Two weeks ago a rare thing happened in Washington: the popular will beat corporate money. With a vote of 3 to 2 on February 26, 2015, the FCC reclassified Internet service as a public utility. That administrative vote ensures that the Net will remain a free and open platform — at least for now.
After nearly a decade of advocating for this (see The End of the Commons from 2006), I had lost hope. It just seemed that with our pay-to-play government, there was little chance that popular movement based on free-market and free-speech ideals could prevail. Yet it did.
I can only guess as to why this happened. It may have been the weight of a second-term President looking to salvage his reputation that swayed the vote. It could be that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former telecom lobbyist, had his own fit of conscience. Nearing retirement, Mr. Wheeler may have been looking at his legacy and how he would be remembered. It could be that the 4 million Americans who wrote to the FCC in support of net neutrality tipped the scales. Or maybe it was the growing realization that a handful of cable companies – AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Verizon, Time Warner – which had achieved a de facto monopoly of broadband Internet access, were about to choke off innovation and commerce for tens of thousands of smaller businesses.
The move to reclassify Internet services as a utility reaffirms the purpose of the commission. The FCC was established by an act of Congress in 1934 to regulate the radio spectrum. It has since come to oversee television and telecommunications because these are public utilities that serve the common good. The Internet — which has incorporated telephone transmission and most broadcast content — has become a utility by any definition of the word. Mr. Wheeler’s speech prior to the vote underlined that reality. “The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free and open access to the Internet,” Wheeler said.
The day after the vote, reaction among the grassroots groups who had worked to uphold network neutrality was jubilant. Democracy Now’s interview with Tim Wu sums up the mood.
It’s worth remembering, however, that it took the banking lobby 65 years to erase the financial rules put in place by the New Deal. They were patient and well funded. There’s still a lot of money to be made by owning the Internet; it would be surprising if the telecom companies gave up that chance without a fight. Just last week, in fact, US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced “The Internet Freedom Act” to overturn the FCC’s new rule. As Ars Technica reported, Representative Blackburn took $80,000 from telecom PACs in the latest election cycle.
You can do something too. Ask your representative in Congress not to support Blackburn’s bill. And don’t take open Internet access for granted, because as a popular bumper sticker says, “Freedom Isn’t Free.”
This is probably the clearest explanation of Net Neutrality and what’s at stake that I’ve ever seen. John Oliver from his new show Last Week Tonight:
Oliver’s plea to maintain the common carriage rules nearly throttled the FCC website.
The May issue of The Atlantic has funny-scary piece about a social engineering contest on Twitter. Titled Are You Following a Bot?, the brief article outlines a recently concluded experiment by the Web Ecology Project wherein socialbots (programs) were let loose on the Twitter network to try to win friends and influence people.
Turns out, they did pretty well. According to the Web Ecology post on the contest, “In under a week, Team C’s bot was able to generate close to 200 responses from the target network, with conversations ranging from a few back and forth tweets to an actual set of lengthy interchanges between the bot and the targets.”
Think of the labor that can be saved if you outsource all those boring tweets about what you ate for lunch and the cute thing your cat did today to a bot! Free from the chains of Twitter, regular people will have scads more time for walking around outside, or engaging in F2F conversations with other actual people. And, if socialbots can pass the Turing Test, marketers have gained a powerful new spamming tool.
Apparently, the applications of the tech may be a bit more sinister than that. As The Atlantic story noted, “A week after [the Web Ecology Project’s] experiment ended, Anonymous, a notorious hacker group, penetrated the e-mail accounts of the cyber-security firm HBGary Federal and revealed a solicitation of bids by the United States Air Force in June 2010 for ‘Persona Management Software’—a program that would enable the government to create multiple fake identities that trawl social-networking sites to collect data on real people and then use that data to gain credibility and to circulate propaganda.”
In 2010, more Americans got their news from the net than from newspapers, according to the State of the News Media Report 2011, recently released by the Pew Trust. “The internet now trails only television among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing,” the report stated.
The study also identifies the structural changes underlying this shift in news consumption. “In the 20th century, the news media thrived by being the intermediary others needed to reach customers. In the 21st, increasingly there is a new intermediary: Software programmers, content aggregators and device makers control access to the public. The news industry, late to adapt and culturally more tied to content creation than engineering, finds itself more a follower than leader shaping its business.” Therefore, it’s not surprising that online ad revenue also exceeded ad revenue earned by newspapers in 2010.
Readers have certainly seen a change in the quality of news in the past decade and a half. Because the tools used to collect and disseminate information have become so inexpensive, anybody can be a reporter and a publisher. Consequently, there’s a lot more “content” available, but less actual news. At the same time, old media sources like big metro papers, are engaged in a race to the bottom as they cut costs to adapt to the new business model. In between are a lot of so-called news organizations — AOL, Demand Media, Fox News — that are predicated on the idea that content must be cheap to be profitable.
The result is that the signal has been flooded with noise. Actual news has been replaced with conjecture, opinion and amateur reporting. A related effect of this shift in the business of news is that there is no longer a sense of consensual reality. As traditional media outlets chase more narrowly defined audiences, the idea of a “mainstream view”, or center, has vanished.
New technologies have always changed the way people learn and think. The printing press, steamships, the telegraph, radio and television have all caused upheavals in the news business. The internet is no different. Soon, I hope, people will find methods and sources to pull meaning from this muddle of information.
Here are a few predictions (more baseless opinion) about the shape of the news business in the future. Old media, newspapers and television, will continue to shrink budgets and cut staff until they arrive at a profitable business model — or fold. Radio is the exception to this, probably because radio’s cost of production is already low, but also because its mode of delivery is highly portable and convenient for news consumers.
The news field will become more crowded as amateurs pile in and various crowd-source schemes are tried and discarded. The successful model will probably be programmatic: an algorithm or faceted filter that pulls from dozens of live feeds to render a digest of current events. Google News is already doing something like this with their News For You filter.
The authoritative, professional sources of news that emerge will either be subsidized or collectivized. Subsidized news has been around a long time. The BBC and the CBC are leading examples. Newer players, like Al Jazeera, will thrive with this model too. Collectivized news, like the Associated Press and Reuters, will become more dominant as news outlets pool resources to get quality reporting. Citizen collectives like Democracy Now, Common Dreams and Wikileaks will also become more prominent.
And, finally, The New York Times’ new online subscription fees won’t add much to the company’s revenue. Although the method of implementing the new paywall is savvy, the price point is too high. At $35 a month for an all-access digital subscription, the NYT won’t see many non-institutional subscribers. For more info on that see nytimes.com/access.
Director General of Al Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, spoke at the TED conference last week about the revolutions sweeping North Africa. Here’s the video:
Based in Doha, Quatar, Al Jazeera is an international television network and internet broadcaster that has led coverage of the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Palestinian-born Khanfar was a war correspondent, then Baghdad bureau chief of the network and is now director general of Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, whose name means “the island” in Arabic, can been seen online at english.aljazeera.net.