppose these beliefs to counter-protest. Let hundreds of hate-mongers, racists and antisemites gather to be confronted by tens of thousands of people appalled at their open embrace of evil. Let those who hate their fellow American shout their obscenities at the overwhelming masses of Americans counter-protesting. Let the world see that while a few thousands may be drawn to the “largest rally” of racists, fascists and Nazis wannabes, tens of thousands will rise in anger and condemnation.

 

It is those who turn to violence and view themselves as a law unto themselves that are “the other side.” To be clear, I do not speak of those who merely defend themselves. If an armed mob assaults protesters, then those assaulted have the right to defend themselves. No, the “other side” are those who think that they have been provoked so that the rule of law no longer applies. Those who think they are a law unto themselves, empowered to deal death and violence for their ‘sacred cause.’ These who consider themselves their own law, and those who encourage them, are the “other side.” They are the enemy that needs to be condemned.

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Will Pai “Pull A Putin” And Hack the FCC Process? Or Will He Get Over Himself and Start Acting Like The Chairman?

In my 20+ years of doing telecom policy, I have never seen a Chairman so badly botch a proceeding as Chairman Ajit Pai has managed to do with his efforts to repeal Net Neutrality. For all the fun that I am sure Pai is having (and believe me, I understand the fun of getting all snarky on policy), Pai’s failure to protect the integrity of the process runs the serious risk of undermining public confidence in the Federal Communications Commission’s basic processes, and by extension contributing to the general “hacking of our democracy” by undermining faith in our most basic institutions of self-governance.

 

Yeah, I know, that sounds over the top. I wish I didn’t have to write that. I also wish we didn’t have a President who calls press critical of him “the enemy of the American people,” triggering massive harassment of reporters by his followers. What both Trump and Pai seem to fail to understand is that when you are in charge, what you say and do matters much more than what you said and did before you were in charge. You either grow up and step into the challenge or you end up doing serious harm not only to your own agenda, but to the institution as a whole. Worse, in a time when the President and his team actually welcomed Russia’s “hacking” of our election, and remain under suspicion for coordinating with Russia for support, Pai’s conduct creates concern and distrust that he will also “pull a Putin” by welcoming (or worse, collaborating with) efforts to de-legitimize the FCC’s public comment system and hack the public debate around net neutrality generally.

 

Fortunately, as I told former Democratic FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski when he was in danger of making the FCC’s process a laughingstock in the public eye, Pai can still recover and rescue himself and the FCC from his self-destructive conduct. Instead of calling his critics enemies of capitalism and free speech, instead of obsessing about his own hurt feelings while displaying a troubling indifference to identity stealing bots filing comments that support his own proposal and failing to follow up on his own claims that the FCC comment system suffered a critical cyber-attack – Pai needs to follow in the footsteps of Michael Powell, Kevin Martin and Tom Wheeler when they faced similar insults (and in Powell’s case, racial slurs). Welcome robust public debate and criticism, condemn the actually illegal hacking used by his supporters, and stop whining about his own hurt feelings. Michael Powell managed to take being called a War Criminal and son of a war criminal for supposedly allowing the press to sell us on the Iraq War, as well as the same kind of racist bullshit that Pai or any other prominent person of color sadly has to endure in an America where racists feel increasingly emboldened. Pai can chose to step up in the same way his Republican and Democratic predecessors did, or continue to contribute to the overall erosion of trust in our institutions of self-governance generally and his handling of the FCC specifically.

 

I unpack all this below . . .

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Welcome Back to the Net Neutrality Fight Summer Blockbuster Reboot!

Hi everyone! Back from a 3 month sabbatical and my Mom’s heart surgery, and just in time for the nth+1 replay round on Network Neutrality. As with so many things, I can’t believe we are going to reboot this franchise once again and run through pretty much the same arguments. But as with repeal of Obamacare, Republicans would rather focus themselves on undoing Obama’s legacy rather than moving on and getting stuff done. Since they run the show, we play this game again.

 

Regular followers of this blog will know I have been fighting the net neutrality fights since they began back in 1998 (when it was the “open access” fight and the telcos were on our side). I have seen a steady stream of victories and defeats. Time and again, we have found ourselves backed into a corner and had to rally when everything seemed hopeless. However, as I explained back in 2010, there are reasons why network neutrality refuses to die, but that doesn’t mean we’ll win (this round) either. So, in the spirit of movie reboots and sequels, I will quote Captain Kirk to Captain Picard: “I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim . . . Sounds like fun!”

 

While I had certainly hoped the Republicans would see reason — Pai has made it clear that he is as obsessed with exterminating net neutrality and every other pro-competitive and pro-consumer policy at the FCC. Pai is obsessed with demolishing every single accomplishment of Wheeler’s as Kahn was to have his revenge on Kirk (which did not, in fact, work out very well for Kahn).  But Pai, and Blackburn and Senator Lee go beyond the usual Obama/Wheeler derangement syndrome (“Wheeler, hates it precious!“) This is full on Davros and the Daleks utter willingness to destroy reality.

 

Now I’ve heard people ask: “But the Republicans control the FCC. They control both houses of Congress. They are determined to ignore the millions of people who have already made their opposition plain, and ignore all the mountains of evidence that sits before them. What can we possibly do?”

 

Well, I have a message for Chairman Davros and his army of industry Daleks.

 

Stay tuned . . . .