Chairwoman Clyburn Shows How It’s Done — Doing The Job On Prison Phone Rate Reform

Today was an extremely emotional meeting at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). After ten years of fighting, the FCC resolved the Petition filed by Martha Wright and concluded that the rates charged for prisoners to make and receive phone calls are “unjust and unreasonable” and therefore violate Section 201 of the Communications Act. The FCC imposed interim rates and issued a further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to ensure that rates going forward are based on actual cost to provide service, not jacked up outrageously because prisoners and their families have no choice. Importantly, the FCC ruled that the “commissions” (aka kickbacks) paid to jails for the right to exploit the helpless and profit from the misery of their families are not a “cost” that can be recovered. (FCC press release here.)


As you can tell from the above, I feel rather strongly about this. I have written before that I regard this as a case where the words of Isaiah 1:17 and Zachariah 7:10 apply. I also find it of great significance that this is Shabbas Shoftim, the Sabbath on which we read the portion of the book of Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 (called “Shoftim,’ judges, because it begins with “Judges and officers shall you give yourselves in all your gates that the Lord shall give unto to dwell in, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement.”) Specifically, Verse 16:20 enjoins the people “Justice, Justice shalt though pursue! ”


It has been a privilege to support the efforts and advocacy of so many of my friends. I dare not begin to list, because I would invariably leave someone out. The level of organization work in the field, meshing with advocacy efforts at the FCC and on the Hill, has been astounding.  For years, this proceeding went in fits and starts, constantly delayed, because who cares about the incarcerated and their families? Out of sight, ignored, and generally regarded with suspicion. So their cause was neglected and ignored — until then-Commissioner Clyburn became a champion for it in the FCC and breathed new life into our efforts.


Today, Chairwoman Clyburn gave justice. Justice to the Wright Petitioners, and to every family trying desperately to maintain basic contact with incarcerated loved ones. The promise of the Rule of Law is that the benefit of law applies to ALL. The promise of Section 201 of the Communications Act for 75 years has been that everyone is entitled to just and reasonable rates, no matter who you are or where you are. Section 1 of the Act promises to secure the benefit of the Act to “all Americans.

Today the FCC affirmed that all Americans means ALL Americans. Even the most powerless, even those being punished for crimes, are still people protected by the rule of law. Their families are still people, entitled to depend upon the rule of law to protect them from the cruel choice of talking to their father, son, granddaughter or paying for basic necessities because a phone call that normally costs pennies costs the families of prisoners more than $15 for a few minutes.

Today, the FCC, under the leadership of Chairwoman Clyburn, stood up and did its job. it found exhorbitant prison phone rates unjust and unreasonable, mandated an interim cap, and issued a notice of further rulemaking to ensure that future rates are cost-based.

To quote from scripture one last time. “It is from the Lord, and it is wondrous in our eyes. Behold the Day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and make merry!” (Psalms 118)

Finally, this is a reminder of what can happen when people in power have the courage to do their job. Govornment and regulation CAN protect the helpless. People demanding justice CAN make a difference. A “government bureaucrat” like Chairwoman Clyburn CAN be a champion for justice for the oppressed and it DOES matter.

How much greater the shame, then, to those in government who refuse to act when needed? Or those who cynically refuse to believe anything we common folk do can make a difference?

To you handwringers, and you shruggers of shoulders, I tell you this: the problem is not with “the system.” The problem is YOU.

Stay tuned . . . .

Is Sauce for the .Halal Goose Sauce for the .Kosher Gander At The ICANN Meeting In Durban?

A rather peculiar circumstance has come to my attention over the new generic top level domain (gTLD) process currently chugging along at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). As is so often the case with such things, it is at the same time both trivial and highly illustrative of the problem of dealing with a global medium where symbols have semantic meaning as well as functionality.


It also highlights the bind for the U.S. Government. Other governments are free to weigh in on behalf of various orgs and groups that petition them for help, if those governments so choose. The U.S., because if its relationship with ICANN, faces serious political problems if it weighs in with regard to TLD policy. This does not preclude the U.S. from acting if it wants (as folks who remember the .XXX controversy will recall). Nevertheless, for the U.S. to preserve the integrity of the process and avoid accusations of meddling, it needs to tread very cautiously before wading in on behalf of any specific TLD or objection.


All of which brings us to the current case. It involves the treatment of two proposed gTLDs, “.kosher” and “.halal.” They have similar meanings to their respective communities, and similar concerns arise from allowing their use. We can certainly say to both communities “sorry, but nothing requires you to respect the designation of the gTLD manager, so just learn to live with it.” Alternatively, we might say “these TLDs raise some questions that impact these communities disproportionately, lets deal with them differently than from regular applications.” But it would be hard to justify treating the terms differently from a principled standpoint. the objections to one apply equally to the other — or not.


There is, however, a rather important political difference: there are about ten to twenty times more people in the world who (potentially)  care about .halal than care about .kosher.  in fact, there are probably more people in the city of Cairo who would care if .halal were held by a Shia rather than a Sunni than there are people in the world who care if .kosher is held by someone who holds by chalav yisroel or not. (The vast majority of the world, of course, does not even know what the last sentence even means.)


Also, as discussed below, while certain governments have voiced objections in the ICANN Government Advisory Committee (GAC) have voiced objections to the .halal TLD, no one has for .kosher. (Israel does not participate in the GAC, for those who jumped to the next logical question.) This has prompted the kosher organizations objecting to the .kosher TLD application to send letters to Commerce Secretary Pritzker, as well as ICANN Chair Fadi Chehade asking for reassurance that .kosher and .halal will be treated the same. While there is no indication that they won’t, we Jews do not take equal treatment for granted (it’s a history thing, got an hour for me to explain it? No? So trust me on this . . .) As noted above, this potentially puts the U.S. in something of a bind.


Which brings me to the peculiar story of .kosher and the question of whether it will or will not be treated like .halal. Because whatever the actual outcome, it would be nice to think that the two communities will be treated with equal fairness regardless of size or political clout. I mean, no one really expects it, but it would be nice.


More below . . . .

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Briefly on Bitcoin — There Is Nothing New Under The Sun.

After lurking around for some years, Bitcoin has become quite the buzz. For those fortunate enough to have avoided Bitcoin mania to date, Bitcoin is a digital currency, best explained by Stephen Colbert. It has certain qualities that make it attractive to some people. Specifically, it is not associated with any government, and the algorithm that generates Bitcoin creates a preprogrammed number that cannot be increased faster than they can be “mined.”

Bitcoin appears to have reached the tipping point where enough people treat it as a currency to raise some questions about its future as a currency rather than a fad. In addition to online trading, we now have what might be the first Bitcoin exchange floor in meatspace.  An increasing number of people and businesses are willing to take Bitcoin as payment for transactions. Needless to say, this has generated great excitement among some and yawns among others. Some fret that Bitcoin has become a new way for money launderers, drug dealers, and other unsavory characters to engage in illegal transactions untraceably. Others celebrate Bitcoin as the realization of the Libertarian dream of divorcing money from government.

I fall into the yawn category. Back in 2006, we briefly had a similar buzz around the artificial currencies used in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORGs). Second Life was going to replace real life, news organizations were setting up “Second Life Bureaus,” and Congress actually held hearings on whether to find some way to tax the transactions in imaginary worlds. In a post I wrote back then called “Keep Azeroth Tax Free,”  I observed that existing tax law already did the job quite nicely. Imaginary currencies and transactions that stayed within the game and had no impact on the real world stayed imaginary. Transactions impacting the real world, such as selling game-based artifacts for cash or converting game currency to traditional government-backed currency, were already captured by existing regulations.

The U.S. Treasury has now conducted a similar analysis for Bitcoin, and come to the same conclusion. Addressing laws that regulate money transfer service, the Treasury  explained in this advisory memo that existing law already addresses virtual currencies. If the transfer is convertible into real money or other value, then it is a money transfer. If the exchange is to facilitate a “bona fide sale” (e.g., I exchange Bitcoin for real goods or services), then it is a sale and not a money transfer. If all it does is swap virtual currencies, no one cares.

In other words, virtual currency does not create an exciting new loophole to engage in illegal transactions or escape taxes — which should be the limit of what policy cares about. To the extent Bitcoin may teach folks that money is simply a medium of exchange and that there is nothing magic about, say, gold or other precious metals — well and good. To the extent Bitcoin crashes and takes down unwary investors — sucks to be them. For all that Bitcoin may create excitement in a subset of the tech set, it is fairly boring from a policy perspective. Hopefully it will stay that way.

Stay tuned . . .

Announcing the “What Do I Have To Say That’s So Important Everyone Want To Hear It” Speaking Tour!

I have a fairly busy travel schedule (for me at least) over the next month. When I explained to my Mom why I needed to bug out immediately after Passover, my Mom said: “Wow, what do you have to say that’s so important that everyone wants to hear it?” Which she meant a lot better than it sounds. But it did give me a name for my speaking tour over the next few weeks. If you are going to be at any of these events, or if there is something in particular you think I ought to see or do while out there, let me know. And, of course, I hope I will see you all there.


Harold Feld’s “What Do I Have To Say That’s So Important Everyone Wants To Hear It?” Tour

March 13-14 California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) Broadband Consortia Summit and California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) Workshop, Sacramento CA

I’ll be doing a keynote Thursday morning on “How to get people in DC to PAY THE #$@! ATTENTION TO STUFF GOING ON OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY/How to engage effectively on Federal policy issues.


April 1-5 WISPAmerica 2013 , Covington KY (aka Cincinnati South)

America’s premier WISP event/tradeshow, put on by the Wireless ISP Association. I’ll be doing a lunch Keynote Thursday April 4 with Steve Coran to discuss What Up In DC on spectrum ‘n stuff.

April 5-7 National Conference For Media Reform (NCMR), Denver CO

From the premier WISP event to the premier Media Reform event. NCMR is put on by Free Press. I will be speaking on a panel at 10 a.m. Friday morning April 5 on “What’s Next For Internet Policy?” (Spoiler alert! I will probably talk about PSTN Transition and spectrum.)

If I can accumulate enough speaking engagements, I will do some tour t-shirts.

Stay tuned . . .

Here at Freedom-2-Connect 2013

For the next two days, I will be hanging out at Freedom-2-Connect (F2C), a neat policy conference at the American Film Institute in Downtown Silver Spring (near the Silver Spring metro). It’s a fun conference designed to bring together policy folks (like me) with people outside D.C. who actually live in the real world and do stuff. If you can, stop by. I’ll try to tweet or blog stuff, but with everything going on not sure I can.

So come by if you can.


Stay tuned . . . .

The Day The Public Interest Died: Media Access Project Shuts Its Doors After 40 Years of Public Service

Outside of our small world of telecom wonkery, few will notice that my old employer, The Media Access Project, announced that it will cease operations on May 1. After 40 years of fighting to protect the public interest, including playing a pivotal role in stoping the deregulation of media ownership rules in 2003 and training a generation of public interest advocates, MAP ran out of money. In fact, according to the email, it will need to hold a fundraiser to retire its debt.

I know I should take this opportunity to eulogize MAP as an institution and sing the praises of its leader for the past 35 or so years, Andrew Jay Schwartzman. But I need to vent first. All you Liberals and Progressives with Serious Money who piss and moan about how the Koch Brothers and other conservatives with money have transformed this country by funding all kinds of conservative advocacy groups and think tanks — shut up. I was at MAP for 9 years and it was incredibly, painfully difficult to get people to understand why having a law firm in DC to advocate for the right policy at the Federal Communications Commission or bring cases challenging these arcane policy issues like how many television stations can one company own or whether we should allow Comcast to block BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer applications mattered. Many potential funders were too pure to fund anything that looked too much like inside the Beltway advocacy.

If you don’t fund progressive advocacy, it dies. If you are too pure to fight inside the Beltway, you lose. You cede the battlefield to folks who care a lot less about being chaste and pure and above the fray and who care a lot more about persuading policymakers and the country to adopt their vision of what’s right. So either pony up with the cash or get the policy you deserve. But please do not bitch about how awful it is that people with a vison for America you find revolting are willing to spend “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors” succeed while you prattle on about not wanting to “create dependencies” and how advocates need to find “sustainable models for funding” other than relying on funders — while simultaneously not compromising themselves by taking corporate money.

OK, enough ranting.  Some personal reminiscences and appreciations below . . . .


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Here In Boston for National Conference on Media Reform

Once again, I am out at Free Press’ amazing and movement changing National Conference on Media Reform (hashtag #NCMR11). You can check out the program here. For those interested, I am on a panel on spectrum (what else) on Friday at 9 a.m., and a panel on Phone Justice (where I will talk about USF, among other things) on Saturday at 9 a.m. (how did I get tagged as a ‘morning person’?) In addition, check out the Public Knowledge table for info on what my employer is doing and our projects (in the intellectual property area as well as in the media/telecom area).

For those who can’t make it, I will try to blog from time to time. I’ll also be tweeting from harold.feld.

But hopefully, I’ll see a lot of you there.
Stay tuned . . . .

Why Australia Is Building A National Broadband Network And the U.S. Can’t Fund BTOP Oversight

So the Aussie’s are spending $35billion (US) to build a national broadband network (creatively named the NBN). Meanwhile, in the United States, not only did we cut $300 million from BTOP’s grant program, but it is unclear that Congress will even fund the necessary oversight of the program to ensure that stuff funded gets built. As for future funding for actual grants — ha!

There is a reason such projects now happen in other countries, where once they happened here in the U.S.

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My Travel Schedule For The Next Two Weeks

I haven’t had a lot of time to post a lot lately, which actually bums me out a great deal. It’s been an insane time here in telecom land, for all that we seem to be running in place. Eventually, I will get to blog about things like the Comments we filed in the FCC’s Third Way Proceeding, and the 40–gajillion things going on in spectrum (NONE of which are the White Spaces Proceeding. Damn! When is unlicensed gonna actually see a little love?) Meantime, however, I am doing a bunch of travel an speaking appearances in the next two weeks, and would love to see anyone whose schedule coincides with mine.

On Monday, I am flying out to Sacramento for two-days at the Summer Committee Meetings of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.  I will be speaking on a panel about the National Broadband Plan at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 20 The next morning, I’m going head-to-head with Ray Gifford of PFF about the virtues (or lack thereof) of the FCC’s “Third Way” Proceeding. While summer in Sacramento with a hotel full of regulators and policy wonks is probably not most people’s idea of a fun time, I hope that those who do come and who read this blog will look me up and say “hi,” as well as show up to cheer me on at the panels (or cheer Ray on, if you you are so inclined).

After NARUC, I am proceeding on to Netroots Nation, where I will be preaching the Progressive Telecom gospel (and why other progressives should care when there are sooooo many other issues demanding attention.) I’m not on any panels, but I am definitely planning to attend the one on Protecting Rights In The Digital Realm on Thursday, July 22, at 10:30 a.m.  A bunch of folks are also organizing an informal social event around Net Neutrality and Title II, details as soon as I have them.

Again, I’d love to hear from anyone who reads this blog who will be there. I’ll be there from Wed. night to Friday morning, so hopefully I’ll see some of you there.

Finally, July 29 I will be going to SuperNova — Kevin Werbach’s amazing conference on future trends. I’ll be speaking with Rick Whitt and Rebecca Arbogast on “The Broadband Challenge,” at 1 p.m. July 29. That one is in Philly, so at least it does not require changes of time zone.

I expect to be tweeting these events (assuming my phone holds out). You can follow me on Twitter at haroldfeld. Or on Facebook . Hopefully, I will also be able to get some decent substantive postings here, on the PK Policy Blog, on HuffPo, and on TMCNet (for someone with no time to blog, I have a lot of places I’m not blogging).

Stay tuned . . . .