The Verizon/NARAL Flap And Lessons for NARAL (and all the rest of you advocacy orgs out there)

It seems like every time I go away, something fun happens on Net Neutrality. I go on vacation and AT&T accidentally censors Pearl Jam. I go away for Sukkot and Verizon makes a major faux-pas by blocking NARAL’s text messaging campaign.

As one might expect, faster than you can say “crap, it’s a Democratic Congress these days,” Verizon went into immediate damage control. It reversed its decision and issued a statement that this was all a big mistake based on an antiquated policy that Verizon had now fixed. Heck, I even believe Verizon that this was an accident. Unlike Comcast or AT&T, Verizon has no prior history of such censorship (although they apparently did play ball with NSA when it came to spying on American citizens). But I make my usual point that I don’t want my free speech dependent on the good will of megacorps, enforced with non-stop vigilance and the ability to raise a great virtual cry every time wrongdoing occurs. The First Amendment is too damn important to depend on getting a front page story because somebody directly blocks access, even if it is an accident. I want my freedom to communicate protected as a matter of right, not as a matter of grace and political pressure.

No, I shall let my more eloquent colleagues like Susan Crawford and Tim Karr make the usual arguments. Instead, I direct my comments to NARAL and other organizations on both the left and the right with potentially “controversial” messages.

Scan this list of organizations, businesses and individuals that are part of the Savetheinternet.com coalition. Are you on it? I don’t see NARAL, or NOW, or a whole bunch of other orgs (left or right) that should care about this stuff — preferably before they get bit in the butt on it. And it’s not just Savetheinternet.com. It’s also about stopping big media and corporate censorship by opposing further media consolidation. Think NARAL will be able to buy ads in the Wall St. Journal after Rupert Murdoch buys it? Heck, the good folks over at the United Church of Christ can’t even get their church advertisements shown on major networks because they might possibly in two frames hint that they accept gays and therefore (by implication) support gay marriage. So you would think that folks with so much to lose, on both the right and the left, would jump on this campaign.

But sadly, they don’t. It is the unfortunate truth that far too many organizations that should support these campaigns “do not play well with others.” They fret about “expending their political capital.” They distrust working with others where they cannot “Control their name and message.” They refuse to participate in coalitions or causes with certain others including people on the same side, because of accumulated bad blood that began with an incident so long ago no one even remembers what it is about. But most fundamentally, they don’t see how issues of network neutrality and media concentration impact them or their core issues.

Hopefully, the recent Verizon/NARAL flap will serve as a wake up call not merely to NARAL, but Second Amendment Sisters, GLAD, and anyone else with a potentially controversial message. YOU NEED TO CARE ABOUT THIS STUFF! Really. Yes, I know you’re busy on a gajillion other things, you hate half the people listed on Savetheinternet.com list, whatever. If you don’t get your rear ends in gear and start dealing with Network Neutrality and media concentration, then it won’t matter what your actual issue or message is, because no one else will freakin’ hear it, see it, or care about it. Because your ability to get your message out and communicate directly with your membership will depend entirely on hoping you can suck up to/brow beat/bribe a handful of megacorps into letting you communicate with your members and the rest of the world, because you will have no legal right to force them to do so.

If that’s the world you want to live in, then keep doing as your doing. Decide that you “don’t have the resources to get involved,” that this “really isn’t your issue” and you don’t want to “dilute your name or spread yourself too thin.” I’m not sure exactly what you’ll do with all your horded “political capital” when you can’t actually get your message out, but clearly that’s not a concern of yours.

Or you can take two whole minutes and sign up on Savetheinternet.com to join the campaign.

Your choice. But if any members of any of these orgs are reading this, you might want to ask your home offices why they can’t take two minutes to fire up the old web browser and go to Savetheinternet.com to join the campaign.

Stay tuned . . . .

I Go Away for a Week and AT&T Gets Cocky

So I trot off to enjoy my regular vacation from the 21st Century at the annual Pennsic War to discover that AT&T has taken my brief absence as an excuse to get cocky and suck up even more to the Bush Administration by block Pearl Jam’s anti-W lyrics. “Oopsie,” says AT&T. “All an honest mistake! Really!” Except — surprise! — it now appears that AT&T may also have blocked other groups during other live performances when criticizing Bush.

Isn’t it amazing how these “accidents” always seem to go in one direction rather than another? For example, wasn’t it just the most amazing coincidence last year when Comcast “accidently” snipped off an embarassing clip from a video on demand news report?

One may ask why these companies try to get away with such nonesense. The answer is (a) it doesn’t hurt them to try; and (b) they do get away with it. Especially when it comes to time sensitive speech, there is really no penalty for AT&T, Comcast, or any other megacorp with market power to engage in this form of corporate censorship.

On the other hand, as I observed recently, the potential rewards of sucking up to this administration can be quite considerable. AT&T has certainly shown it knows how to suck up to this Administration. And, in return, the Bush Administration Department of Justice let through the AT&T/BellSouth merger with a nod and a wink.

So we can expect to continue to see such “accidents” in the future, while the corporations and their cheerleaders brush off such corporate censorship as inconsequential random events that cannot possibly warrant prophylactic regulation. That we have achieved the worst excess of government censorship through the simple expedient of outsourcing is ignored and disregarded by these Libertarian defenders of the status quo in much the same way they ignore the reality that certain forms of regulation are a necessary prerequisite to genuinely competitive markets. But better the forms of free speech and the trappings of competition then actual free speech and real competition — if the cost of achieving either is to admit a flaw in the sacred dogma of the Gods of the Marketplace.

Stay tuned . . . .

We are pleased to offer our customers whatever services they want, as long as they don't help competitors . . . .

As some of you may have heard, carriers Cingular, Qwest and possibly other carriers are refusing to allow their subscribers to call freeconferencecall.com. Expect a number of other services to suffer similar fates — barring regulatory action or other legal steps.

What’s going on? It’s actually not a net neutrality issue (although as Bitchslappin Blog points out, it does serve as a rather nasty reminder of what is likely to happen in a non-neutral network). The issue here stems from a rather complex bit of regulatory arbitrage that I don’t fully understand myself. The facts here remain very murky, and I have no idea of the carriers are legally entitled to block these calls. (although my gut feeling based on my very surface understanding of the applicable law and the available facts is a qualified no — How’s that for legal caveats and wishy-washitude!) But if you’d like my speculaton on what I think is going on here, and why it’s likely to go on, read below….

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How The Conservative/Big Business Alliance Bankrupted Air America

Few things raised joyfull cackles among Republicans in the waning days of 2006. Many, however regarded the bankruptcy of Air America as a bright spot in an otherwise dismal fall. Talk radio, it appeared, remained part of the conservative “heartland” where such liberal voices as Al Franken meet a resounding silence.

However, as reported by the New York Times, the story may have a lot more to it then a tale of silly liberals who can’t run a business and have nothing interesting to say. It appears that 90 major national advertisers engaged in a boycott of Air America programming, to the extent that they wanted their advertising stripped out of syndicated material from other sources (here, ABC Radio Network). The interesting question, of course, is why would supposedly dissinterested companies with no motivation to interefere with domestic politics want to drive Air America out of business?

Hahahahaha…..I love it when I ask silly rhetorical questions like that. For a further specualtion on what apparently went on and why I think the new, Democratic Congress might want to do a little investigatin’ into the Case of Secret Boycott, see below….

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Outsourcing Big Brother

I gave this speech last July at the ACLU Biennial Conference in New Orleans. At the time, the news that major telcos and search engine companies were cooperating with the government by providing all kinds of personal infomration had not yet hit the press. I was just applying logic.

It seems useful to me to publish here as a reminder that the recent headlines are not an aberration or the work of a few evil or gready or misguided men. It is the inevitable result of a system that concentrates power and information in the hands of a few large coorprations with every interest keep those in government happy.

We don’t ask chain saws to distinguish between human beings and trees. They are inanimate tools. If you turn it on, it cuts through things. If you want to make it safer, you need to put on safety locks and other devices, or someone is likely to cut his or her own leg off by accident some day.

Similarly, it is ridiculous to depend on corporations to defend private information. They are designed to maximize revenue for shareholders. This does not make them good or bad, greedy or virtuous. It makes the corporation a tool. If we, as citizens of democracies, care about our civil liberties, then we need to install some safeties.

Stay tuned . . .

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