It's Not Just News Corp: Why Telecommunications Companies in the US May Be Spying on You Every Day

When Guardian reporter, Nick Davies, broke the story that Rupert Murdoch's News of the World had been hacking British citizens' voicemail messages, including those of a murdered teenager, there was a public outcry. Unfortunately, this is the tip of a glacial iceberg that has the potential to bring down a lot more than the News of the World.


Last year, without due public debate and input, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Justice Department approved a merger between Comcast and NBC Universal that gave the Internet cable giant control over the programming of NBC news.  At the same time, pursuant to the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, Comcast as well as all other telecommunication companies are required to cooperate with the Federal government in providing the facility for government to search through all electronic communications sent down their pipes.

So presently, the government, with the help of Comcast and other telecommunication companies, can hack everyone's phone and email conversations.   Here also lies a new 21st century media model:  a telecom company that owns and operates the infrastructure for the digital transmission of news and information; simultaneously owns the newsroom; and uses it infrastructure to assist the government in mass, warrantless surveillance of all American citizens.

The News of the World spied on a relatively few number of individuals for the purpose of getting a story.  Comcast routinely spies on millions of people on behalf of government.  The official purpose of such spying is to uncover terrorist plots; however, racial profiling can be used to conduct searches; mass sweeps are warrantless; and adequate judicial oversight of screening criteria and procedures is lacking.  Worse still, in this brave new world, the media entrusted to keep an eye on government abuses of power is now part of this overreaching power structure.

Further, given the symbiotic relationship between media and government, there is nothing to stop Comcast from examining the email messages and phone conversations of rival news organizations, political opponents, and other persons and organizations of interest in an effort to "adjust" its news coverage and massage its bottom line.  In fact, Comcast has maintained that it has a broad right to monitor its customers' email messages and Internet activities.  It has an established history of having spied on its customers as well as preventing them from sharing files.  Further, it is presently lobbying Congress to do away with net neutrality, the principle that assures that everyone, not just giant media companies, has an equal voice on the Internet.  And, in 2008, Chris Albrecht, presently CEO of Starz TV, reported that Comcast's senior VP told him that Comcast was experimenting with installing cameras into its cable boxes thereby allowing it to see into people's living rooms and identify viewers.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department now has good reason to look the other way should Comcast engage in such eavesdropping activities since it is beholden to Comcast as Comcast is to government.   As for the FCC, shortly after voting to approve the Comcast/NBC Universal merger, Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker took a job working for Comcast as a lobbyist.  This latter fact may be more disturbing than the fact that British Prime Minister Cameron employed former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief.    Yet, the British Prime Minister had his head on the proverbial chopping block for so doing, while the curious revolving door at the FCC received virtually no press whatsoever.  Small wonder, of course, that Comcast/NBC didn't cover the story.

Recently the progressive political talk show host, Cenk Uygur, was fired from MSNBC because he was not towing the establishment line.  According to Uygur, MSNBC head Phil Griffin told him, "I was just in Washington and people in Washington tell me that they're concerned about your tone ... I'd love to be an outsider, outsiders are cool, but we're not outsiders; we're insiders; we are the establishment."

The meanings of the terms "insider"  and "outsider" in this context are subject to interpretation, but there is one thing that is clear.  The head of MSNBC thinks that the newsroom must work cooperatively with government.  To be on the inside as opposed to the outside means to be a partner, not an adversary.   In contrast, to be an outsider is not to be "in" with government.  Outsiders are therefore able to maintain distance and avoid conflict of interest.  Insiders have a conflict of interest in covering the news while outsiders don't.  As the Fourth Estate, the press cannot be an insider and still do its job.

As an insider, Comcast has a conflict of interest in covering the activities of government.  This conflict also includes its interest in maintaining access to government spokespersons, the loosening of media ownership rules by the FCC, tax incentives, and the awarding of military defense contracts (all of which impair corporate media's ability to objectively report government malfeasance).

Comcast/MSNBC is now also poised to hire Al Sharpton as Uygur's replacement.  Sharpton was in fact a lobbyist for the Comcast/MSNBC merger, so the inbreeding and disintegration of an independent media couldn't be more obvious than in the case of Comcast.

But the idea of a giant telecom corporation such as Comcast, which simultaneously privately owns and controls the digital information highway and is also a major news provider, is a brand new idea. Couple this with the fact that this information gatekeeper is legally mandated to assist government in conducting mass, warrantless surveillance of all American citizens and the possibilities for violating citizens' civil liberty are incredibly high.  Want to know if the corporate media/government is targeting progressive "outsiders"? Don't ask Comcast because this "insider" is doing the tracking

Presently, the corporate media landscape is one in which giant companies motivated by an insatiable thirst for money and power attempt to establish dominance.  In this dog-eat-dog corporate world of mergers and acquisitions, both successful and failed, things rarely happen by accident.

It is therefore curious that the investigation into the News of the World's illicit eavesdropping activities, which had begun back in 2005, came to a head in 2011 just before Murdoch was about to seal a deal to purchase British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB).  This company is the UK's largest pay-per view satellite company and a major broadband Internet provider.

So what would have happened if Murdoch's parent company, News Corp, got hold of BSkyB?  It would have made News Corp the primary pay-per-view satellite company in Britain.  It would also have made News Corp an even more formidable pay-per-view and broadband competitor to Comcast.

It is worth noting in this regard that Comcast also has a longstanding history of interest in the UK media market, including having made in 2007 a bid to purchase Virgin Media, which owns and operates UK's only national cable network.  Add to this that, in 2010, BSkyB acquired Virgin Media TV, which included VMTV's entire channel portfolio, airtime advertising, and long-term rights to use of its cable TV network for Sky's own basic subscription channels.  And add to this that Virgin Media has just introduced the world's fastest cable broadband for the UK, which could only have made the potential acquisition of BSkyB by Murdoch an even greater threat to Comcast.

So, the Murdoch scandal, which nixed the deal for him, was good for Comcast, bad for News Corp. Did Comcast help to stir the pot?

A likely first response to this question is that it was simply the luck of the draw, nothing more. But the point is that, we cannot put such probative questions past doubt when it comes to companies like Comcast and News Corp.  These companies do not care about justice; they care about maximizing their bottom lines; and justice and maximization of profit are not necessarily the same.

Comcast is now the rising star among these behemoth monsters.  The Comcast/NBC Universal merger has given this company incredible power to control both conduit and content of news and information in the digital age. Its close ties to government have eviscerated the purpose of the media as Fourth Estate.  And its power to spy on all of us under the banner of "national security" has made it a formidable threat to the free world.

The corporate media has kept these facts well hidden.  Meanwhile, the Murdoch scandal is all over the news, and Comcast is none too happy to cover it.

News Corp surely deserves the bad press it is presently receiving; but there is also underway an insidious assault on our basic civil liberties that isn't even being investigated.  Sadly, the media entrusted to launch the investigation is part of the cover up.

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