Timothy Karr

We must de-Trump the airwaves to protect public health

As COVID-19 spreads from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood and house to house, misinformation is being spread over the public airwaves by syndicated right-wing personalities and the media conglomerates that air their programs.

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Can anyone stop Facebook from poisoning Democracy?

Freedom (to lie) isn’t free. For the campaign to re-elect Donald Trump it costs $1.5 million a week. And that’s just last week’s tab.

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FCC Leader Doing Trump's Dirty Work Against a Free Press

Journalists in Manila had very little time to cover Monday’s meeting between President Donald Trump and his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte. But it was enough to witness one aspect of the budding bromance between these two world leaders.

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How to Tell If Your Member of Congress Is a Crony Capitalist

Last Tuesday, Rep. Eric Cantor learned the hard way that crony capitalism comes at a political cost. In a decisive 10-point upset, Cantor's Republican primary opponent David Brat defeated the Virginia congressman after charging that he was "trying to buy this election with corporate cash."

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The End of Free Internet as We Know It?

This piece originally appeared on Save the Internet, and is reprinted here courtesy of Free Press' Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license.

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Verizon's Outrageous Plot to Crack Up the Internet

Verizon has big plans for the Internet. And if that doesn't worry you, it should.

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Is Obama Like Richard Nixon?

Is Barack Obama like Richard Nixon?

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Why Millions of American Children Will Not Have the Tools They Need to Succeed

The Internet is no longer a child. It was conceived by the defense department in the 1960s, nurtured by academics and engineers in the 1970s and adopted by billions of people in the years since.

Susan Crawford’s new book, Captive Audience, details a host of challenges for the Internet and its users as this network enters middle age.

Many of its recent growing pains come at the hands of network providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon that sell access to the global network.

While these companies don’t own the Internet, they often act like they do, and are pursuing polices to wrest control over Internet content away from its many users.

Crawford's basic argument is this: Internet users can no longer take the network for granted, or stand by as monopoly-minded companies encroach on our rights.

“Truly high-speed wired Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago,” Crawford writes, “but a limited number of Americans have access to it, many can’t afford it, and the country has handed control of it over to Comcast and a few other companies.”

Captive Audience illustrates how federal bureaucrats have allowed phone and cable companies to dictate Internet policy. FCC regulators who roll over for these powerful incumbents are often rewarded at the end of their tenure with plum jobs at these same companies.

The result is a corrupted system that puts profits before the public interest. For proof, just look at the international rankings for broadband access and services, which show the United States falling far behind other developed nations. The failures of American broadband are directly linked to policies that favored a handful of network providers.

The tendency among the many PR operatives who work for the likes of Comcast and AT&T (and who have been especially active this month denouncing Crawford’s book on Amazon and in other media) is to fault excessive regulations: If only we unchained the invisible hand of the marketplace, they argue, then the American Internet would be numero uno.

The truth, as Crawford points out, lies somewhere else. Lobbying powerhouses like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have flexed their financial muscle in Washington to ensure that the billion-dollar spoils of the Internet access business are shared among only a few corporations. The policies resulting from this largesse have destroyed a once-competitive marketplace.

Most Americans buying home Internet access today have just two choices: the local monopoly phone company or the local monopoly cable provider. AT&T and Verizon dominate the wireless Internet access market and also control the critical infrastructure that smaller and increasingly irrelevant competitors like Sprint need.

We have no choice but to do business with these dominant companies. If we think they're ripping us off, we can't vote with our feet — there's nowhere else to go.

This concentration of power among a handful of digital gatekeepers has very real — and very negative — consequences for the rest of us.

According to Crawford and other public advocates, including Free Press, cable and telecom giants are concerned only with maximizing their shareholders’ profits.  As a result Americans pay far more for far less than people in developed countries whose policymakers have promoted competition over dividends. Crawford rightly notes that it's time our leaders in Washington, D.C., did the same.

Market choice drives down prices while increasing options for consumers. The absence of affordable options is the main reason nearly 20 million people in the U.S., mostly in rural and low-income communities, lack access to affordable broadband service.

To remedy this, we need to confront the market power of phone and cable companies and open the way for alternatives, like the municipal broadband networks communities are trying to build across the country.

The good news is that in 2012 Internet users rose up en masse to protect their rights and keep the network open. When the entertainment industry tried to push an Internet-crippling copyright bill, more than 15 million people urged Congress to stop it. When governments used a U.N. telecommunications conference last December to propose new powers to censor the Web, Internet freedom advocates worldwide joined forces to scuttle the plan.

Politicians need to follow the lead of the netroots and people like Crawford — to stop listening only to corporate lobbyists and start representing Internet users.

Crawford says there will be dire consequences if we continue on the current path: Millions of children will not have the tools they need to succeed in the modern world. Tomorrow's innovative companies will set their roots in foreign soil, in countries whose leaders recognize the importance of public interest-driven Internet policies.

As our Internet grows up, we need to look to the future and figure out ways to make it better. There is a role for activism and advocacy, but also one for our government to promote the public interest by ensuring that every American can participate in a free and fair communications market.

Crawford's book is our call to action.

Press Freedom Declines in the US With Arrests of Journalists at Protests--and More Will Likely Come

World Press Freedom Day came and went earlier this month. While it’s important to take a day to recognize our right to speak and share information, threats to our First Amendment freedoms happen all the time, everywhere. 

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Lies, Liars, and SuperPACs: Political Advertising Deceives Voters, and Reporters Aren't Fighting Back

 Dirty politics is a growth industry with few happy customers. In the run-up to Super Tuesday, television viewers nationwide had to endure an onslaught of negative and deceptive political ads.

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Time for Murdoch to Face Investigation in the United States

 A legal net is closing around media mogul Rupert Murdoch. On Monday a top investigator in London reported that senior News Corp. employees authorized hundreds of bribes to police officers and other government officials.

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Will Further Revelations from the Murdoch Scandal Lead to Justice Dept. Investigations?

The media scandal that's snared Rupert Murdoch and other News Corporation executives in Great Britain has crossed the Atlantic, and could cause more homegrown trouble for the U.S.-based media company.

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5 Despicable Things About AT&T's Mega-Merger With T-Mobile

AT&T's $39 billion takeover of T-Mobile USA is yet another in the series of large telecom mergers that over time are slowly reassembling the Ma Bell monopoly of old.

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How Western Corporations Have Been Helping Tyrants Suppress Rebellions in the Arab World

Springtime in the Arab world is looking bleaker now that despots in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen and reactionary elements in Egypt have gained an upper hand against the pro-democracy protesters who have inspired the world. And the Internet, hailed sometimes in excess as a potent tool for these movements, has itself come under increasing fire from these and other autocratic states seeking to crush popular dissent.

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Netroots Tell Obama and the FCC -- You Can't Just Let the Telecoms Steal the Internet

Leaders of the Internet's grassroots community have made it clear that inaction by the FCC is not an option when it comes to keeping the Web open and accessible.

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Unmasking Astroturf: Smear Campaigns Threaten Health Care and Net Neutrality

If you haven't been paying attention to the rise of Astroturf in Washington, in the media and at your local town hall meeting, now's the time to tune in.

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Fox News Continues to Hallucinate About a Socialist/Fascist Menace -- And It's Causing Real Damage

Last week, conservative factions within the Republican National Committee circulated an e-mail urging party leadership to brand as a "socialist" anyone who advocates even moderate changes to the government's role in society.

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Telecoms' Holy Grail of Internet Profits Is the Next Frontier in Corporate Spying

You would think that AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner execs had turned a page and formed a new front in defense of your online rights.

Late last month, they lined up before the Senate to mouth principles that would, in their words, ensure that Internet "consumers have ultimate control over the use of their personal information and guards against privacy abuses."

The issue spins around the use of a content-filtering technology called "deep packet inspection" or DPI, which allows network managers to inspect, track and target user Internet content as our information passes along the Information Superhighway.

Headlines following the Senate hearing struck a reassuring note, declaring these companies were taking a stand with consumers and "keeping their distance" from DPI.

But we did our own packet inspection and found that the telcos' actions often speak louder than their testimony.

Breaking and Entering

DPI forms the cornerstone of plans to police the Internet and profit from Web content. Using DPI companies like AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner would be able to decide whether a packet can pass or be routed to a different lane on the Superhighway. It lets them pry open user's trunks, erect new tolls and sell off or bar privileged access based on what they find inside.

"Simply put, Deep Packet Inspection is the Internet equivalent of the postal service reading your mail," Public Knowledge founder Gigi Sohn said during the September hearing. "They might be reading your mail for any number of reasons, but the fact remains that your mail is being read by the very people whose job it is to deliver it."

In January, AT&T lobbyist James Cicconi said the company was testing Web technology so that it could scour user traffic.

The company's stated goal was to help the
copyright cops in the recording and motion picture industry stop illegal sharing of music and movies. (This is why these same companies have also formed a bulwark against Net Neutrality rules that would prevent such snooping.)

But once the technology is in place, AT&T can use it to inspect so much more.

Internet Troopers

DPI is already being used by other governments, including China and Burma to prevent politically sensitive information from making it in or out of their countries.

AT&T could easily tweak this same technology to let Ma Bell peer into all of your Internet use.

And if history is any guide, the communications giant is not to be trusted with our most privileged information. Americans have already been subjected to the National Security Agency's domestic spying program courtesy of AT&T.

DoubleTauke

Verizon is similarly flirting with DPI -- and has a similar history of abuse.

"To be clear, Verizon has not used -- and does not use -- packet inspection technology to target advertising to customers," Thomas J. Tauke, Verizon's top lobbyist told worried senators during the September hearing. "And we have not deployed the technology in our wireline network for such purposes."

But note Tauke's careful parsing of terms: DPI is not being used by Verizon to target advertising, but the Verizon exec left the field open for other applications. "Packet inspection can be a helpful engineering tool to manage network traffic and enable online services and applications consumers may wish to use," he said.

Indeed, Verizon has reportedly been seeking technology vendors who can help it fulfill these gatekeeper ambitions.

But you won't hear that from the company's executives themselves.

Telcos Mum on Plans to Filter

According to an April report in the Washington Post, Verizon, AT&T and other providers were reluctant to reveal the extent of their Web filtering, but the companies that sell the technology -- companies such as NebuAd, Phorm and Front Porch -- were more forthcoming.

Front Porch collects detailed Web-use data from more than 100,000 U.S. customers through their service providers. At the time, NebuAd had agreements with providers covering 10 percent of U.S. broadband customers, chief executive Bob Dykes told the Post.

But what's good for their business is clearly bad for the public's Internet.

With billions of dollars at stake in controlling your online experience, it's little wonder that these companies see DPI as the Holy Grail of Internet profits.

It's also no surprise that they're having troubles telling us the whole truth about their plans to use it.

Ten Worst Telecom Moments of 2007


A few years ago, President Bush pledged that every corner of America would have high-speed Internet by 2007. Well, the year is drawing to a close, and millions of Americans still do not have access. The United States has dropped from fourth to 15th in the world in broadband penetration in the past five years -- a result of a telco stranglehold on both broadband markets and broadband policy that puts their profits before innovation and the public good.



But that's not all. Even when Americans can get online, an open and neutral Internet is not guaranteed. In the past year, phone and cable companies have been throttling the free flow of information on the Internet and cell phones -- giving us a harrowing glimpse of a world without Net Neutrality.



A review of the 10 Worst Telco Moments of 2007 (in no particular order):



1. White House Declares 'Mission Accomplished' for the Internet



"We have the most effective multiplatform broadband in the world," the Bush administration's top technologist, John Kneuer, told skeptical Web experts and the media in June, despite several international surveys that place the United States far behind countries in Asia and Europe.



Kneuer says the real problem is not bad policy, but faulty data in the surveys. While the Bush White House seemed over eager to declare broadband success, America's failing report card told a story of a larger systems breakdown. "Previous generations put a toaster in every home and a car in every driveway as signs of economic progress," Sen. John Kerry wrote in September. "To stay competitive, we should strive to do the same with nationwide broadband."



Let's hope our next president understands that ubiquitous broadband access needs to be more than a mirage.



2. Telcos Spy on Millions of Americans



For several years now, the nation's largest telecommunications companies have been spying on their own customers without a warrant. In the process, they delivered to the federal government the private records of millions of Americans. Their excuse -- national security in the face of a known terrorist threat -- holds little weight when one considers that they've been spying on us with the NSA well in advance of the September 11 attacks.



Now, they are pushing a bill -- "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" -- that would grant complicit phone companies retroactive amnesty from prosecution for violations of our civil liberties. While a few, brave senators have stood in the way of the bill and refused to let the telcos off the hook, the legislation still stands a good chance of getting through.



3. Comcast is Busted for Blocking BitTorrent



In October, an Associated Press investigation revealed that Comcast - technically a cableco - was secretly blocking peer-to-peer file sharing programs like BitTorrent and Gnutella. Comcast's blocking is a glaring violation of Net Neutrality.



BitTorrent is rapidly emerging as one of the most successful online platforms for the sharing of large files. Comcast has a natural incentive to keep customers watching movies and television shows through their system, not the Internet.. Despite the evidence, Comcast's David Cohen told Ars Technica that Comcast does not block access to file sharing applications and that their practice is just "content shaping." In response, SavetheInternet.com members filed a petition urging the FCC to stop Comcast from blocking Internet traffic and fine them for their violations.



And what can you do if you find out that you've been blocked by Comcast? Switch to AT&T or Verizon and suffer with slow DSL speeds and their own draconian terms of service. Free Press has sifted through the agreements of several Internet and cell phone providers and found similar language that reserves their right to cut off users on a whim.



4. AT&T and Verizon Censor Free Speech



In September, Verizon Wireless blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America's efforts to send mobile text messages to its members. After a New York Times expose, the phone company reversed its policy, claiming it was a glitch.



A month earlier, during the live Lollapalooza webcast of a Pearl Jam concert, AT&T muted lead singer Eddie Vedder just as he launched into a lyric criticizing President Bush. AT&T launched its own bungled PR response after a flurry of criticism. But both companies refused to change internal policies which allowed them to censor in the future.



Their apologies aren't cutting it anymore. Censorship by AT&T and Verizon is further proof that these corporate giants simply cannot be left at the controls of Internet content. These same providers handed customer phone records over to the NSA without a subpoena and are now strong-arming Congress for retroactive immunity (see No. 2). And they want us to trust them with the Internet?



5. Caught Red-Handed, Telcos Change Their Tune



For some time, phone and cable companies and their shills and lobbyists had been spinning Net Neutrality as a "solution in search of a problem." But 2007 brought us a series of violations of Internet freedom which brought the "problem" into vivid relief for millions.



Undaunted, the shills quickly changed their tune, admitting that indeed some mistakes were made, but the telcos were merely implementing "reasonable network management" (aka content discrimination) to bring us the Internet that we all love and cherish. The moral of this story: Follow what the telcos do, not just what they say.



6. Media Insiders Suffer Telco-Vision



Don't always believe the purveyors of conventional wisdom in Washington media. Some of these pundits are so steeped in their own "knowledge" that they get stuck spinning in place when faced with evidence to the contrary. This was the case for a chosen few who in 2007 hunkered down behind their laptops to write commentaries to convince the world that Net Neutrality was dead and gone. The issue is a "fading memory," one crowed. It "barely raises a yawn" said another.



Their view of the world, however, rarely extends beyond the Potomac, where the Net Neutrality issue was leading the news and being vigorously debated along the campaign trail. Indeed, Net Neutrality emerged as the No. 1 issue that thousands of visitors to TechPresident selected to be answered by all the presidential candidates. So the next time an insider tells you that Net Neutrality is dead, I advise you to check his pulse instead. Then point out the more than 1.5 million Americans who are taking action to protect the free and open Internet.



7. The iPhone Gets Shackled



The introduction of the iPhone over the summer highlighted both the promise and the problems of America's wireless marketplace. On the one hand, it demonstrated the promises of a truly mobile Internet. On the other hand, the iPhone raised serious questions about the fact that most every mobile phone consumer is locked into a long-term contracts, using a phone that has been "crippled" by carriers, with significant penalties for switching to a new provider.



The iPhone was shackled to AT&T. The reason? We have allowed carriers to exert almost complete gatekeeper control over all devices, services and content in the wireless sector -- a move that has left U.S. innovation generations behind other nations. Reviewing the state of the wireless market in America, New York Times blogger David Pogue called American carriers "calcified, conservative and way behind their European and Asian counterparts." Despite recent efforts to open devices, the lockdown of cell phones remains the dominant characteristic of most every user agreement in the country.



8. Bush's Justice Dept. Files Against Net Neutrality



In September, departing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales filed a brief with the Federal Communications Commission, urging the agency to oppose Net Neutrality. The DOJ stated that broadband companies like AT&T should be able to erect toll booths and filter traffic -- upending the even playing field that has made the Web an unrivaled engine of democratic discourse and new ideas.



The DOJ move once again proved the point: Powerful corporate and government gatekeepers are working together to dismantle Internet freedoms and impose their will upon the Web. By moving against Net Neutrality, Gonzales was merely pulling last-minute favors for friends in high places. Soon thereafter, Free Press submitted a FOIA request to shed light on the DOJ's recent hit job against Net Neutrality and uncover whether industry lobbyists or White House politics had a hand in this unusual action. We're still waiting for a response.



9. FCC's Rosy Broadband Report Wilts Under Scrutiny



In February, the FCC released its biannual report on the U.S. broadband market. On the surface, the numbers sounded good. High-speed Internet lines increased by 26 percent during the first half of 2006, and broadband was reportedly available in 99 percent of all U.S. ZIP codes. But the broadband reality is much darker. According to Free Press Research Director Derek Turner, the FCC used an "absurd standard" to measure broadband -- 200 kilobits per second. "That was barely fast enough to surf in 1999, but is far below what's needed to enjoy streaming video, VoIP, flash animation or other common Internet applications."



Indeed, speeds are much slower than what's available in the rest of the world. Half of all U.S. broadband connections are slower than 2.5 megabits per second -- yet in countries like Japan and South Korea, they're rolling out 100 megabit services. And there's no real competition. 98 percent of high-speed residential lines in America are provided by incumbent cable or telecom companies. Using ZIP codes alone vastly overstates the availability and competition for broadband services. While the FCC's data has been widely debunked, the telco lobby crowed that the FCC had proven beyond a doubt that the American broadband marketplace was a haven of free-market competition -- which leads us to our final "worst moment."



10. More Astroturf Sprouts Up, Speads Lies



Washington policymaking has spawned a cottage industry of phony front groups put in place by phone and cable companies eager to spread misinformation about anything that threatens their control over the network. Nowhere is this more evident than in their campaign to defeat open Internet initiatives.



Throughout the year, companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have funneled millions of dollars toward "Astroturf" front groups such as the disingenuously named NetCompetition.org, Hands Off the Internet and The Future Faster. For example, Hands Off the Internet -- which sounds like a citizens group to protect the Internet from gatekeepers -- is actually a telco-backed lobbying group that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on video PSAs and "grassrootsy" Web campaigns aimed at eliminating efforts to restore Net Neutrality protections and spread open access.



True to form, these front groups spent much of 2007 cranking out phony PR, mouthing telco taking points and casting doubt against any effort to ensure that the Internet is open, neutral and free of interference by gatekeepers. And these groups aren't going away soon. Expect to see them on our worst moments list at the end of 2008.



-- Co-authored by Lynn Erskine

Bush and the Phone Companies: Partners in Crime

Phone companies have opened a new front in their campaign against the free flow of information. This time they've found a powerful ally in the White House.

AT&T and Verizon have already shown their disdain for free speech and Net Neutrality, and their eagerness to let government spies lurk on our phone calls. Now, their lobbyists have teamed with President George Bush to strong arm Congress into granting full immunity for a disturbing array of illegal and unconstitutional acts.

A handful of legislators, though, are holding out against the pressure, which is no small feat given the extreme powers behind the amnesty grab.

Money, Politics and the Law

Both Verizon and AT&T spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign contributions, congressional junkets, Washington lawyers, lobbyists and PR campaigns.

Much of this political clout is now being focused on one issue: elevating phone companies above the law so they can invade our homes via phone lines, the Internet and other modern communications -- acting as the ultimate gatekeepers against the free flow of information.

Earlier this year they were caught handing over customer phone records to the National Security Agency (NSA). The phone companies first denied it and then started a quiet campaign with the White House to gain immunity from any lawsuits.

The campaign got a lot louder on Wednesday, when President Bush told reporters that he would veto a new FISA eavesdropping bill that doesn't grant retroactive immunity to the phone companies.

Thus far, about 40 active lawsuits name several telecommunications companies for alleged violations of wiretapping laws. Other suits are in the works, pending this legislation.

A Few Brave Congress People

Despite the intense pressure from lobbyists and the White House, Americans are telling Congress that they're fed up with the abuse.

On Wednesday, some of our representatives showed that they were listening. The House Judiciary Committee voted down an amendment to the FISA bill, which would have granted legal immunity to Verizon and AT&T for an as yet unspecified list of legal violations. (The White House and NSA have thus far refused to reveal to us just how far the phone company legal abuse has gone).

Democrats will bring the bills to the full House for passage next week. The Senate Intelligence Committee will be introducing its own bill. The House move against immunity should serve as a guide for their colleagues in Senate chambers. [See update below]

Telecommunication companies are among the most powerful political donors in the United States. They have also worked hand-in-hand with the Bush administration to whittle away our constitutional freedoms, all the while seeking special policy favors and a rubber stamp for a recent spate of mega-billion-dollar telco mergers.

Protecting Free Speech Everywhere: Democracy's Last Stand

Today's committee vote might be a hopeful sign that their political clout has its limits. But this fight is far from over. Bush is still threatening to veto any legislation that doesn't hold his telco friends above the law.

It begs the question: Why would someone stick out his neck so far to protect such bad actors?

Amnesty for AT&T and Verizon for illegally wiretapping Americans is a stunning example of the ways this White House sides with their corporate benefactors against the most fundamental democratic principles. The Bush administration would rather flout the laws for themselves and other friends in high places than protect the free speech and privacy of law abiding Americans.

Phone companies can't be trusted to act in good faith to protect the free flow of information. The White House can't be trusted to stand with ordinary Americans and the Constitution against its own special interests. Congress must step in to protect our rights to use phones, text messaging and the Internet with policies that keep the lines open, neutral and free of corporate and government gatekeepers.

The fight for these basic freedoms will be fought in Congress. It's time everyone got involved.

[UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald reports that the Senate version of the bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D - W. Va.) DOES contain full retroactive amnesty for the telcos. Greenwald points to Rockefeller's long history on the receiving end of phone company contributions as possible explanation]

Oppose Net Neutrality at your peril

Guest post from Tim Karr.

Opposing Net Neutrality has become a political third rail for candidates who seek elected office, according to a story today in the Washington Post.
Post writer Charles Babington praised SavetheInternet.com Coalition efforts to mobilize the netroots and other Internet activists around this issue.

The Christian Coalition's Michele Combs delivers one million petitions to Congress -- with MoveOn's Joan Blades and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)


Net Neutrality "was hardly a household term" before the spring of 2006, Babington writes. Yet, now, every major Democratic presidential candidate has endorsed it as have much of the new leadership in Congress.

Many on the other side of the aisle are coming around to the issue as well. A veteran political campaign consultant told Babington, "if you're not for net neutrality, then the blogs will kick your [ass]."

That this issue has grown to such prominence is a testament to our efforts, writes Babington:
"Last spring, the debate over net neutrality barely scratched the consciousness of Congress, let alone the general public, after a House subcommittee defeated an effort to add net-neutrality restrictions to a multi-faceted telecommunications bill. The 23 to 8 vote goaded more than 850 interest groups, many, but not all, politically left of center, to form a coalition called SavetheInternet.com."
Our coalition includes groups from across the political spectrum. Michele Combs of the Christian Coalition of America told the Post that Net Neutrality is a nonpartisan issue and that "the conservative side has not been educated on the issue."

Still, the Christian Coalition along with the Gun Owners of America have successfully rallied support from their membership calling Net Neutrality an issue for conservatives, libertarians, and other champions of free speech and the free market.

"As long as Congress is making the rules for a handful of major companies in providing the infrastructure, it has to make certain those companies give equal access to all comers," wrote Gun Owners Internet director Craig Fields. "That's the way it has been for the very lifetime of the free and open Internet we're all interested in maintaining."

MoveOn.org's Adam Green added that Net Neutrality should transcend political lines. "An issue like Net Neutrality, which directly taps into Internet issues. . . could have a special energy in the political season," he said. "Every Republican and Democrat who uses the Internet is threatened by corporations that want to control which Web sites people can access."

The Dem Congress Must Save the Internet

As much as anything, last Tuesday's vote was also a call for Congress to end "business as usual" and return to governing in the public interest. Nowhere is this need more glaring than in media policymaking.

In the past 10 years, telecommunications, broadcasting and cable companies have spent more than half a billion dollars on campaign contributions, political action committees and high-priced lobbyists to push through self interested policies. These regulations -- offering massive tax breaks, relaxed ownership rules, and unfettered control of the public airwaves -- all come at our expense.

On the issue of net neutrality alone these companies spent more than $100 million last year -- pushing Congress to remove the longstanding nondiscrimination rules that enabled the Internet to become the greatest vehicle for free speech and economic innovation. Instead of a truly free market that encourages entrepreneurship and creativity, they're seeking special regulations that serve only to pad their bottom line.

In the coming weeks, major communications companies and their high-spending lobbyists will do everything they can to re-assert their control over Washington policymaking -- painting issues like net neutrality as "unnecessary government regulations" and dismissing the groundswell of public support for this issue as the handiwork of a few "liberal groups."

What these large media corporations don't say is that they have been the nation's biggest beneficiaries of -- and lobbyists for -- media regulations, just as long as they're written in their favor. The debate over net neutrality pits the special interests of the few against a massive grassroots effort. At SavetheInternet.com, more than a million people signed the petition urging Congress to maintain the free and open Internet. Thousands of bloggers have linked to the site -- many of them posting homemade videos to counteract the expensive misinformation campaign launched by Astroturf groups like Hands Off the Internet and TV4U that are funded by phone and cable companies.

This grassroots campaign -- which isn't backed by any corporate money -- has lifted the crucial issue of net neutrality from obscurity, throwing a wrench in the phone and cable giants' plan to overhaul our telecommunications laws behind closed doors.

The November 7 election results were a great leap forward in our efforts to save the free and open Internet.

Reps. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Ed Markey, D-Mass. -- both strong supporters of net neutrality -- will most likely take command of telecommunications policy when their party reclaims majority power in the House in 2007. In the Senate, all pro-net neutrality incumbent senators won decisive victories in their states. They will be joined by newcomers Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Jim Webb, D-Va., and Amy Klobuchar D-Minn., who have also come out in support of net neutrality.

The major telecommunications bill pending in the Senate is a massive giveaway to the phone and cable companies, and should be blocked during the lame duck Congress. It's time to start from scratch in 2007, and the new Congress should treat the net neutrality debate as the first part of a broad public conversation about what the future of the Internet will look like. Whereas the phone companies had been confident that Congress would simply sign-off on industry-written legislation, today no member of Congress can vote with the telecom cartel without full public scrutiny.

The broad coalition that has formed to support net neutrality is encouraged that many of the new faces of leadership in both houses have already announced staunch support for the issue.

It's time others followed their lead in 2007, and we began working with the public to save the Internet.

The New Media Monopoly

The race is on to control the future of American media. Unfortunately, those vying for the prize are a limited cadre of corporations hostile to the public interest.

On one hand, there are the remnants of the 1984 breakup of Ma Bell -- four formerly Baby Bells that now dominate the multibillion-dollar marketplace for telecommunications. Over the past 10 years, these have rapidly morphed into massive corporations by swallowing up smaller competitors and positioning themselves atop the heap.

AT&T's announcement earlier this week that it plans to acquire BellSouth is a stunning development in the unrelenting shift toward fewer choices and bigger companies -- essentially stitching back together the monopoly that ruled telecommunications three decades ago.

The aim of AT&T's $67 billion merger is to assemble a new behemoth to dominate the "triple play" of modern communications: voice, video and data. In the near future, all new media -- telephone calls, radio, television or the web -- will travel via a broadband connection to your home. The corporations that control this network are racing to gobble up as many competitors as possible before consumers complete the new media shift.

Left behind, of course, is the American public. As large telecom companies merge and jockey for position with the cable industry over the most lucrative broadband markets, the communities at the edges have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 60 percent of households with incomes over $150,000 annually have broadband access, compared to just 10 percent of households with incomes below $25,000.

These corporations have done a lousy job rolling out their services to rural areas and low-income urban communities they've deemed unprofitable. As a result, America has fallen from third to 16th place in penetration of high-speed internet services per capita.

But even those who can afford to pay for connectivity are increasingly subject to limited choices at higher prices. According to a Free Press report late last year, the number of Americans who have only one or no choice of broadband provider is near 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the cost of broadband in other countries has dropped dramatically as speeds have increased. On a per megabit basis, U.S. consumers pay five to 25 times more than broadband users in France and Japan. Nations such as South Korea, Finland, and even Canada have much faster internet connections at a lower cost than what is available here.

Not only are Americans being offered limited choices at higher costs than other countries, the cable and telecom companies that control access to the "pipes" now want to control the content and services that are delivered to customers.

Consumer advocates and internet rights groups are especially concerned about AT&T chief executive Edward Whitacre's outspoken resistance to the principle of "network neutrality," a standard that ensures all users can access the content or run the applications and devices of their choice without discrimination from internet service providers.

"I think the content providers should be paying for the use of the network," Whitacre told the Financial Times earlier this year. "Now they might pass it on to their customers who are looking at a movie, for example. But that ought to be a cost of doing business for them. They shouldn't get on [the network] and expect a free ride."

In December, BellSouth's William Smith told reporters that he would like to turn the internet into a "pay-for-performance marketplace," where his company could charge for the "right" to have certain services load faster than others.

What this would mean for you is higher costs, fewer choices and less control.

AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others could block you from viewing a favorite podcast or blog, cut off internet phones unless we use their service, or force you to download MP3s from their company store by slowing access to outside music sites. The profit motive of a few corporations would supplant the freedoms of all users, determining which features end up shaping our digital future.

These types of corporate schemes discriminate against those of us who rely on the internet as an accessible tool to spread new ideas, spark innovation and encourage dissent.

Now AT&T executives are asking regulators at the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission to rubber stamp their merger. They argue, incredulously, that bigger is better for consumers.

At a moment marked by America's precipitous decline in the global ranks of communications leaders, the Justice Department and FCC should correct our problems -- not exacerbate them. This merger must be stopped.

Add your voice against the AT&T merger by sending letters to federal regulators and your representatives here.

Striking the spark for a net revolt (w/audio)

This post originally appeared on MediaCitizen.


Here are my notes from the network neutrality call I hosted on Friday with Stanford University's Lawrence Lessig, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy and my colleague at Free Press, Ben Scott. The audio file is now available here.

I'll be writing and posting a 1,000 word op-ed on this in the next couple of days. For a sampling of some of the best podcasts, blogging and other reporting coming out of the event, check out:
  1. MediaGeek's outstanding analysis of network neutrality and what's at stake in Washington.
  2. At the National Journal, Beltway Blogroll's overview of the blogosphere's response.
  3. Sandhill Trek's call to arms to stop ISP providers from taking Americans "even further into a second class swamp of deteriorating end-to-end service."
  4. Bob Morris boils net neutrality down to "three flash-point issues."


As major communications companies plan to control and profit from our broadband future, bloggers, independent media makers and their audiences need to remain vigilant and encourage a real debate about protecting the free flow of information and ideas.

Free Press has started to convene monthly blogger calls at the intersection of media and policy. With this series, we hope we can spark a serious debate about what the future of the Internet -- and all digital media -- will be.

Here are some memorable quotes from the first call...

Making Sense of Payola

Ever get the sinking feeling that the same terrible Celine Dion song is on the radio every time you turn it on? It's not your imagination. Local radio stations everywhere have been swallowed up by a handful of giant corporations, playlists have shrunk, and local and independent acts have been drowned out, as Big Radio soaks listeners in a mind-numbing mix of bland commercial acts.

The rapid concentration of radio ownership has also ushered in a new age of "payola." Major recording labels now shower radio station owners with money and prizes to plug and play their most bankable stars, securing spins of Dion, Ricky Martin, J. Lo, Jessica Simpson and even major label indie kids Franz Ferdinand at the expense of struggling local acts.

There's the catch: Payola is against the law. The New York Attorney General's Office, Federal Communications Commission and members of Congress are investigating radio industry corruption. There's no better time than now for music lovers to protect the radio airwaves from insatiable corporate greed and end payola once and for all.

1. What is radio payola?

For decades, radio payola has been an unpleasant fact of American music. Radio stations hold valuable broadcast licenses and are the main drivers of sales for the record industry. More than 75 percent of music buyers say their CD purchases are influenced by songs heard on the radio. All a record executive has to do is convince popular DJs to put their artists in heavy rotation. Money has long proved the elixir of persuasion. In 1960, disc jockey Alan Freed was indicted under commercial bribery laws for accepting $2,500 to play certain songs; he claimed the money was a "token of gratitude" that did not affect airplay. But the FCC disagreed, passing regulations that ban payola in broadcasting. The playing of music or other programming in exchange for payments is now illegal, punishable by as much as $10,000 in fines and a year in prison. To date, no one has served a day in jail on payola charges.

2. Is payola still a problem?

In many ways, it's worse. Shadowy independent promoters are hired by the recording industry to launder hundreds of millions in cash and prizes each year, lining the pockets of big radio broadcasters who agree to add label "hits" to playlists nationwide. Last summer, Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting -- America 's two largest radio owners, controlling 42 percent of listeners -- were implicated with other major radio owners in a multi-million dollar payola scheme. Investigators called this single payola case the "tip of the iceberg."

3. How does payola work?

Payola involves the flow of money and other perks from music labels to radio stations, and, through resulting record sales, back to the labels themselves. It's a closed loop that shuns local talent, artistic merit and listener preferences. Once involving envelopes stuffed with cash and even drugs, payola in 2005 has taken on new forms, including back stage passes to Michael Jackson concerts, first-class tickets to Miami, Las Vegas hotel rooms and even Adidas sneakers. (Use Free Press' interactive map to find stations near you suspected of accepting payola). By law, radio disc jockeys must fully disclose to their listeners whether airplay of a chosen song was paid for by promoters. They never do.

4. Do the big media companies really control what gets played on commercial radio?

The 1996 Telecommunications Act eliminated national limits on station ownership. Prior to 1996, no one radio owner held more than 65 stations; now, radio colossus Clear Channel boasts some 1,200 stations. More than 75 percent of radio market share nationwide is controlled by companies owning more than 40 radio stations. In a consolidated radio marketplace, recording labels have fewer palms to grease to get their acts on the air, even if listeners don't want to hear them.

5. Does radio play really affect sales?

These conglomerates use redundant playlists to air a limited choice of artists, even in the same markets. Commercial airwaves are flooded by only those artists that are acceptable to the corporations that profit from their sales. And more than 80 percent of the $12 billion in annual music sales are controlled by the four largest labels - Sony BMG, EMI, Universal and Warner Music Group. When consolidated radio and recording labels control the music industry, musical diversity is threatened.

6. Doesn't payola help musicians?

On average, performers on major labels see only $1 out of the $16 retail price paid by consumers for a CD. The bulk of sales revenue returns to the record labels, and through them to the promoters and big radio. This closed loop feeds the insatiable appetites of greedy recording labels and radio broadcasters. Big label artists see little of these profits. Independent musicians are even worse off. The corporate control of promotion, sales and airplay almost entirely prevents local artists from competing in the mainstream.

7. Aren't big radio companies and labels just giving listeners what they want?

In a 2002 survey by the Future of Music Coalition, 78 percent of listeners said they want more variety on the air. More than half of survey respondents (51 percent) said that, at most, they only occasionally hear the music they enjoy the most when listening to the radio. Yet the radio behemoths continue to force feed listeners a mind-numbing stew of focus-group tested "urban," "classic rock" and "easy listening" formats.

8. Don't stations have a right to play whatever they want - even if it's monotonous corporate tunes?

The airwaves belong to the public, not to the media companies with the fattest wallets. The vitality of radio is sapped when music is selected based on bribes rather than merit. Big media owe it to the American public - and especially the music lovers and creative artists who are hurt most by payola - to end this deception. Radio stations receive free licenses to broadcast on public airwaves in exchange for an agreement to serve their communities' best interests. They are supposed to put the public's needs before their bottom line. Unfortunately, none do.

9. How can payola be stopped?

While anti-payola statutes have been in place for 40 years, recent developments offer the best chance in years to throw the book at payola once and for all.

• In July, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reached a multi-million-dollar payola settlement against Sony BMG. Spitzer's office is now investigating reported payola deals between other large recording labels (including EMI Group, Vivendi, Warner Music and Universal) and the nation's biggest radio station chains (including Infinity Broadcasting, Clear Channel Communications, Emmis Communications and Cox Radio).

• In August, the FCC launched an investigation into payola allegations involving stations owned by Clear Channel, Infinity and other radio giants. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has called for an overhaul of toothless payola rules.

• Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is planning to attach an amendment to an appropriations bill that would require the FCC to report to Congress on what can be done to counter the negative fallout of media consolidation, especially payola.

10. How can I make a difference?

The campaign to scrub payola from our airwaves now hinges on the public's ability to force stronger accountability and enforcement across a radio industry dominated by conglomerates. A coalition of activists, public advocates, independent musicians and recording labels are joining together to protect the public's airwaves. Concerned Americans can take action in several ways:

• Act locally against the hundreds of conglomerate-owned stations that were implicated in New York State Attorney General Spitzer's investigation. Use Free Press' interactive map to find implicated stations near you and contact them with your concerns.

• Support homegrown acts and independent radio stations by buying CDs from the local bin at your independent music store, checking out independent music sellers, going to local performances and encouraging your favorite stations to add these artists to their playlists.

• Urge the FCC to launch federal investigations, review payola abuses by local broadcasters and impose harsher penalties.

• Support any new congressional legislation that presses for stronger enforcement of payola laws.

Learn More:

Free Press
Youth Media Council
The Future of Music Coalition
Media Alliance

Get Active:

Tell the FCC to fight payola

Join the Free Press Action Squad to meet up with other media activists in your community.

A Snake-Oil President

Treating policy as product to be marketed to the electorate is no great stretch for a president who fashions himself the CEO of White House Inc. But in its zeal to promote sales of the Bush brand, this administration has crossed the line that separates honest brokers from snake oil salesmen.

Bush and company sold Americans defective goods in clear violation of federal law. Yet Attorney General Alberto Gonzales hasn't budged. Instead, the man charged with enforcing our laws has tasked his army of lawyers to throw a legal shield around the White House, telling the administration to ignore investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which repeatedly has blasted Team Bush for using taxpayer money to fund "covert propaganda."

In its latest report, issued on Sept. 30, the GAO's federal auditors scolded the White House for squandering American tax dollars to hire fake news reporters and unleash a pre-packaged new blitz in advance of the 2004 elections. The GAO found the White House violated the law by hiring pundit Armstrong Williams to shower praise on Bush's education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, while interviewing administration officials on the air.

The GAO also uncovered a previously undisclosed case in which the Education Department commissioned an article carried by several newspapers that extolled the administration's role in promoting science education. Readers were not informed of the government's role in the writing of the article.

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids the domestic dissemination of government-authored propaganda or "official news" deliberately designed to influence public opinion or policy. The law singles out materials that serve "a solely partisan purpose." The GAO has now found on at least four separate occasions that administration agencies violated this and other federal restrictions when they disseminated news written by the government or its contractors without disclosing the conflict of interest.

In 2003, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy produced for local newscasts eight "video news releases" that praised Bush's plan for preventing teen drug use. They were beamed into more than 22 million households via nearly 300 local television stations. Around the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services contracted PR industry professional Karen Ryan to pose as a local news reporter giving the administration's Medicare plan "an A-plus." The resulting fake news segment was broadcast by more than 40 local newscasts. In both cases, these video news releases broke the law by not disclosing the government as their source.

It's more than likely that the White House has set other propaganda efforts loose in the media mainstream. We just don't know about them yet. A January report by members of the House Committee on Government Reform noted that this administration has set aside a quarter billion in taxpayer dollars for similar propaganda efforts -- spending money on PR at four times the rate of any previous administration.

While the evidence is damning, the GAO lacks the enforcement powers to reveal the full extent of the abuse. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has final say over executive branch legal matters. And GAO and Justice have not seen eye to eye on covert propaganda in the past, specifically on the issue of unidentified video news releases. Justice says that all the government's publicity is legal, because they have been fact-based. DOJ advised executive agencies that they could ignore the GAO since the legal prohibition on propaganda does not apply to government-made television news segments that are "factual, politically neutral and useful to viewers."

The GAO's most recent investigation correctly shot down that sophistry, saying that pre-packaged government news is inherently false because "the essential fact of attribution is missing."

The ball is now back in Gonzales' court. If the White House indeed broke the law, it is incumbent upon DOJ to prosecute the crimes. Without legal action, an emboldened White House will continue to throw up obstacles to full disclosure and create propaganda that pushes Bush's political bromides on unsuspecting viewers.

It's been left to the public to do what our elected and appointed officials are unwilling or unable to: pressure our government to stop propaganda. Earlier this month, Free Press unleashed a public campaign to do just that. In less than a week, nearly 35,000 concerned citizens have signed letters to Congress and the Justice Department, urging Gonzales "to prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law." (To learn more, visit www.freepress.net.)

Justice should never be delivered by popular fiat -- but it's essential that our elected officials and their appointees understand that the public is watching. As more evidence comes into view, we're able to assemble a case against an administration that has gone too far, involving a systemic and quiet campaign to manipulate the Fourth Estate and sway the electorate in favor of presidential policies.

Chances are that this corporate-styled White House will continue to employ the tactics of PR and marketing firms -- television advertising, product placement and media blitzes -- to pitch them to the public. But if Bush's sagging approval rating is any guide, Americans are no longer buying.

The Times Sees No Evil

The biggest news from the digital frontier may be the advent of community internet – low-cost, high-speed broadband services provided by municipal governments and community groups via local networks.

Hundreds of cities and towns – from Philadelphia and San Francisco to Granbury, Texas, and Scottsburg, Ind. – recognize broadband internet access as a public necessity, no different from water, gas or electricity. Especially in rural and underserved urban areas, community internet promises to narrow the digital divide.

Telecom and cable companies are pushing laws across the country that would restrict local competition and cut off consumer choice. This newsworthy battle finally graced the front-page of the The New York Times on Feb. 17, with a story pegged to Philadelphia's ambitious plans to turn the city into "one gigantic wireless hot spot."

The real problem with James Dao's piece wasn't its tardiness – other papers covered similar ground months ago – but the way the Times failed to question the true motivations of its sources.

The first quote in the story goes to Adam Thierer, identified as "director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of a soon-to-be-released study criticizing the Philadelphia plan." He tells the Times: "The last thing I'd want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility."

Dao fails to note that the Cato Institute is funded by Verizon, SBC Communications, Time Warner, Comcast and Freedom Communications – all companies seeking to put a stake through the heart of homegrown broadband systems. Thierer is little more than an industry sock puppet.

Dao then goes on to interview David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, who asks: "Is it fair that the industry pay tax dollars to the city that are then used to launch a network that would compete with our own?"

Fair enough. But again, Dao fails to alert readers to his source's conflicts of interest that might impugn his integrity. In a previous incarnation, Cohen served as chief of staff to then Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell. Rendell has since moved into the governor's mansion, while Cohen jumped to the private sector.

But Cohen still has Rendell's ear, which might explain why the governor ignored widespread public opposition and signed a bill into law last December that prevents other Pennsylvania communities from offering competitive broadband services. Though the Philadelphia plan secured a last-minute reprieve, the rest of the state got shafted.

And Comcast – so concerned about the spending of its tax dollars – is more than happy to take public handouts. To finance the Comcast Center, which will be Philadelphia's tallest skyscraper when it's completed in 2007, Rendell put together a state aid package worth $42.75 million. The state Department of Community and Economic Development kicked in another $12.75 million in grants and tax credits. Dao doesn't mention it.

Later Dao does give Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe the chance to remind readers that "government doesn't do service well." Tell that to the 40 percent of Philadelphians without access to broadband service.

James Dao wrote in an e-mail that he was aware of Cato's funding and David Cohen's background. "But unlike bloggers who have unlimited space, I had to make editorial choices," he writes. "This story was being relentless [sic] cut, and my choice was between retaining details about Philadelphia's program and adding asides about Cato or David Cohen's background. I went with the program details."

Dao is free to prioritize those aspects of the story he finds most important. But it's hard to understand why he would choose to downplay this unseemly tale of collusion between corporations, state government and coin-operated think tanks like Cato and the dubious New Millennium Research Council, which are at the center of a well-funded campaign to paint municipal broadband as an affront to American innovation and free enterprise.

In fact, the opposite is true. Community internet creates free-market competition, allows consumer choice, and encourages entrepreneurs through public-private partnerships. Municipal networks are proving a win-win for local politicians: They're relatively cheap to build and city officials gain points from bringing technology – and resulting economic opportunity – to neighborhoods that are often passed over by commercial providers.

As Dianah Neff, Philadelphia's chief technology officer, asked of Verizon and Comcast in a recent column for ZDNet: "When was the last time they were elected to determine what is best for our communities? If they're really concerned about what is important to all members of the community, why haven't they built this type of network that meets community needs or approached a city to use their assets to build a high-speed, low-cost, ubiquitous network?"

All good questions. Perhaps the Times should have explored them further.

Sinclair Goes Digital and Multiplies

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., the company that has repeatedly tried to force its conservative political agenda into the homes of millions of television viewers, is now forging a deal with the nation's largest cable company that would allow Sinclair to increase – by over 500 percent – the number of stations on which it can broadcast its "news" content.

Undaunted by a recent federal decision to limit TV broadcasters' access to cable distribution, Sinclair is now putting in place a series of deals that would increase manifold the conservative media company's reach.

Last week, Sinclair President and CEO David Smith outlined the company's plans to open the cable pipeline to as many as five additional Sinclair channels for each of the 62 stations currently under the broadcaster's control. The move – as TV broadcasting continues its transition to a digital format – has the potential to grow Sinclair's considerable holdings to 372 stations.

During an investors call last Thursday, Smith spoke of one deal he's hammering out with Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable television company. Though Smith spoke in generalities, it's clear that he hopes to win Comcast's agreement to carry Sinclair's full digital offering in the local markets where the conservative broadcaster and the cable provider have a presence.

Smith's move comes on the heels of a series of setbacks for the Maryland-based broadcaster. On the very day of Smith's investor call, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that cable operators would not be obligated to carry the additional digital programming streams that local broadcasters will be able to offer. At the moment, cable companies are mandated to carry only one signal per local station. Broadcasters, including Sinclair, wanted the FCC to force cable operators to allow "multicasting," which means six digital stations can be compressed over a slice of public airwaves that formerly carried a single analog signal.

In lay terms, this process hands a local broadcaster the opportunity to program six times as much content. It's a potential boon to the commercial broadcast industry, but only if it can convince cable carriers – the means by which 85 percent of American households receive their television – to include the extra local stations.

Having thus far failed to do so via official channels at the FCC and in Congress, Sinclair is taking a new tack – striking deals directly with the cable carriers. And the Sinclair-Comcast deal is just the tip of the iceberg. "In the event that we do get a deal done with Comcast, my sense is that it will kind of lay the groundwork for every other cable company within our industry where we broadcast," Smith told investors last Thursday.

Cozying Up To Cable

"Last week's FCC ruling confirmed that cable is now king," Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says. "If you don't have digital distribution, you're out of business and Sinclair knows this."

Chester says that the future of television is in "T-Commerce," providing consumer-interactive content that allows viewers to pick what programs they want and when they want them on a pay-as-you-go basis. It was this content-on-demand model that provided much of the buzz coming out of the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show last month.

The cable industry has spent nearly $95 billion since 1996 to lay new two-way pipelines to consumers – with systems that allow audiences to select and pay (say $0.30 to $1) for each show they wish to watch. Now more than 91 percent of cable-ready homes in the U.S. have access to interactive television services that make content-on-demand possible – with more than a third of U.S. cable customers now subscribing to digital cable.

"Broadcasters without access to cable's return path are out of business," Chester notes.

And now Sinclair is scrambling to cut deals with cable providers to ensure that their digital future brings Sinclair into more American households.

A Bad Actor Multiplies

If successful, it's no stretch to imagine the type of programming that Sinclair would favor for its new digital regime. And, if past is prologue, it's a picture not many progressives would want to see. Sinclair owns television stations in 39 different markets reaching approximately 24 percent of U.S. television households in 24 states.

Almost every Sinclair station is obligated to broadcast content produced by the company's Maryland-based news operation, the aptly named "News Central," which spins out a view of the world that bears a remarkable resemblance the Bush administration's view.

Sinclair says this model allows the company "to build its local news franchise and local market share by introducing local news programming in markets that otherwise could not support news." Economical perhaps, but what lurks beneath their single-newscast model are Sinclair's overt attempts to influence the nation's political agenda.

Upset by the negative tone to the Iraq coverage of the mainstream news outlets, Smith sent Sinclair's own team to Baghdad to present a rosier view of the occupation. Sinclair also requires most of its stations to air a news segment called "The Point," during which company vice president Mark Hyman routinely launches broadsides against the "loony left."

Last October, just weeks before Americans went to the polls, Sinclair told all of its 62 stations to air an aggressively anti-Kerry documentary as a last-ditch effort to influence the outcome of the election. This order ignited a firestorm of public protest, including successful attempts to urge advertisers to pull their spots from the station group and to convince fund managers to excise Sinclair from their portfolios. The rapid mobilization led to a plunge in Sinclair's stock price before the company decided to air a modified version of the documentary.

Lately, Sinclair's Smith has rushed to the defense of longtime friend and ally Armstrong Williams, the conservative media commentator outed recently for receiving more than $240,000 from the White House to shill for Bush's education policy. In early 2004 Williams conducted an interview with Depatment of Education chief Roderick Paige to do just that – a piece of propaganda that was broadcast via "NewsCentral" into as many as 20 million homes. For Smith, such Bush administration cheerleading is just business as usual.

Sinclair seems to think it's immune to the controversy and public outrage that's placed the broadcaster at the center of so much media attention during the past twelve months. In fact, the company has not responded to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. Commenting in recent press reports, Sinclair executives have even hinted that the negative coverage has been good for their business in solidifying a base of support from Americans and corporations who appreciate Sinclair's proselytizing on behalf of the Bush administration.

Questions linger as to how Sinclair – a company that was granted free access to our public airwaves – thinks that it can repeatedly get away with such crass political maneuvering. As Sinclair moves into the digital arena, though, one thing remains clear. The number of Sinclair stations and size of Sinclair's audience may multiply beyond efforts to rein them in.

No Change on the Verizon

Banish the notion that America's communications industry nurtures technological innovation to help make media more accessible to average Americans.

The reality today is that we live in an era where large corporations work hand-in-hand with lobbyists and compliant legislators to stifle any technology that returns control of our media system to the public.

The latest evidence lies hidden within a Bill en route to the desk of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. House Bill 30 – an industry-drafted and inspired sprawl of corporate concessions – has tucked within its more than 70 pages an amendment that effectively kills efforts in Philadelphia to provide citywide wireless access at little or no charge.

The bill cleared both Pennsylvania's House and Senate on Friday. A signature from Governor Rendell would scuttle "Philadelphia Wireless" – an ambitious plan to build a Wi-Fi network to serve the city's working-class communities – before the project could begin.

The problem, according to the Bill's principal sponsor, Verizon Communications, Inc., is that community-supported wireless poses a "significant threat" to the multi-billion dollar company's near monopoly hold on wireless access across the city. Why allow for local competition and innovation in Philadelphia when you can shut it down via well-funded connections in the capitol?

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street's spokeswoman Barbara Grant told MediaChannel that the bill was "terrible for cities around the country, because if the telecommunications companies can stop it here in Pennsylvania, they'll probably be able to stop it anywhere."

That spells a perilous fate for the many small-scale community wireless networks that have sprung up in neighborhoods and municipalities from Champaign-Urbana and Bangor, to Austin and Seattle. Verizon, along with other massive telecoms, will not stop at the Pennsylvania State House. Every community that is fostering plans to subsidize local wireless will likely face staunch and heavily financed opposition from the handful of massive telecoms that aim to control how Americans log on and through whom.

The industry pulls considerable weight in Washington – spending more than $160 million since 1999 on efforts to woo legislators and win support for policies that effectively hand over publicly owned media assets, such as our airwaves, to private control. Industry lobbyists have also spread out across the country to uproot local competition and defend big media interests town to town.

The net result is a law making system at every level of government that cannot be trusted to do the public's bidding when it comes to media policy.

The legislation before Governor Rendell is but a single front in the industry's national campaign to write Internet access monopolies into law before communities can implement affordable, public access wireless systems. According to media rights group Free Press, similar legislation designed to stifle community initiatives around this emerging technology have been introduced in nearly a dozen states nationwide, including Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

Governor Rendell's decision on House Bill 30 may turn on the success of several public policy and media reform groups, including Common Cause Pennsylvania, Prometheus Radio Project, Media Tank and Penn PIRG, that have mobilized statewide grassroots efforts to encourage a veto.

With the continued hard work of local groups like these, citizens have the potential to win back their media community by community.

But they face daunting odds. Alongside Verizon, sits Comcast Corporation, Philadelphia's second largest private employer and the leading local provider of cable Internet access. The company has an equal distaste for a citywide public broadband network, according to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Governor Rendell is long a Comcast ally, which has huge political clout in Pennsylvania," Chester said. Comcast's executive vice president David Cohen was the Governor's chief of staff when Rendell was Mayor of Philadelphia.

Stay tuned.

Outside the Spotlight

NEW YORK – The Kerry campaign's share of network news coverage has been on a steady slide since the Massachusetts senator all but clinched his party nomination after the March 2 "Super Tuesday" primaries. According to a survey of media election coverage during the first half of 2004, President George W. Bush's share of the nightly newscasts has risen steadily through the year, while Senator John Kerry's image and words faded from network screens.

The study, released today by Media for Democracy and Media Tenor, is based on daily monitoring of network evening newscasts from January 1 through June 30, 2004.

During an average evening newscast in June, the networks were nearly four times as likely to mention President Bush as the Democratic presidential candidate. By contrast, in March of this year, network mention of Senator Kerry (40 percent of all coverage of Kerry, Bush and Ralph Nader) nearly rivaled coverage of incumbent Bush (59 percent).

ABC World News Tonight gave the least attention to Kerry and his campaign in June, devoting only 15.8 percent of its candidate coverage to the Massachusetts senator. In June, the half-hour newscast devoted 83.2 percent of its candidate coverage to Bush, according to the Media Tenor/Media for Democracy data. (To get the full Media Tenor / Media for Democracy study, email mfd@mediachannel.org)

Continuing analysis into July shows that Kerry enjoyed a jump in network coverage following his selection of Senator John Edwards as his running mate, but that this attention flattened to June levels during the last week surveyed – July 12 through 16.

Alarm Bells?

"John Kerry has had an increasingly hard time competing with the president for television news coverage," said Media Tenor President Roland Schatz. "Bush, as head of state, was expected to have a natural edge in coverage, but our study shows a precipitous decline in focus on Kerry, which should be ringing alarms at the Democratic contender's campaign headquarters."

Four years earlier, Democratic frontrunner Al Gore captured an even share (50.1 percent) of the network spotlight in June 2000, by comparison to then Texas Governor George Bush's portion (49.9 percent) of all coverage devoted to the candidates, according to the study.

"Voters are reluctant to vote a standing president out of office unless his opponent maintains high visibility," Says Schatz. "John Kerry has not been able to consistently attract network attention since the primaries."

The Media Tenor data support a New York Times/CBS June 27 poll in which 36 percent of Americans said that they were undecided or had not heard enough about Kerry to form an opinion about whether to support him in the November ballot.

The Democratic Party's plans to leverage next week's Democratic National Convention to showcase their candidate for undecided Americans suffered a setback earlier this month when ABC, CBS and NBC elected to cut back network coverage of the conventions to an average of three hours per network, per convention. In 1976, each of the three major commercial networks provided on average more than nine hours of live broadcasts from each convention.

But even factoring in the number of new cable stations devoting their primetime coverage to the conventions this year, overall television viewership has been in steady decline since the 1970s. That means that candidates have to make aggressive use of whatever coverage opportunities they can get, analysts say.

"For Kerry to cross the threshold and his image to become clearer to the public, he does need to get more coverage," Carroll Doherty, editor for the Pew Research Center, said. "The television lull between the primaries and the conventions is always tough for the challenger."

Good Coverage Is Often Bad News

Though many voters may not have a well-defined view of the Democratic candidate yet, Kerry is still running neck-in-neck with Bush in the many presidential preference polls that Pew Research Center monitors throughout the year. Doherty notes that while candidate Bush gets more attention from the networks' coverage, the coverage is not always positive.

Media Tenor's study shows network news stories about Bush had a more negative tone than stories about Kerry. Of the nearly 1,176 statements made about Bush during the networks' half-hour newscasts in the first six months of the year, Media Tenor classified 24.1 percent (or 284 statements) as negative. Stories that had a particularly negative cast included coverage tying Bush to terrorism advisor Richard Clarke's 9-11 Commission testimony, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and escalating violence in Iraq.

On average, this negative cast receded in June, largely due to positive coverage of Bush's appearances as head of state during the D-Day celebrations in France and the G-8 conference in the US.

The study categorizes only 13.1 percent of Kerry's January through June network coverage as negative.

Buying Ad Time to Take Up the Slack

Many voters now learn more about candidates from the tidal wave of political ads that have come to dominate primetime viewing in many swing-voter states this year. Kerry's camp has already spent more than $80 million on political ads to put their candidate before voters, a massive windfall for eager local broadcasters.

In western Michigan, on an average night in July television viewers are 13 times more likely to hear about candidates and their positions from political ads than from the 5:30, 6 and 11 O'clock local newscasts, according to a recent study by the Grand Rapids Institute of Information Democracy. A similar picture is emerging in other hotly contested election states where political ads do more to educate (or in many cases misinform) voters about federal candidates than the local news.

For the Kerry campaign, coverage by the national networks of the primaries and convention was the hoped-for antidote to the dearth of local political coverage.

With the networks planning to scale back on convention coverage, the campaigns are now turning to the three televised debates scheduled to begin in September to regain mainstream airtime denied their candidates in the first half of the year.

"The first debate is crucial for Kerry," Doherty said, but he remains skeptical that mainstream network coverage has the ability to influence voters as it had in the past.

"We're looking at a new media universe where mainstream political coverage is missing a lot of people, especially younger voters," Doherty said. "As a result, the broad public is much harder to reach for campaigns."

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