Ted Koppel Tells It Like It Is

A Conversation On the Future of the Media: Is the Public Interest Bargain Dying? – The New America Foundation hosted a conversation in response to the FCC staff report on “The Information Needs of Communities” featuring senior news analyst Ted Koppel, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, and NAF’s own president Steve Coll on June 15, 2011. All three agreed with the staff report’s conclusion that American news coverage is insufficient in many ways, particularly in local coverage, and each criticized the report for its lack of solutions.

Copps’s opening comments railed against the past 30 years of media deregulation and warned that the introduction of digital media would not solve any problems without careful policy guidance to encourage substantive reporting. An informed public, Copps said, is as crucial to a well-functioning democracy now as it was for the founders. He urged the FCC to pursue its statutory mandate by implementing a more stringent relicensing process to remind media companies that a broadcasting license is a privilege, not a right. This, Copps argued, is the most effective tool the FCC has for gaining leverage over broadcasters and encouraging more intensive and substantial news reporting.

Ted Koppel agreed, and recalled how the news business’s shift in the late-60’s from a public service to a profit center began the decline of network investments in hard-hitting news, back when the network heads annually testified before Congress to show how their news services justified the enormous profits they reaped from the public airwaves. Since then, Koppel observed the statutorily-mandated public interest bargain fade from memory, so much so that in the last 30 years, not one single license has been refused for renewal on public service grounds. All three panelists agreed that the FCC should shore up its relicensing process and start holding the networks accountable once again for their public service commitment to this nation if they want to continue dominating the public airwaves.

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Read my article in the Progressive States Network’s weekly Dispatch!

So my 1L year is thankfully behind me, and I’m already moving on to bigger and better things.  Hopefully including more frequent blog posts!

For starters on my bigger-and-better agenda, this summer I am interning at a fantastic organization called the Progressive States Network, which acts as a resource connecting advocates with state legislators to help push a progressive agenda forward across the nation.  I am researching state policies related to universal broadband access, specifically the FCC reforms of Universal Service Funds to include broadband and state legislation related to community broadband projects.  I’ll do posts soon explaining both of those topics in more detail, as it’s all much more interesting than I just made it sound.

Anyway, so far my experience has been really great, and I’m thrilled to have my first piece published in the Dispatch, a newsletter that goes out to 8,000 state legislators, policy-makers, and advocates.  There’s always a ton of interesting stuff in there, so I definitely recommend checking it out and subscribing.

AND here is a link to my first published article in the Dispatch, pasted below.

Last Minute Budget Provision Cuts Access to Broadband for Schools, Libraries, Researchers, Targeting the Underserved

In a last minute amendment to its heavily controversial state budget bill, the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance added a provision that would greatly reduce broadband access for schools, libraries, and university researchers. The target of this harmful proposal is WiscNet, a not-for-profit Internet Service Provider cooperative that offers inexpensive and flexible broadband service to anchor institutions, provides online learning resources for public schools and libraries, and allows university researchers fast, inexpensive data upload services unavailable from private providers. This proposal by Governor Walker would force WiscNet to return $39 million in federal funds that would be used to lay fiber-optic cables across Wisconsin and would sever the relationship between WiscNet and the University of Wisconsin, which founded WiscNet over 20 years ago. In addition to negatively impacting the University’s connectivity and research capacity, the loss of this funding means that fewer rural community members would have immediate access to broadband.

This action is right in line with Governor Walker and his allies’ anti-working families agenda, as seen through his previous rejection of funding that would have facilitated high-speed transit and job creation, deregulation of telephone services that will increase phone rates, as well as the infamous curtailing of workers’ collective bargaining rights. Points 23-26 of omnibus motion 489 would eliminate the University of Wisconsin’s participation in the Building Community Capacity through Broadband (BCCB) project, effectively ending a program that would help create community-owned infrastructure and give private service providers the opportunity to compete for the business of public anchor institutions. This is good for AT&T, who owns the bulk of BadgerNet, the existing infrastructure and the BCCB network’s would-be competition, but bad for small business development in Wisconsin — which currently ranks 43rd in broadband access nationwide. The BCCB grant was conditioned on making the technology available to every private service provider interested in serving businesses and residents in these areas, thereby increasing competition and options for small, rural communities. Without that fiber, these areas are unlikely to receive broadband service any time soon, as private broadband carriers are less motivated to invest in less profitable, rural areas.Motion 489 would also isolate UW’s network from other institutions and cut off community access to UW’s resources.  Furthermore, Motion 489 would prevent UW from being a WiscNet customer, thereby raising the cost of WiscNet for other customers. WiscNet is significantly cheaper for public institutions than their competition, and currently serves 75% of Wisconsin’s public schools and 95% of their public libraries, two anchor institutions that PSN has identified as critical access points for underserved populations. Raising costs could have deeply detrimental effects on underserved communities’ access to the internet — not to mention a further strain on school budgets. WiscNet will have fewer customers and be forced to spread its fixed costs out among them. This means rising costs for WiscNet and more customers for AT&T and other private providers.

In dealing with a struggling economy, states like Wisconsin need critical resources like broadband to prosper. It is undeniable that infrastructure plays a critical role in the public’s access to needed services like hospitals and schools. Students, workers, and small businesses in Wisconsin increasingly depend on infrastructure like broadband in order to function in a modern economy. As PSN has noted previously, the benefits from broadband are long-term, and as such, the facilitation of internet services must be seen as part of any comprehensive local economic development strategy.

This eleventh-hour provision is still being debated, so learn more and learn more about the provisions athttp://www.wiscnet.net/.

FULL RESOURCES FROM THIS ARTICLE

LAST MINUTE BUDGET PROVISION CUTS ACCESS TO BROADBAND FOR SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES, RESEARCHERS, TARGETING THE UNDERSERVED

In These Times – Wisconsin Gov. Rejects $810 Million, Thousands of Jobs, for High-Speed Rail Project
Bloomberg Businessweek- Wisconsin Legislature passes telecom deregulation bill
Wisconsin State Journal – UW System broadband expansion plan in danger 
The WLA Blog –  WLA Letter to Legislators About WiscNet
Channel3000.com – UW, Schools Voice Concerns About Budget Measure Affecting Internet  
WTN News – UW faces return of $37M for broadband expansion in 11th hour bill
Wisconsin Valley Library Service Blog – Information on Points 23-26 in Omnibus Motion 489
WiscNet – WiscNet’s Stay Informed Fact Sheet
WiscNet – Letter From UW Office of General Council
Community Broadband Networks – Does AT&T Really Own the Wisconsin Legislature? Battle Over WiscNet Continues

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Search Me!

Once again, Google is in the news, and the spotlight is on yet another way that the company plays a role in governing the net.  This New York Times article uses J. C. Penny as a case study to detail the way that companies are able to use search engine optimization to essentially game Google’s search results and artificially inflate their results.  When Google catches a company engaged in this kind of behavior, it imposes sanctions, sometimes even giving the Google death penalty (removes them from Google’s results).

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/business/13search.html?src=me&ref=business

It is pretty fascinating stuff.  What amazes me the most is Google has literally turned into its own legal system in the web world.  It has laws and a justice system to enforce those laws and penalize wrongdoers, and, as an outsider, it appears that they’ve done a pretty great job of staying true to their “don’t be evil” ethos and applying punishments uniformly and fairly across the board, although this article suggests that perhaps they treat their big money-making clients slightly more leniently (“manual adjustment” instead of the “death penalty”).  Of course, that’s no different from the U.S. justice system treating partner nations and powerful citizens with a degree of unofficial flexibility not available to the average law breaker.

It seems pretty clear at this point that Google is becoming more than your average company, and gaining a level of control of information unlike anything I’m aware of.  So the question is, as their international important rises in our globalized world, do we continue to let Google’s internal justice system work independently?  Anti-trust suits are already pushing toward involvement of various nations’ legal systems poking their nose into Google, but I’m curious where this will go.  At some point, maybe Google’s control over information will cross over into a more “public good” category and function more like a utility than a dot-com.  And at that point, how will the government react?

These are pretty half-formed thoughts at the moment, but I’ve had a ton of reading to do this week so I can’t afford to spend any more time on this post, sadly.  But hopefully I’ll have some more thought out ideas next time!

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The Deciders, the Dividers, and the Advertisers

I just got home from the 2011 Robert L. Levine Lecture at Fordham given by Jeffrey Rosen and called “The Deciders: the future of privacy and free speech in the age of Facebook and Google”.  It was great – challenging, thought provoking, and engaging.  Unfortunately, the detailed notes that I took on my fancy new Android phone (I’m getting pretty quick with the Swype feature) were erased when I failed to save the file after the lecture, but I’ll do my best to recall the details as I respond to it now.

Mr. Rosen started out by describing a possible future in the year 2025 when there will be public cameras installed everywhere that we can access with our phones for a live video feed of town squares, times squares, beaches, etc.  He then mused about how this might fare under Constitutional challenges to our right to privacy.  Obviously we don’t have privacy in a public area per-se, but might the Fourth Amendment be violated if the government were to use this public information in police work?  Would this violate our reasonable expectations of privacy?   Should we be worried about this new vulnerability?

My response would be that our definition of “reasonable expectation” change with time, so as our culture adjusts to the idea that our lives are increasingly public and more information is accessible, our expectations will adjust and we will consider it increasingly reasonable and acceptable for these channels to be accessed.  Mr. Rosen may have a different normative view as to whether this is good or bad than I do, and certainly his view AND my view would differ from the views of today’s teens, tween, and toddlers, and that was what struck me the most throughout the lecture.  Much of the crowd was a bit older, and seemed horrified at the changes taking place through social networking that I take for granted as a part of my reality.  I can only imagine how automatic these trade-offs must seem to the generation growing up today.

A strong emphasis was put on the idea that only a motivated population can create real change, as illustrated by the “naked scanner” example in our nation’s airports.  A public outcry led to a reconsideration of the privacy costs of these scanners, and now the TSA is trying to shift to the “blob sensors” that are equally effective but much less invasive of personal privacy.  Mr. Rosen’s point was that when the public is outraged and vocal, change happens.  When people are docile, business as usual continues.  There are often reasonable, middle-of-the-road solutions that already exist technologically, it is just a matter of motivating government and industry to adopt the more balanced solution instead of the one that suits their own needs most efficiently.

The truth is, though, that cultural norms are changing, and we need to be realistic about how they are changing and why.  More than ever, our population is aware of the trade-offs that come with digital life, and almost certainly would be unwilling to trade the benefits of life online for stricter privacy protections.  Imagine asking a fifteen-year-old to give up Facebook, Google, Amazon, iTunes and Twitter in exchange for perfect privacy protection.  You’d be laughed out of the room!  And it isn’t just because this misguided teen is ignorant of the dangers of life online (though that may be true), it is because whatever the costs and dangers of online privacy tradeoffs, they can’t possibly offset the enormous value of free online services.  So while there was a public outcry about the TSA nude scans, there won’t be a public outcry about Facebook or Google using our data for ads.  Gmail and Facebook users, myself included, know that they use our data for ads and we are generally fine with that.  Was I shocked to learn that I may not have exclusive privacy rights over my files stored on the Gmail cloud?  Not by a longshot – it’s a free, ad-driven service, and it is amazing.  Scan away, Google, just keep the apps coming.

Is it frightening in principle to hear cautionary tales about faceless corporations buying and selling my “consumer profile” in order target ads to me?  Sure.  But is it actually upsetting when Amazon offers an unsolicited suggestion for a book that I’m interested in reading?  Nope.  So what that tells me is that while much of this sounds disturbing on paper, the real world implementation is actually pretty familiar and benign.  This is not to say that there isn’t the possibility of abuse in the future, but I think that a healthy sense of caution is enough to keep me comfortable.

Of course, it is much easier for me to relax knowing that people like Mr. Rosen are out there advising organizations like EPIC and keeping companies and governments honest about how they use the resources to monitor the population.  And though the horror story he told about the teacher whose career was ruined by one irresponsible MySpace photo was indeed disturbing, services like Reputation Defender and X-Pire are providing market-based solutions to these problems as they arise.  Perhaps this just illustrates his point that unless we are all personally affected by these problems the population will not demand change, but the flip side of that equation is that if most people are not affected by the problem in a serious way, perhaps change is not as urgent as he insinuated.

So in the end, I felt that the moral of the story was that the world is changing, and we need to be cautious about leaping before we look.  And while that is true, it also isn’t a great revelation to any of us who use these sites with regularity, or have thought about what it means to carry a GPS-enabled phone with us at all times.  These concerns are a given – a part of the DNA of our lives that is now built into our thought processes.  There is no changing this and no going back to how things were.  And certainly it’s worth considering the possible best-case futures and worst-case scenarios to inform how we architect our digital future, but there’s no sense being alarmed by the fact that the future is coming.

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Digital Revolutions (pun intended)

There have been several interesting items in the news this week that I wanted to share and comment on, so I decided to put aside the article I’d been planning to write and instead share some links and thoughts with you.  I’ll start with this New York Times piece from this weekend and hopefully have time to address a few others later this week.

The protests in Egypt have been dominating the news, and I think we’ve all been shocked and fascinated that the government was able to literally shut down the internet in the entire country.  This New York Times article does a great job of explaining how critical a tool social media has become in political activism and organization, but also what an easily controllable tool it is.  The government can track exactly who said what, how the planning is happening, and, as we saw, literally shut down the entire network.  Here’s the article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/weekinreview/30shane.html?_r=1

These events made me think of the security concerns that Zittrain raised in “The Future of the Internet (And How To Stop It)”, as well as the fears he raised about appliancized devices that leave control on the hands of another.  Of course, this was an instance of control over the infrastructure rather than any particular device, but it illustrates the point and brings his fears a little closer to reality.

The discussion in the article about “The Net Delusion” (which, full disclosure, I have not had a chance to read yet) and the neutral nature of web tools also reminded me of Lessig’s themes in “Code 2.0”.  That is, the architecture of the internet’s technology, open-systems, and infrastructure has no inherent qualities.  It is whatever we make it, and nothing about the internet inherently creates freedom or works for the forces of good.  The same tools that can create free discourse and easy communication can create simple tracking and monitoring mechanisms for oppressive governments, advertisers, and academics alike.

Simultaneously, and completely unrelatedly (if that’s a word), I just got a new phone – a T-Mobile MyTouch to replace my busted, barely functional old piece of junk.  I logged in and setup all of my accounts, which the phone then synced up for me, so that my phone contacts were connected automatically with my Gmail correspondences, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers and followees.  The ease and immediacy made me realize exactly how much of my online identity is now not only connected, but obvious and apparent to any net savvy observer.  The anonymity that once existed on the web, and that Lawrence Lessig points out in “Code”, is gone.  Instead of being replaced by the digital ID that Lessig optimistically described, it is replaced by a commercial mechanism that is not only out of our control in any substantial way, but is controlled by companies that literally make their money by identifying our demographics and interests and selling them.  While market forces and consumer preferences may keep these companies honest with our intimate data, there is a clear conflict happening here.

(Edit 2/1/11:  Case in point, see this article from today’s Times about Apple’s tightening of control over their app store:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/technology/01apple.html?_r=1&hpw)

Between the control that Google now has over my Android operating system, and the information that they can access (whether they’d care to or not), and the web trail that I’m constantly leaving, I am a living illustration of the cost and benefit tradeoffs of living a digital life.  And most likely, so are you.  But again, the fact is that I’m not willing to live off the grid and give up these services, and I doubt that the citizens of Egypt would be willing to give those mechanisms up either, despite their failings.  (From what I understand, which isn’t all that much, the more dispersed control that the U.S. has would theoretically to Egypt’s one-provider system that provides for easy government control, but let’s put that aside for now and use this for illustrative purposes only.)   I’m certainly not comparing my own concerns about identity theft or government monitoring to the importance and intensity of the situation in Egypt, but as far as the technology is concerned it is, in many ways, a difference in degree more than a difference in kind.  Their reality illustrates our possibility.

Again, the fact is that the internet is what we make it.  Technology is indifferent.  A hammer doesn’t care whether it is used as a tool or a weapon, and it is up to us collectively to decide how to shape the future of the web.

So what does it all mean?  To me it means that our political discourse ought to be more aware of issues like net neutrality and the Comcast/NBC merger.  We need to think deeply about what information and control we’re handing over when we sync our Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter accounts to our phones and create one easily identifiable online persona that can be linked for our convenience or someone else’s.  Personally, I’m not sure what action this translates to yet, but the picture is becoming clearer, and Zittrain’s fears about internet security (which I agreed with Tim Wu would likely not be the driving force in shaping the future of the net) are becoming just a little bit more poignant.

Digital privacy protection laws are necessary, but how do we shape them?  How do we even approach such an abstract, complex, and constantly changing undertaking?  Once again, I don’t know, but I’ll continue reading and thinking about it and hopefully, over the course of my second semester of law school, I’ll get a little bit closer to the answer.

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The Future of the Internet (And How to Review It)

So, I had planned to do a blog post reviewing Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The Future of the Internet (And How To Stop It)”, when I came across Tim Wu’s review, which is far better than what I had planned to write.  So instead of boring you with my thoughts, I figured we’d all be better off if I just link to his review.

Wu agrees with Zittrain’s leading ideas, that due to security concerns and the nuisances of spam, pop-ups, and the like, users are continually moving toward more “appliancized” devices (like the iPhone) which offer more security but less flexibility, creativity, and “generativity”.  In other words, the iPhone (or iPad for that matter) and the content we can put on it are more tightly controlled than the personal computer as we know it, so it is more user friendly and brilliantly packaged, but less likely to give rise to innovation.  Wu then goes on to describe some of the history of information technology over the last century and distinguish the net from its predecessors – especially radio and television.

They differ in that Zittrain sees security risks as the dominant shaping force for the future of the net, whereas Wu sees industry and cultural forces dominating.  I tend to agree with Wu’s perspective, but you’ll have to judge for yourself.

Here it is:

http://www.tnr.com/article/books/the-new-new-media

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Win-Win-Win?

Some online services seem too good to be true.  They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but Google, Facebook, and the rest of the gang sure seem to be feeding a lot of people.  And at this point, I think that a general sense of awareness is growing about “online privacy concerns”, but few people are know exactly what that means at this point.  That is, the services that we get for free seem worth the trade-off for whatever it is we’re giving up by using them.  Right?

We get to use Google for free to gain access to mind-boggling amounts of information and get free email and software.  We get to keep up with our friends on Facebook and share our pictures and comments instantly and universally.  We have Twitter, WordPress, Etsy, Kickstarter, MeetUp, Pandora, and countless other free services, but what price do we pay to use these services?  Is there any price beyond having to overlook ads on the sidebar?

The fact that most of these companies make their money by advertising to us is nothing new.   After all, television and radio have introduced us all to the idea of receiving free content in exchange for sitting through advertisements, so it makes intuitive sense to be advertised to as we browse the net and update our Facebook pages.    Sure, there are differences online as a result of the interactivity of the platform.  It is well known by now that Gmail is scanning your emails for key words to use to select the ads it shows you, and Facebook can use your status info to do the same.  But these are computer programs and algorithms doing the scanning and not people, so by and large most people don’t feel that their “privacy” is invaded as such.  And as an added benefit (if you see it this way), the ads are generally tailored to subjects the user is actually interested in, instead of the annoying free-for-all of widely aimed ads on television that the user may have no interest in.

So does that make it a win-win-win?  At least on the surface level, it sure seems to be.  The online service gets to make money and provide a great service, the user gets a great free service and ads for products that may be useful, and the advertisers get to spend their advertising dollars targeting the ideal audience.

The concern for most people begins when all of that personal information culminates to allow advertisers, or others, to make inferences about information that we weren’t prepared to make public.  For example, Chris Conley from the ACLU spoke at Fordham during the Fall 2010 semester and talked about a program two students had written called the “Gay-dar” that could browse Facebook pages and predict sexual orientations with startling accuracy, whether the user posted that information or not.  And marketing companies are definitely learning how to make these inferences.  For example, your answer to which lettuce you prefer (arugula, iceberg, or romaine) probably tells a savvy advertiser what clothing brands you buy.  It may sound far-fetched, but it’s not.  The more information is out there, the easier it is to find and exploit these correlations.  And a LOT of information is out there.

But do we care?  Does it matter?  Is there any possible way to avoid any of this, or is it the natural course of progression taking place, and it is just a matter of learning to adjust to the new normal?  Most of us are learning not to put compromising photos on Facebook or Tweet about hating our bosses, and companies like ReputationDefender.com have made a business model of helping us keep a squeaky clean online image.  Is that enough to keep that element of privacy concern under control?

I sure don’t know.  But the aim of this blog will be to begin exploring all of this and hopefully come to some conclusions.

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