"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Net Neutrality’

Edward Snowden’s Not The Story. The Fate Of The Internet Is.

In Uncategorized on August 6, 2013 at 3:08 pm
Edward Snowden

While the press concentrates on the furore surrounding Edward Snowden’s search for political asylum, it has forgotten the importance of his revelations. Photograph: Tatyana Lokshina/AP

Oldspeak: “Here are some of the things we should be thinking about as a result of what we have learned so far.  The first is that the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered… Second, the issue of internet governance is about to become very contentious…. Third… the Obama administration’s “internet freedom agenda” has been exposed as patronising cant…. (Fourth) No US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their “cloud” services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA.” –John Naughton

“Look past the “Where’s Waldo” narrative that been propagandized by state media outlets. The last free and open source of communication and distribution of free information and truthful knowledge is fast becoming a thing of the past. It’s being turned into a global surveillance network. You no longer should have any reasonable expectation for privacy of any activities you engage in digitally. The Stasi couldn’t have dreamed of doing it better.” –OSJ

By John Naughton @ The U.K. Guardian:

Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story. The story is what he has revealed about the hidden wiring of our networked world. This insight seems to have escaped most of the world’s mainstream media, for reasons that escape me but would not have surprised Evelyn Waugh, whose contempt for journalists was one of his few endearing characteristics. The obvious explanations are: incorrigible ignorance; the imperative to personalise stories; or gullibility in swallowing US government spin, which brands Snowden as a spy rather than a whistleblower.

In a way, it doesn’t matter why the media lost the scent. What matters is that they did. So as a public service, let us summarise what Snowden has achieved thus far.

Without him, we would not know how the National Security Agency (NSA) had been able to access the emails, Facebook accounts and videos of citizens across the world; or how it had secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans; or how, through a secret court, it has been able to bend nine US internet companies to its demands for access to their users’ data.

Similarly, without Snowden, we would not be debating whether the US government should have turned surveillance into a huge, privatised business, offering data-mining contracts to private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton and, in the process, high-level security clearance to thousands of people who shouldn’t have it. Nor would there be – finally – a serious debate between Europe (excluding the UK, which in these matters is just an overseas franchise of the US) and the United States about where the proper balance between freedom and security lies.

These are pretty significant outcomes and they’re just the first-order consequences of Snowden’s activities. As far as most of our mass media are concerned, though, they have gone largely unremarked. Instead, we have been fed a constant stream of journalistic pap – speculation about Snowden’s travel plans, asylum requests, state of mind, physical appearance, etc. The “human interest” angle has trumped the real story, which is what the NSA revelations tell us about how our networked world actually works and the direction in which it is heading.

As an antidote, here are some of the things we should be thinking about as a result of what we have learned so far.

The first is that the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered. It was always a possibility that the system would eventually be Balkanised, ie divided into a number of geographical or jurisdiction-determined subnets as societies such as China, Russia, Iran and other Islamic states decided that they needed to control how their citizens communicated. Now, Balkanisation is a certainty.

Second, the issue of internet governance is about to become very contentious. Given what we now know about how the US and its satraps have been abusing their privileged position in the global infrastructure, the idea that the western powers can be allowed to continue to control it has become untenable.

Third, as Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, the Obama administration’s “internet freedom agenda” has been exposed as patronising cant. “Today,” he writes, “the rhetoric of the ‘internet freedom agenda’ looks as trustworthy as George Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ after Abu Ghraib.”

That’s all at nation-state level. But the Snowden revelations also have implications for you and me.

They tell us, for example, that no US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their “cloud” services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA. That means that if you’re thinking of outsourcing your troublesome IT operations to, say, Google or Microsoft, then think again.

And if you think that that sounds like the paranoid fantasising of a newspaper columnist, then consider what Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission, had to say on the matter recently. “If businesses or governments think they might be spied on,” she said, “they will have less reason to trust the cloud, and it will be cloud providers who ultimately miss out. Why would you pay someone else to hold your commercial or other secrets, if you suspect or know they are being shared against your wishes? Front or back door – it doesn’t matter – any smart person doesn’t want the information shared at all. Customers will act rationally and providers will miss out on a great opportunity.”

Spot on. So when your chief information officer proposes to use the Amazon or Google cloud as a data-store for your company’s confidential documents, tell him where to file the proposal. In the shredder

 

 

FBI Quietly Releases Plans For ‘Social Media Application’ To Continuously Monitor Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Flickr & Other Social Networks Worldwide

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Oldspeak:’ Social networks are about connecting people with other people – if one person is the target of police monitoring, there will be a dragnet effect in which dozens, even hundreds, of innocent users also come under surveillance. It is not necessarily the case that the more information law enforcement officers have, the safer we will be.’ –Gus Hosein, Privacy International  Following the lead of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, & The Pentagon, the FBI will be monitoring all social networks for ‘bad actors’ & ’emerging threats’, and locating them via Google and Yahoo Maps. The power of social networking to foment and facilitate protest and dissent has been demonstrated the world over. Tools are being created to dilute, counteract & co-opt that power. Left unanswered, who will be designated as a ‘bad actor’ or ‘threat’, in the minds of people who are trained to view protestors and dissenters as low-level terrorists. It will be interesting to see as more and more freedoms are eliminated, and more and more people are viewed as “domestic terrorists” for protesting unconstitutional laws, who will be labeled “terrorists” or “enemy combatants” in the future. Intellectutals? Journalists? Activists? Bloggers? You?

Related Stories:

FBI’s Counterterrorism Operations Scrutinizing Political Activists

Spying on U.S Citizens — Uncle Sam turns his multi-billion dollar espionage network on U.S Citizens

By Common Dreams:

The FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center (SOIC) posted a ‘Request for Information (RFI)’ online last week seeking companies to build a social network monitoring system for the FBI. The 12-page document (.pdf) spells out what the bureau wants from such a system and invites potential contractors to reply by February 10, 2012.

It says the application should provide information about possible domestic and global threats superimposed onto maps “using mash-up technology”.

It says the application should collect “open source” information and have the ability to:

  • Provide an automated search and scrape capability of social networks including Facebook and Twitter.
  • Allow users to create new keyword searches.
  • Display different levels of threats as alerts on maps, possibly using color coding to distinguish priority. Google Maps 3D and Yahoo Maps are listed among the “preferred” mapping options.
  • Plot a wide range of domestic and global terror data.
  • Immediately translate foreign language tweets into English.

It notes that agents need to “locate bad actors…and analyze their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations, and possible adverse actions”. It also states that the bureau will use social media to create “pattern-of-life matrices” — presumably logs of targets’ daily routines — that will aid law enforcement in planning operations.

* * *

New Scientist magazine reports today:

“These tools that mine open source data and presumably store it for a very long time, do away with that kind of privacy. I worry about the effect of that on free speech in the US” — Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier FoundationThe US Federal Bureau of Investigation has quietly released details of plans to continuously monitor the global output of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, offering a rare glimpse into an activity that the FBI and other government agencies are reluctant to discuss publicly. The plans show that the bureau believes it can use information pulled from social media sites to better respond to crises, and maybe even to foresee them. […]

The use of the term “publicly available” suggests that Facebook and Twitter may be able to exempt themselves from the monitoring by making their posts private. But the desire of the US government to watch everyone may still have an unwelcome impact, warns Jennifer Lynch at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.

Lynch says that many people post to social media in the expectation that only their friends and followers are reading, which gives them “the sense of freedom to say what they want without worrying too much about recourse,” says Lynch. “But these tools that mine open source data and presumably store it for a very long time, do away with that kind of privacy. I worry about the effect of that on free speech in the US”.

* * *

The BBC reports:

“Social networks are about connecting people with other people – if one person is the target of police monitoring, there will be a dragnet effect in which dozens, even hundreds, of innocent users also come under surveillance” — Gus Hosein, Privacy InternationalThe FBI issued the request three weeks after the US Department of Homeland Security released a separate report into the privacy implications of monitoring social media websites.

It justified the principle of using information that users have provided and not opted to make private.

“Information posted to social media websites is publicly accessible and voluntarily generated. Thus the opportunity not to provide information exists prior to the informational post by the user,” it says.[…]

The London-based campaign group, Privacy International, said it was worried about the consequences of such activities.

“Social networks are about connecting people with other people – if one person is the target of police monitoring, there will be a dragnet effect in which dozens, even hundreds, of innocent users also come under surveillance,” said Gus Hosein, the group’s executive director.

“It is not necessarily the case that the more information law enforcement officers have, the safer we will be.

“Police may well find themselves overwhelmed by a flood of personal information, information that is precious to those it concerns but useless for the purposes of crime prevention.”

* * *

The Fierce Government website reports on ‘refining raw social media into intelligence gold’:

The notion that the future can be predicted by trends expressed in collective social media output is one that has gained increased currency in academic writing. A January analysis (.pdf) published by the Rand Corp. of tweets using the #IranElection hashtag during 2009 and early 2010 found a correlation between appearance of swear words and protests. The study also found a shift that indicated the protest movement was losing momentum when swearing shifted from curses at the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to curses at an opposition figure.

A March 2011 paper published in the Journal of Computational Science (abstract) also posited that movements of the Dow Jones Industrial Average could be predicted to an accuracy of 86.7 percent by changes of national mood reflected in Tweets. According to The Economist, British hedge fund Derwent Capital Markets has licensed the algorithm to guide the investments of a $41 million fund.

“Internet Censorship Affects Everybody”: The Global Struggle For Online Freedom

In Uncategorized on January 18, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Oldspeak: The reason why these issues are so important for ordinary Americans and really go beyond just sort of a nerdy, geeky technical issue is that in today’s society, we, as citizens, increasingly depend on internet services and platforms, mobile services and platforms, not only for our personal lives and our businesses and our jobs, but also for our political discourse and political activism, getting involved with politics. And so, it’s very important that people who are exercising power, whether they’re corporate or whether they’re government, that are exercising power over what we can see, over what we can access, over what we can publish and transmit through these digital spaces, need to be held accountable, and we need to make sure that power is not being abused in these digital spaces and platforms that we depend on. And so, that’s why this SOPA and PIPA legislation and the fight over it is so important, is who are you empowering to decide what people can and cannot see and do on the internet, and how do you make sure that that power is not going to be abused in ways that could have political consequences. And we’ve actually seen how existing copyright law has sometimes been abused by different actors who want to prevent critics from speaking out.” –Rebecca MacKinnon Chinese style internet censorship is coming to America. It may not happen now, but you can bet this won’t be the last effort to do so.

Related Stories:

Understand Today’s Internet Strike: SOPA, PIPA And A Free Internet

Wikipedia, Reddit to Shut Down Sites Wednesday to Protest Proposed Stop Online Piracy Act

Censorship, Capitalism & “Personalization” The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You

Internet Censorship Bills Up For Vote Dec 5th – “Stop Online Piracy Act” & “Protect IP” Garner Enthusiastic Bi-Partisan Support In Congress

By Amy Goodman @ Democracy Now

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Rebecca MacKinnon in Washington, D.C., author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Rebecca, the internet has been touted as such a tremendous liberating force. When we look at the events of this past year, the uprisings throughout the Middle East, part of the discussion of how that moment came is because of the internet, because of social media. And yet you talk about, more often than not, the internet is being used to spy on, to crack down on—spy on people, crack down on civil liberties. Talk about what you have found and how this relates to the legislation that we’re seeing now being developed in Washington.

REBECCA MacKINNON: Well, thanks very much, Amy, for having me on here today.

And just to connect my book to the issues that you were just discussing in the previous segment about the Protect IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act, I think the reason why this—these issues are so important for ordinary Americans and really go beyond just sort of a nerdy, geeky technical issue is that in today’s society, we, as citizens, increasingly depend on internet services and platforms, mobile services and platforms, not only for our personal lives and our businesses and our jobs, but also for our political discourse and political activism, getting involved with politics. And so, it’s very important that people who are exercising power, whether they’re corporate or whether they’re government, that are exercising power over what we can see, over what we can access, over what we can publish and transmit through these digital spaces, need to be held accountable, and we need to make sure that power is not being abused in these digital spaces and platforms that we depend on. And so, that’s why this SOPA and PIPA legislation and the fight over it is so important, is who are you empowering to decide what people can and cannot see and do on the internet, and how do you make sure that that power is not going to be abused in ways that could have political consequences. And we’ve actually seen how existing copyright law has sometimes been abused by different actors who want to prevent critics from speaking out.

But coming back to the Arab Spring, my book is not about whether the good guys or the bad guys are winning on the internet. The internet is empowering everybody. It’s empowering Democrats. It’s empowering dictators. It’s empowering criminals. It’s empowering people who are doing really wonderful and creative things. But the issue really is how do we ensure that the internet evolves in a manner that remains consistent with our democratic values and that continues to support people’s ability to use these technologies for dissent and political organizing. And while the internet was part of the story in the Arab Spring in terms of how people were able to organize, it’s not so clear to what extent it’s going to be part of the story in terms of building stable democracies in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where the dictators did fall, let alone in a number of other countries.

In Tunisia, for instance, there is a big argument going on, now that they’ve had their set of democratic elections to the Constitutional Assembly, and they’re trying to write their constitution and figure out how to set up a new democracy. And Tunisia, under Ben Ali, was actually one of the most sophisticated Arab countries when it came to censoring and surveillance on the internet. And quite a number of the people who have been democratically elected in Tunisia are calling for a resumption of censorship and surveillance for national security reasons, to maintain public morals and public order. And there’s a huge debate going on about what is the role of censorship and surveillance in a democracy, and how do you make sure that power is not abused.

And they turn and look at the United States, they look at Europe, and censorship laws are proliferating around the democratic world. And there’s not sufficient discussion and consideration for how these laws are going to be abused. And we’ve seen, actually, in Europe, with a number of efforts to censor both copyright infringement as well as child pornography and so on, that a lot of this internet blocking that happens, even in democracies, oftentimes exercises mission creep, so things that weren’t originally intended to be blocked end up getting blocked when the systems are in place. It’s really difficult to make sure that the censorship does not spread beyond its original intent. It’s very hard to control. So, this is one of the issues.

It’s not that the internet isn’t empowering. It’s not that the internet can’t help the good guys—it certainly does. But we’re at a critical point, I think, in history, where the internet is not some force of nature. How it evolves and how it can be used and who it empowers really depends on all of us taking responsibility for making sure it evolves in a direction that’s compatible with democracy, and that it doesn’t empower the most powerful incumbent governments or the most powerful corporations to decide what we can and cannot see and do with our technology.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca MacKinnon, talk about the phenomenon, Control 2.0.

REBECCA MacKINNON: Right. So, Control 2.0 is what I refer to in terms of how authoritarian governments are evolving in the internet age. And so, one example I use is China. And China, in many ways, is exhibit A for how an authoritarian state survives the internet. And how do they do that? They have not cut off their population from the internet. In fact, the internet is expanding rapidly in China. They now have over 500 million internet users. And the Chinese government recognizes that being connected to the global internet is really important for its economy, for its education, for its culture, for innovation. Yet, at the same time, they have worked out a way to filter and censor the content overseas that they feel their citizens should not be accessing.

And what’s even more insidious, actually, is the way in which the state uses the private sector to conduct most of its censorship and surveillance. So, actually, what we know as the Great Firewall of China that blocks Twitter and Facebook, that’s only one part of Chinese internet censorship. Actually, most Chinese internet users are using Chinese-language websites that are run by Chinese companies based in China, and those companies are all held responsible for everything their users are doing. And so, they have to hire entire departments of people to monitor their users at the police’s behest and also to not just block, but delete content that the Chinese government believes infringes Chinese law. And, of course, when—in a country where crime is defined very broadly to include political and religious dissent, that involves a great deal of censorship. And it’s being conducted, to a great degree, not by government agents, but by private corporations who are complying with these demands in order to make a profit in China.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca, talk about specifics, like Facebook, Facebook—changes in Facebook features and privacy settings, exposing identities of protesters to police in Egypt, in Iran. Talk about Google. Talk about Apple removing politically controversial apps.

REBECCA MacKINNON: Right. So, for instance, with Facebook, Facebook has its own kind of type of governance, which is why I call private internet companies the “sovereigns of cyberspace.” And so, Facebook has a rule where it requires that its users need to use their real name, their real identity. And while some people violate that rule, that makes them vulnerable to having their account shut down if they are discovered. And so, the reason they do this is that they want people to be accountable for their speech and prevent bullying and so on. And that may make sense in the context of a Western democracy, assuming that you’re not vulnerable in your workplace or anything like that, which is even a question, but it means that you have to be—as an Egyptian activist or as an activist in Syria and so on, you’re more exposed, because you have to be on Facebook using your real name.

And actually, a group of prominent activists in Egypt who were using Facebook to organize an anti-torture movement were doing so, before the regime fell, under fake names, and actually, at a critical point where they were trying to organize a major protest, their Facebook group went down, because they were in violation of the terms of service. And they actually had to find somebody in the U.S. to take over their Facebook page so that they could continue to operate.

And you also have a lot of cases of people in Iran. There have been a number of reports of people being tortured for their Facebook passwords and so on. And the fact that Iranian users are, in most cases, using their real names makes them a great deal more vulnerable.

And as you know, here in the United States, Facebook recently was subject to a fine and had to reach a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission because of the changes in its privacy settings that had been sudden at the end of 2009. People had made assumptions about whether their friends could be seen or not publicly. Suddenly those settings changed, and it exposed a lot of people in ways that, in some cases, were very dangerous.

But also, let’s take some other companies and some of the issues that users face. Apple, in its App Store, it has different versions of its App Store in different parts of the world. And their Chinese App Store censors applications that the Chinese government believes to be controversial. So, for instance, the Dalai Lama app in the Apple Store is not available in China. But Apple employees are also making a lot of other judgments about what content is and isn’t appropriate, that goes according to standards that are much more narrow than our First Amendment rights. So, for instance, an American political cartoonist, Mark Fiore, had an app in which he was making fun of a range of politicians, including President Obama, and Apple App Store nannies decided to censor that app, because they considered it to be too controversial, even though that speech was clearly protected under the First Amendment. So you have companies making these judgments that go well beyond sort of our judicial and constitutional process.

You also have Amazon, for instance, dropping WikiLeaks, even though it had not been accused, let alone, convicted, of any crime, simply because a number of American politicians objected to WikiLeaks. And so, there is this issue of: are companies, in the way in which they operate their services, considering the free expression rights and privacy rights of their users sufficiently to ensure that we’re able to have robust dissent, that people can speak truth to power in a manner that may be making current government officials very, very uncomfortable, but which is clearly protected both under our Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca—

REBECCA MacKINNON: Should we be expecting companies to push back a bit more?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the newly released government documents that reveal the Department of Homeland Security hired the military contractor General Dynamics to monitor postings of U.S. citizens on dozens of websites. The sites monitored included Facebook and Twitter, as well as several news sites, including the New York TimesWiredThe Huffington Post. General Dynamics was asked to collect reports that dealt with government agencies, including CIA, FEMA, ICE. Your thoughts?

REBECCA MacKINNON: Well, this is exactly the kind of issue that we need to deal with in a democracy. Now, if they have been hired to monitor postings that citizens are putting on a public website, I think that’s a reminder that our public information is public and that it’s being mined and watched by all kinds of people. But it’s also an example of why privacy settings are so important and why—why it’s important that people should be able to be anonymous if they want to be on the internet, if they fear consequences or if they fear misuse of the way in which they’re carrying out political discussions that could be used against them in different ways.

And there’s also a real issue, I think, in the way in which our laws are evolving when it comes to government access to information stored on corporate servers, that is supposed to be private, that we are not intending to be seen in public, which is that, according to the PATRIOT Act and a range of other law that has been passed in recent years, it’s much easier for government agencies to access your email, to access information about your postings on Twitter, even if they’re anonymous, than it is for government agents to come into your home and search your personal effects. To do that, they need a warrant. There is very clear restriction on the government’s ability to read your mail. Yet, according to current law, if your email is older than 180 days old, the government can access your email, if it’s stored on Gmail or Yahoo! or Hotmail, without any kind of warrant or court order. So, there’s a real erosion of our Fourth Amendment rights, really, to protection from unreasonable search and seizure. And this is going on, I think, to a great degree without a lot people realizing the extent to which our privacy rights are being eroded.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca, we have 30 seconds, but the significance of Wednesday, of tomorrow, of Wikipedia and many other websites going dark in protest of the legislation here in the United States? What do you think is the most important issue people should take away from what’s happening and also from your book, Consent of the Networked?

REBECCA MacKINNON: Well, I think the action tomorrow really demonstrates that internet censorship affects everybody, it’s not just affecting people in China, that this is an issue that we all need to be concerned about, and it can happen in democracies as well as in dictatorships.

And the core message of my book is that if we want democracy to survive in the internet age, we really need to work to make sure that the internet evolves in a manner that is compatible with democracy, and that means exercising our power not only as consumers and internet users and investors, but also as voters, to make sure that our digital lives contain the same kind of protections of our rights that we expect in physical space.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca MacKinnon, I want to thank you very much for being with us, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, co-founder of Global Voices Online. Her new book is called Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

Internet Censorship Bills Up For Vote Dec 5th – “Stop Online Piracy Act” & “Protect IP” Garner Enthusiastic Bi-Partisan Support In Congress

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2011 at 10:53 am

Oldspeak:“If there’s one thing this latest do-nothing Congress does well it’s draft bills to take things away from you. On the heels of a bill to indefinitely detain Americans without cause or charge , we have a bill that won’t do what it’s supposed to do, (fight piracy), but will put American internet censorship at the same level it is in CHINA. ‘Any holder of intellectual property rights could simply send a letter to ad network operators like Google and to payment processors like MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, demanding these companies cut off access to any site the IP holder names as an infringer.’-Mike MasnickYou can be found “dedicated to the theft of US property” if the core functionality of your site “enables or facilitates” infringement. The core functionality of nearly EVERY internet website that involves user generated content enables and facilitates infringement. THE ENTIRE INTERNET ITSELF ENABLES OR FACILITATES INFRINGMENT.’-Joan McCarter Under the oft used guise of “security”, media corporations; ‘intellectual property’ owners like Viacom, Universal, Paramount, and Monster Cable will get to compile lists of “rogue sites” “dedicated to infringement”, to be targeted for shutdown,  while providing no substantive evidence of infringement. In reality, the goal is to stifle free speech and competition. Censorship. As American as apple pie.

Related Video:

Wyden Call To Arms — Ask Him To Read Your Name During Filibuster Of SOPA/PIPA Censorship Bills

By Joan McCarter @ The Daily Kos:

Because forcing austerity on the nation isn’t enough to keep Congress occupied and off the streets, they’re also plotting against the internet with SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House, and PROTECT IP in the Senate (BANANAS alert if you click that link). In a generally deadlocked body, this one seems to be on the fast track, potentially coming up for a vote in the Senate as soon as Dec. 5.

ArsTechnica provides the background.

Imagine a world in which any intellectual property holder can, without ever appearing before a judge or setting foot in a courtroom, shut down any website’s online advertising programs and block access to credit card payments. The credit card processors and the advertising networks would be required to take quick action against the named website; only the filing of a “counter notification” by the website could get service restored.It’s the world envisioned by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) in today’s introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the US House of Representatives. This isn’t some off-the-wall piece of legislation with no chance of passing, either; it’s the House equivalent to the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act, which would officially bring Internet censorship to the US as a matter of law.

Calling its plan a “market-based system to protect US customers and prevent US funding of sites dedicated to theft of US property,” the new bill gives broad powers to private actors. Any holder of intellectual property rights could simply send a letter to ad network operators like Google and to payment processors like MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, demanding these companies cut off access to any site the IP holder names as an infringer.

If that sounds a little alarmist, it isn’t. Mike Masnick at Techdirt, in the “definitive post on why SOPA and Protect IP are bad, bad ideas” walks through the extensive list of problems with the bills.

The real fear is the massive collateral damage these bills will have to jobs, the economy and innovation.

  • The broad definitions in the bill create tremendous uncertainty for nearly every site online.  This sounds like hyperbole, but it is not.  Defenders of the bill like to claim that it is “narrowly focused” on foreign rogue infringing sites.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While PIPA targets only foreign sites, the mechanism by which it does so is to put tremendous compliance and liability on third party service providers in the US.  SOPA goes even further in expanding the private right of action to domestic sites as well.  We’ve already seen how such laws can be abused by looking at how frequently false takedown claims are made under the existing DMCA.  Of course, under the DMCA, just the content is blocked.  Under SOPA all money to a site can be cut off.  Under PIPA sites will just end up in court. Or, with both laws, an Attorney General can take action leading US companies to have to effectively act as network nannies trying to keep infringement from being accessible.  None of this is good for anyone building a startup company these days. […] And the definitions are ridiculously broad. Under SOPA, you can be found “dedicated to the theft of US property” if the core functionality of your site “enables or facilitates” infringement. The core functionality of nearly every internet website that involves user generated content enables and facilitates infringement. The entire internet itself enables or facilitates infringement. Email enables or facilitates infringement. […]
  • The risk of these broad definitions on perfectly legitimate companies is not theoretical: Defenders of both bills continue to insist that they’re only meant to deal with the worst of the worst.  If that were really true, the definitions would be a lot tighter and a lot more specific.  Even if this is the intention of the authors of both bills, the simple fact is that the very broad definitions in the bill, mean that any entrepreneur today will need to take significant compliance costs just to avoid the possible appearance of fitting the criteria. […]
  • The risk of these broad definitions on perfectly legitimate companies is not theoretical: Defenders of both bills continue to insist that they’re only meant to deal with the worst of the worst.  If that were really true, the definitions would be a lot tighter and a lot more specific.  Even if this is the intention of the authors of both bills, the simple fact is that the very broad definitions in the bill, mean that any entrepreneur today will need to take significant compliance costs just to avoid the possible appearance of fitting the criteria. […]
  • That uncertainty has extreme and quantifiable effects on investment in new startups.  A very detailed look at the uncertainty in the cloud computing space, prior to and after the decision in the Comedy Central v. Cablevision case, which effectively set the framework for the legality of cloud computing, showedmuch greater investment when the law was clarified to be in favor of letting these new services thrive.  Take that away, and investment in this engine of growth likely would be much lower. […]
  • Broadly expanding secondary liability is a dream for trial lawyers, but will be a disaster for business.  There’s been a move, associated with these bills to somehow demonize important concepts of safe harbors from secondary liability.  The suggestion is that secondary liability somehow “allows” bad activity.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Illegal activity is still illegal.  The point of safe harbors from secondary liability is blaming the party actually doing the action that breaks the law. […]
  • Going down the slippery slope of censorship is fraught with peril, both domestically and abroad.  Supporters of the law get angry any time people bring up censorship, but as law professor Derek Bambauer has made clear, any effort to block content is a form of censorship. […]

That’s just a handful of the problems with these bills Masnick highlights. It’s worth the read and worth taking the time to find out about this legislation, again because it seems to be action Congress is intent upon taking. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) will filibuster the bill if it comes to the Senate floor, and will do it the old-fashioned way. He’ll read the names of censorship opponents from the floor of the Senate, from the list of people who sign the petition at http://stopcensorship.org/. Here he is talking about his efforts:

It’s possible that with enough support for the filibuster, leadership gives up on bringing this to the floor in the near future. After all, they’ve got an awful lot to get through between now and Christmas and if Wyden can find several senators to support him, they can threaten to tie things in the Senate up enough that the vote has to be postponed. That, along with Microsoft’s opposition to it, might just do the trick.

Facebook Forms PAC For Political Donations Ahead Of 2012 Elections

In Uncategorized on October 3, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Oldspeak:”Not content with dominating social networking, Facebook has gotten into the law making/law enforcement business. Facebook is lobbying politicians & running candidates for elected office. This news comes weeks after Facebook warned  a reporter about expressing his political viewpoint on its site.  Facebook’s PAC “will give our employees a way to make their voice heard in the political process by supporting candidates who share our goals of promoting the value of innovation to our economy while giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” spokesman Andrew Noyes Said. Federal records show the company has more than tripled its federal lobbying spending since 2009, from about $200,000 to more than $730,000 this year. Much of Facebook’s recent lobbying activity has focused on net neutrality and privacy issues. The move is the latest in a series of maneuvers boosting the Palo Alto company’s political profile in recent years, joining a steady rise in lobbying spending, several high-profile fundraisers and the failed statewide candidacy of one of its key officers for attorney general last year” –Chase Davis  Why does a corporation that claims to be “about building relationships not a platform for your political viewpoint.”(Nevermind the countless politicians and political organizations with pages on its site) need a political action committee?

Related Story:

Facebook Forms PAC For Political Donations

By Chase Davis @ The San Francisco Chronicle:

Social networking giant Facebook is expanding its political footprint, confirming that it has filed the necessary paperwork to open a political action committee in advance of the 2012 elections.

The move is the latest in a series of maneuvers boosting the Palo Alto company’s political profile in recent years, joining a steady rise in lobbying spending, several high-profile fundraisers and the failed statewide candidacy of one of its key officers for attorney general last year.

News of the Facebook PAC was confirmed earlier this week by congressional newspaper the Hill, which noted that the company registered two domain names – FBPAC.org and FBPAC.us – that were intended for the committee’s use.

Much like Microsoft and Google before it, Facebook’s meteoric rise has been followed by a boost in political activity across the board.

Federal records show the company has more than tripled its federal lobbying spending since 2009, from about $200,000 to more than $730,000 this year. Much of Facebook’s recent lobbying activity has focused on net neutrality and privacy issues.

The company also has added a number of key political players to its bench in recent months. Sheryl Sandberg, who served as chief of staff for the Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton, joined Facebook as chief operating officer in 2008. She held a fundraiser for President Obama this week at her home in Atherton, where Lady Gaga was among the attendees.

Other key political hires have included former George W. Bush administration official Joel Kaplan, who was hired to lead the company’s Washington, D.C., offices, and Tucker Bounds, who ran communications for former eBay CEO Meg Whitman’s failed gubernatorial bid last year.

The company has expanded its footprint in Sacramento, too, spending more than $50,000 on lobbying through the first two quarters of this year and nearly $80,000 last year, when it hired its first state-level lobbyist.

Among the bills it lobbied were a measure that would have required stringent reporting for sex offenders on social networking sites and bills related to privacy and carpooling benefits.

The sex offender issue has come up for Facebook before, notably when the company’s former chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, ran for California attorney general last year. Kelly, who resigned his post at Facebook in order to run, placed third in the Democratic primary.

The company also plans to co-sponsor a debate between Republican presidential candidates early next year in New Hampshire.

California Watch is a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Contact the author at cdavis@californiawatch.org. For more, visit californiawatch.org

Facebook Tracks You Online, Even After You Log Out

In Uncategorized on September 29, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Oldspeak:Whenever you visit a web page that contains a Facebook button or widget, your browser is still sending details of your movements back to Facebook. Even if you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit. When you log out of Facebook, rather than deleting its tracking cookies, the site merely modifies them, maintaining account information and other unique tokens that can be used to identify you. …the only solution is to delete every Facebook cookie in your browser, or to use a separate browser for Facebook interactions.” –Nik Cubrilovic  The surveillance state as indispensable social network. Just a FYI.

By Asher Moses @ The Sunday Morning Herald:

Facebook cookie collection 'could be dangerous' (Video Thumbnail)

Click to play video

More video Replay video

An Australian technologist has caused a global stir after discovering Facebook tracks the websites its users visit even when they are logged out of the social networking site.

Separately, Facebook’s new Timeline feature, launched last week, has been inadvertently accessed by users early, revealing a feature that allows people to see who removed them from their friends’ lists.

Facebook’s changes – which turn profiles into a chronological scrapbook of the user’s life – are designed to let its 800 million members share what they are reading, listening to or watching in real-time. But they have been met with alarm by some who fear over-sharing.

Causing a stir ... Nik Cubrilovic.

Causing a stir … Australian Nik Cubrilovic first spotted the tracking issuePhoto: Flickr.com/e27singapore

Of course, Facebook’s bottom line improves the more users decide to share. Reports suggest that Facebook staff refer internally to “Zuck’s law“, which describes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that every year people share twice as much online – a trend that has caused Facebook’s valuation to skyrocket towards $US100 billion.

“Facebook is a lot more than a social network and ultimately wants to be the premier platform on which people experience, organise and share digital entertainment,” said Ovum analyst Eden Zoller.

But in alarming new revelations, Wollongong-based Nik Cubrilovic conducted tests, which revealed that when you log out of Facebook, rather than deleting its tracking cookies, the site merely modifies them, maintaining account information and other unique tokens that can be used to identify you.

Facebook founder shows off the new Facebook profiles at the F8 conference last week.Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shows off the new Facebook profiles at the F8 conference last week. Photo: AFP

Whenever you visit a web page that contains a Facebook button or widget, your browser is still sending details of your movements back to Facebook, Cubrilovic says.

“Even if you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit,” Cubrilovic wrote in a blog post.

“The only solution is to delete every Facebook cookie in your browser, or to use a separate browser for Facebook interactions.”

Facebook's new Timelines feature creates a chronological scrapbook of major events in your life.Facebook’s new Timelines feature creates a chronological scrapbook of major events in your life. Photo: AFP

Cubrilovic is working on a new unnamed start-up but has previously been involved with large technology blog TechCrunch and online storage company Omnidrive.

He backed up his claims with detailed technical information. His post was picked up by technology news sites around the world but Facebook has yet to provide a response to Fairfax Media and others.

David Vaile, executive director of UNSW’s Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre, said Facebook’s changes were a ”breathtaking and audacious grab for whole life data”. In an email interview he accused the social networking site of attempting to ”normalise gross and unsafe overexposure”.

”While initially opt-in, the default then seems to be expose everything, and Facebook have form in the past for lowering protection after people get used to a certain level of initial protection – bait and switch,” he said.

Stephen Collins, spokesman for the online users’ lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said he did not believe Cubrilovic’s revelations would see people turn away from the site in droves but he hoped users became more engaged with the issue.

”Facebook, once again, are doing things that are beyond most users’ capacity to understand while reducing their privacy. That’s just not cool. I’d go so far as to say it’s specifically unethical,” he said.

Collins said the only reason he still uses Facebook is to help his 14-year-old daughter on the site. He said it took him an hour to lock down his profile to his satisfaction following the recent changes.

”It’s just not good enough. The default setting for any site should be ‘reveal nothing about me unless I make a specific choice otherwise’,” he said.

Others have compared Facebook’s changes to Bentham’s panopticon – a design for a prison where the guards can see all inmates but where the inmates never know whether they’re being watched. The result, applied to Facebook, is that real-time sharing means we always feel like we’re being watched and this then influences our behaviour.

Cubrilovic said he tried to contact Facebook to inform it of his discovery but did not get a reply. He said there were significant risks to the privacy of users, particularly those using public terminals to access Facebook.

“Facebook are front-and-centre in the new privacy debate just as Microsoft were with security issues a decade ago,” Cubrilovic said.

“The question is what it will take for Facebook to address privacy issues and to give their users the tools required to manage their privacy and to implement clear policies – not pages and pages of confusing legal documentation, and ‘logout’ not really meaning ‘logout’.”

The Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, would not comment specifically on Cubrilovic’s findings but said generally social networking sites need to clearly spell out when browsing information is being collected, the purposes for which it may be used and whether it will be disclosed to other organisations.

“Good practice would also be to allow for users to opt out of having it collected,” said Pilgrim.

The findings come after technology industry observer Dave Winer declared Facebook was scaring him because the new interface for third-party developers allows them to post items to your Facebook feed without your intervention. This has been dubbed “frictionless sharing”.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s Timeline feature, which shows users a timeline of their activity on the site throughout the years, has not officially been switched on but many are using it already. Instructions can be found here.

But inadvertently or by design, the Timeline feature also lets people see which users had “unfriended” them by following a few simple steps:

1. Enable the new Timeline feature.
2. Pick a year in the timeline and locate the Friends box.
3. Click on “Made X New Friends”.
4. Scroll through the list and when you see an “Add Friend” box, those are the people either you have unfriended or vice-versa.

However, it appears Facebook has now disabled this function, describing it to gadget blog Gizmodo as a “bug”.

Finally, security researchers were quick to hose down a hoax that spread through the social network, claiming that Facebook was planning to start charging users for the new features.

twitter This reporter is on Twitter: @ashermoses

 

 

‘Anonymous’ Collective Vows to ‘Kill’ Facebook, November 5th 2011

In Uncategorized on August 9, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Oldspeak:”Now THAT would be get peoples attention… Fuck with peoples food “Yawn”. Fuck with peoples homes “Pppbbththt.” Fuck with peoples livelihoods “the market knows best”. Fuck with the environment “Meh”. Fuck with other countries,”spreading democracy”. Fuck with Facebook? “Pandemonium”. Or not. O_0

@ Alter Net:

In a YouTube message from the collective that hacked the Syrian Ministry of Defense website Sunday, Anonymous says it will “kill” Facebook on November 5th, one day before election day, for the sake of “privacy.”

Calling out Facebook for selling privacy and working for “authoritarian governments, such as those of Egypt and Syria,” Anonymous urges “hacktivists” and others to help them kill Facebook.  Their message, in full text, reads:

DATE: November 5, 2011.
TARGET: https://facebook.com

Press:
Twitter : https://twitter.com/OP_Facebook
http://piratepad.net/YCPcpwrl09
Irc.Anonops.Li #OpFaceBook
Message:

Attention citizens of the world,

We wish to get your attention, hoping you heed the warnings as follows:
Your medium of communication you all so dearly adore will be destroyed. If you are a willing hacktivist or a guy who just wants to protect the freedom of information then join the cause and kill facebook for the sake of your own privacy.

Facebook has been selling information to government agencies and giving clandestine access to information security firms so that they can spy on people from all around the world. Some of these so-called whitehat infosec firms are working for authoritarian governments, such as those of Egypt and Syria.

Everything you do on Facebook stays on Facebook regardless of your “privacy” settings, and deleting your account is impossible, even if you “delete” your account, all your personal info stays on Facebook and can be recovered at any time. Changing the privacy settings to make your Facebook account more “private” is also a delusion. Facebook knows more about you than your family.http://www.physorg.com/news170614271.html http://itgrunts.com/2010/10/07/facebook-steals-numbers-and-data-from-your-iph….

You cannot hide from the reality in which you, the people of the internet, live in. Facebook is the opposite of the Antisec cause. You are not safe from them nor from any government. One day you will look back on this and realise what we have done here is right, you will thank the rulers of the internet, we are not harming you but saving you.

The riots are underway. It is not a battle over the future of privacy and publicity. It is a battle for choice and informed consent. It’s unfolding because people are being raped, tickled, molested, and confused into doing things where they don’t understand the consequences. Facebook keeps saying that it gives users choices, but that is completely false. It gives users the illusion of and hides the details away from them “for their own good” while they then make millions off of you. When a service is “free,” it really means they’re making money off of you and your information.

Think for a while and prepare for a day that will go down in history. November 5 2011, #opfacebook . Engaged.

This is our world now. We exist without nationality, without religious bias. We have the right to not be surveilled, not be stalked, and not be used for profit. We have the right to not live as slaves.

We are anonymous
We are legion
We do not forgive
We do not forget
Expect us

We can expect to hear much more from Anonymous, the famous hacktivists who not only hacked Syria’s Ministry of Defense website, but also Sony, Visa, and MasterCard, among many others. While Anonymous members have been the target of a slew of recent arrests,  their message is clear: They will not be silenced.

 

U.S. House Bill H.R. 1981 Approved To Create Massive Surveillance Database Of Internet Users

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Oldspeak: “If they called it H.R. 1984 it would have been a bit much I suppose. H.R. 1981? Close enough to make the point without being explicitly dickish. While the Debt Theater came to its denouement, politricians voted to relieve you of more of your privacy rights. It represents “a data bank of every digital act by every American that would let us find out where every single American visited Web sites” –Rep. Zoe Lofgren. “Requiring Internet companies to redesign and reconfigure their systems to facilitate government surveillance of Americans’ expressive activities is simply un-American.” –Kevin Bankston. Never mind that retention of identifying information would put at rist 99.9% of internet users of identity theft, decrease the overall safety of the internet, and increase the probability of potentially devastating hacker attacks. “Ignorance is Strength”

 

Related Story:

NSA Admits It Tracks Americans Via Cell Phones

By Steve Watson @ Prison Planet:

Legislation that will force Internet providers to store information on all their customers and share it with the federal government and law enforcement agencies was significantly beefed at the last minute last week and approved by a U.S. House of Representatives committee.

Under the guise of protecting children from internet pornographers, the House Judiciary committee voted 19-10 to approve a bill that will require Internet Service Providers to store temporarily assigned IP addresses for future government use.

In addition, the bill was re-written yesterday to also include the enforced retention of customers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers and bank account numbers.

As Declan McCullagh of CNet reports, the panel rejected an amendment that would have clarified that only IP addresses must be stored.

“The bill is mislabeled,” said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the panel. “This is not protecting children from Internet pornography. It’s creating a database for everybody in this country for a lot of other purposes.”

It represents “a data bank of every digital act by every American” that would “let us find out where every single American visited Web sites,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who led Democratic opposition to the bill. The Californian Representative described the legislation as a “mess of a bill” and a “stalking horse for a massive expansion of federal power”.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., noted that the bill would open a Pandora’s box of government abuse.

“This is not about child porn. It never has been and never will be,” Issa said. “This is a convenient way for law enforcement to get what they couldn’t get in the PATRIOT Act.”

Advocates for the legislation include the National Sheriffs’ Association, which has said it “strongly supports” mandatory data retention. The bill has also attracted endorsements from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as the FBI.

In a last ditch effort to derail the bill, the ACLU, along with dozens of other privacy watchdog groups penned a letter (PDF) to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith earlier this week, noting that “any data retention mandate is a direct assault on bedrock privacy principles.”

“The data retention mandate in this bill would treat every Internet user like a criminal and threaten the online privacy and free speech rights of every American, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have recognized,” Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundationsaid.

“Requiring Internet companies to redesign and reconfigure their systems to facilitate government surveillance of Americans’ expressive activities is simply un-American. Such a scheme would be as objectionable to our Founders as the requiring of licenses for printing presses or the banning of anonymous pamphlets.” Bankston added.

“This is China-style law enforcement, treating everyone as a potential suspect and requiring the collection of personal information just in case it might later be useful to the government,” said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel for the Washington based Center for Democracy and Technology, in aninterview with Bloomberg.

A fortnight ago, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) appealed before the House Judiciary Committee, asking that Congress recognize the fact that retaining identifying information would put at risk “99.9% of Internet users.”

EPIC President Marc Rotenberg pointed out that it is more prudent to seek data minimization rather than data retention, in the wake of increased risk of data breaches and identity theft. Rotenberg noted that enforced data retention would make ISPs more vulnerable to hackers, citing the LulzSec group, which recently claimed responsibility for temporarily shutting down a CIA website and other high-profile hacks.

“Minimizing stored user data reduces incentives for hackers to attack data storage systems by reducing the amount of data available to steal. Minimization also reduces the costs of data breaches,” Rotenberg said in prepared testimony.

Rotenberg suggested that the data could be used to bring criminal charges that were unrelated to child pornography, noting that any mandatory retention of data would be accessible to police investigating any crime.

“Although this data retention requirement has been introduced as part of a bill focused on child sexual exploitation, there is no evidence to suggest that the majority of law enforcement requests for customer subscriber information relate to child protection cases.” Rotenberg argued.

The bill would also allow access to the data by attorneys litigating civil disputes in divorce, insurance fraud, and other cases that have nothing to do with the protection of children on the internet.

“It would give the government sweeping authority to mandate the collection and retention of personal information obtained by business from their customers, or generated by the business in the course of providing services, for subsequent examination without any reason to believe that information is relevant or necessary for a criminal investigation,” Rotenberg further testified.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., had proposed an amendment to the bill that would have limited use of the data to child-pornography or terrorism cases, but it was withdrawn at the last minute, as Lamar Smith claimed that limiting the use of the information to child-pornography investigations could “undermine current cases on other issues”.

Rep. Scott also attempted to add an amendment to allocate $45 million a year to pay for more than 200 additional federal investigators and prosecutors dedicated to child pornography cases. Clearly a real move to crack down on child porn peddlers was unwelcome, however, as this too was struck down by committee members who claimed the funding wasn’t available.

The legislation, with all it’s privacy stripping measures intact, will now be scheduled for a full House debate.

——————————————————————

Steve Watson is the London based writer and editor for Alex Jones’ Infowars.net, and Prisonplanet.com. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Politics at The University of Nottingham in England.

Censorship, Capitalism & “Personalization” The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Oldspeak:”WOW. So much for Net Neutrality. At least in Communist China, people are fully aware the internet and online social media is being censored.  :- | Here in the land of the free U.S.A., internet censorship is practiced without your knowledge, in much more subtle, insidious, and invasive ways. Cyber gatekeepers like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and the other top 50 websites collect an average of 64 bits of personal information each time we visit and then custom-designs their sites to conform to our perceived preferences. Marketed as sexy and convenient sounding “Personalization”, the dominant search engines and social media sites that control much of what you see and read, in their voracious desire for generating ad revenue, actively edit out information that is contrary to what you are perceived to prefer or believe via data collected on your viewing habits. So a Google search for “Egypt” on your computer will be different from an identical search I make on my machine. You only see what you’re most likely to click on and thus generate revenue for them. Net Neutrality is functionally a thing of the past. The 21st century “Ministry of Truth” is invisible, omnipotent and making obscene amounts of money from mining and manipulating your personal preferences and information. The internet, originally thought as a tool to exchange, free and unencumbered, information and ideas from all point of view has been privatized. The only ideas and information you’re likely to see are those much like your own. These conditions increase polarization, societal atomization, isolation, apathy, the gap between the public and private sphere and a general ignorance of the full world around us. While reducing actual interpersonal relations/face to face contact, social ties, and concern for a “greater good”. “Personalization” is nothing more than a cybernetic and irresistible tool meant to divide and conquer the people. Folks are far easier to control and manipulate when they’re disconnected physically and psychologically balkanized. And far worse, making people feel happy and excited to participate in their own enslavement to the modern-day gods of consumption and self-interest. ‘Ignorance is Strength’ and Profit is Paramount. Could the personal computer have morphed into the 21st century version ‘Telescreen‘? ”

Related Video: Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”

By Amy Goodman @ Democracy Now:

The internet is increasingly becoming an echo chamber in which websites tailor information according to the preferences they detect in each viewer. When some users search the word “Egypt,” they may get the latest news about the revolution, others might only see search results about Egyptian vacations. The top 50 websites collect an average of 64 bits of personal information each time we visit—and then custom-design their sites to conform to our perceived preferences. What impact will this online filtering have on the future of democracy? We speak to Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. “Take news about the war in Afghanistan. When you talk to people who run news websites, they’ll tell you stories about the war in Afghanistan don’t perform very well. They don’t get a lot of clicks. People don’t flock to them. And yet, this is arguably one of the most important issues facing the country,” says Pariser. “But it will never make it through these filters. And especially on Facebook this is a problem, because the way that information is transmitted on Facebook is with the ‘like’ button. And the ‘like’ button, it has a very particular valence. It’s easy to click ‘like’ on ‘I just ran a marathon’ or ‘I baked a really awesome cake.’ It’s very hard to click ‘like’ on ‘war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year.'”

Guest:

Eli Pariser, author of the new book, ‘The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You’. He is also the board president and former executive director of MoveOn.org, which at five million members is one of the largest citizens’ organizations in American politics.

JUAN GONZALEZ: When you follow your friends on Facebook or run a search on Google, what information comes up, and what gets left out? That’s the subject of a new book by Eli Pariser called The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. According to Pariser, the internet is increasingly becoming an echo chamber in which websites tailor information according to the preferences they detect in each viewer. Yahoo! News tracks which articles we read. Zappos registers the type of shoes we wear, we prefer. And Netflix stores data on each movie we select.

AMY GOODMAN: The top 50 websites collect an average of 64 bits of personal information each time we visit and then custom-designs their sites to conform to our perceived preferences. While these websites profit from tailoring their advertisements to specific visitors, users pay a big price for living in an information bubble outside of their control. Instead of gaining wide exposure to diverse information, we’re subjected to narrow online filters.

Eli Pariser is the author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. He is also the board president and former executive director of the groupMoveOn.org. Eli joins us in the New York studio right now after a whirlwind tour through the United States.

Welcome, Eli.

ELI PARISER: Thanks for having me on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this may surprise people. Two of us sitting here, me and Juan, if we went online, the two of us, and put into Google “Eli Pariser”—

ELI PARISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN:—we actually might come up with a wholly different set of finds, a totally different set of links, of search results.

ELI PARISER: That’s right. I was surprised. I didn’t know that that was, you know, how it was working, until I stumbled across a little blog post on Google’s blog that said “personalized search for everyone.” And as it turns out, for the last several years, there is no standard Google. There’s no sort of “this is the link that is the best link.” It’s the best link for you. And the definition of what the best link for you is, is the thing that you’re the most likely to click. So, it’s not necessarily what you need to know; it’s what you want to know, what you’re most likely to click.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But isn’t that counter to the original thing that brought so many people to Google, that the algorithms that Google had developed really were reaching out to the best available information that was out there on the web?

ELI PARISER: Yeah. You know, if you look at how they talked about the original Google algorithm, they actually talked about it in these explicitly democratic terms, that the web was kind of voting—each page was voting on each other page in how credible it was. And this is really a departure from that. This is moving more toward, you know, something where each person can get very different results based on what they click on.

And when I did this recently with Egypt—I had two friends google “Egypt”—one person gets search results that are full of information about the protests there, about what’s going on politically; the other person, literally nothing about the protests, only sort of travel to see the Pyramids websites.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, wait, explain that again. I mean, that is astounding. So you go in. The uprising is happening in Egypt.

ELI PARISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, today there’s a mass protest in Tahrir Square. They’re protesting the military council and other issues. So, if I look, and someone who likes to travel look, they may not even see a reference to the uprising?

ELI PARISER: That’s right. I mean, there was nothing in the top 10 links. And, you know, actually, the way that people use Google, most people use just those top three links. So, if Google isn’t showing you sort of the information that you need to know pretty quickly, you can really miss it. And this isn’t just happening at Google; it’s happening all across the web, when I started looking into this. You know, it’s happening on most major websites, and increasingly on news websites. So, Yahoo! News does the exact same thing, tailoring what you see on Yahoo! News to which articles it thinks you might be interested in. And, you know, what’s concerning about this is that it’s really happening invisibly. You know, we don’t see this at work. You can’t tell how different the internet that you see is from the internet that anyone else sees is, but it’s getting increasingly different.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, what about the responses of those who run these search engines, that they’re merely responding to the interests and needs of the people who use the system?

ELI PARISER: Well, you know, I think—they say, “We’re just giving people what we want.” And I say, “Well, what do you mean by ‘what we want’?” Because I think, actually, all of us want a lot of different things. And there’s a short-term sort of compulsive self that clicks on the celebrity gossip and the more trivial articles, and there’s a longer-term self that wants to be informed about the world and be a good citizen. And those things are intentional all the time. You know, we have those two forces inside us. And the best media helps us sort of—helps the long-term self get an edge a little bit. It gives us some sort of information vegetables and some information dessert, and you get a balanced information diet. This is like you’re just surrounded by empty calories, by information junk food.

AMY GOODMAN: Eli, talk about your experience going on your own Facebook page.

ELI PARISER: So, this was actually the starting point for looking into this phenomenon. And basically, after 2008 and after I had transitioned out of being the executive director of MoveOn, I went on this little campaign to meet and befriend people who thought differently from me. I really wanted to hear what conservatives were thinking about, what they were talking about, you know, and learn a few things. And so, I had added these people as Facebook friends. And I logged on one morning and noticed that they weren’t there. They had disappeared. And it was very mysterious. You know, where did they go? And as it turned out, Facebook was tracking my behavior on the site. It was looking at every click. It was looking at every, you know, Facebook “like.” And it was saying, “Well, Eli, you say that you’re interested in these people, but actually, we can tell your clicking more on the progressive links than on the conservative links, so we’re going to edit it out, edit these folks out.” And they disappeared. And this gets to some of the danger of this stuff, which is that, you know, we have—

JUAN GONZALEZ: But Facebook edited out your friends?

ELI PARISER: Yeah, no. I really—you know, I miss them. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Your conservative friends.

ELI PARISER: My conservative friends, the friends that—you know, that I might—and what the play here is, is there’s this thing called confirmation bias, which is basically our tendency to feel good about information that confirms what we already believe. And, you know, you can actually see this in the brain. People get a little dopamine hit when they’re told that they’re right, essentially. And so, you know, if you were able to construct an algorithm that could show people whatever you wanted, and if the only purpose was actually to get people to click more and to view more pages, why would you ever show them something that makes them feel uncomfortable, makes them feel like they may not be right, makes them feel like there’s more to the world than our own little narrow ideas?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And doesn’t that, in effect, reinforce polarization within the society, in terms of people not being exposed to and listening to the viewpoints of others that they may disagree with?

ELI PARISER: Right. I mean, you know, democracy really requires this idea of discourse, of people hearing different ideas and responding to them and thinking about them. And, you know, I come back to this famous Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote where he says, you know, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” It’s increasingly possible to live in an online world in which you do have your own facts. And you google “climate change,” and you get the climate change links for you, and you don’t actually get exposed necessarily—you don’t even know what the alternate arguments are.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, what about the implications for this, as all of these—especially Google, Yahoo!, developed their own news sites? What are the implications in terms of the news that they put out then and the news that people receive?

ELI PARISER: Well, this is where it gets even more worrisome, because when you’re just basically trying to get people to click things more and view more pages, there’s a lot of things that just isn’t going to meet that threshold. So, you know, take news about the war in Afghanistan. When you talk to people who run news websites, they’ll tell you stories about the war in Afghanistan don’t perform very well. They don’t get a lot of clicks. People don’t flock to them. And yet, this is arguably one of the most important issues facing the country. We owe it to the people who there, at the very least, to understand what’s going on. But it will never make it through these filters. And especially on Facebook this is a problem, because the way that information is transmitted on Facebook is with the “like” button. And the “like” button, it has a very particular valence. It’s easy to click “like” on, you know, “I just ran a marathon” or “I baked a really awesome cake.” It’s very hard to click “like” on, you know, “war in Afghanistan enters its sixth year”—or “10th year,” sorry. You know, so information that is likable gets transmitted; information that’s not likable falls out.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Eli Pariser, who has written the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. Now, Google knows not only what you’re asking to search, right? They know where you are. They know the kind of computer you’re using. Tell us how much information they’re gathering from us.

ELI PARISER: Well, it’s really striking. I mean, even if you’re not—if you’re logged in to Google, then Google obviously has access to all of your email, all of your documents that you’ve uploaded, a lot of information. But even if you’re logged out, an engineer told me that there are 57 signals that Google tracks—”signals” is sort of their word for variables that they look at—everything from your computer’s IP address—that’s basically its address on the internet—what kind of laptop you’re using or computer you’re using, what kind of software you’re using, even things like the font size or how long you’re hovering over a particular link. And they use that to develop a profile of you, a sense of what kind of person is this. And then they use that to tailor the information that they show you.

And this is happening in a whole bunch of places, you know, not just sort of the main Google search, but also on Google News. And the plan for Google News is that once they sort of perfect this personalization algorithm, that they’re going to offer it to other news websites, so that all of that data can be brought to bear for any given news website, that it can tailor itself to you. You know, there are really important things that are going to fall out if those algorithms aren’t really good.

And what this raises is a sort of larger problem with how we tend to think about the internet, which is that we tend to think about the internet as this sort of medium where anybody can connect to anyone, it’s this very democratic medium, it’s a free-for-all, and it’s so much better than that old society with the gatekeepers that were controlling the flows of information. Really, that’s not how it’s panning out. And what we’re seeing is that a couple big companies are really—you know, most of the information is flowing through a couple big companies that are acting as the new gatekeepers. These algorithms do the same thing that the human editors do. They just do it much less visibly and with much less accountability.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what are the options, the opt-out options, if there are any, for those who use, whether it’s Google or Yahoo! or Facebook? Their ability to control and keep their personal information?

ELI PARISER: Well, you know, there aren’t perfect opt-out options, because even if you take a new laptop out of the box, already it says something about you, that you bought a Mac and not a PC. I mean, it’s very hard to get entirely out of this. There’s no way to turn it off entirely at Google. But certainly, you can open a private browsing window. That helps.

I think, in the long run, you know, there’s sort of two things that need to happen here. One is, we need, ourselves, to understand better what’s happening, because it’s very dangerous when you have these kinds of filters operating and you don’t know what they’re ruling out that you’re not even seeing. That’s sort of a—that’s where people make bad decisions, is, you know, what Donald Rumsfeld called the “unknown unknowns,” right? And this creates a lot of unknown unknowns. You don’t know how your experience of the world is being edited.

But it’s also a matter of pushing these companies to sort of—you know, these companies say that they want to be good. “Don’t be evil” is Google’s motto. They want to change the world. I think we have to push them to sort of live up to their best values as companies and incorporate into these algorithms more than just this very narrow idea of what is important.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are they saying, the leaders of Google, Facebook, Yahoo!? I mean, are you talking to them?

ELI PARISER: Well, I tried to. You know, I had a brief conversation with Larry Page, in which he said, “Well, I don’t think this is a very interesting problem.” And that was about that. But, you know, further down in Google, there are a bunch of people who are wrestling with this. I think the challenge is—I talked to one Facebook engineer who sort of summed it up quite well, and he said, “Look, what we love doing is sitting around and coming up with new clever ways of getting people to spend more minutes on Facebook, and we’re very good at that. And this is a much more complicated thing that you’re asking us to do, where you’re asking us to think about sort of our social responsibility and our civic responsibility, what kind of information is important. This is a much more complicated problem. We just want to do the easy stuff.” And, you know, I think that’s what’s sort of led us to this current place. I think there are also people who see the flipside of that and say this is one of the big, juicy problems in front of us, is how do we actually take the best of sort of 20th century editorial values and import them into these new systems that are deciding what people see and what people don’t see.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how much money is being made off of this. And I mean, just this neutral term of “personalization”—

ELI PARISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN:—it sounds so benign. In fact, it sounds attractive.

ELI PARISER: It sounds great, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s geared and tailored for you. What could be better?

ELI PARISER: Right. And it does rely on the sense of a sort of cozy, familiar world online, where your favorite website greets you and goes, “Oh, hey, Eli, we’ve teed up all of these articles for you. Welcome.” It feels very good.

But, you know, what’s driving this is—you know, in some ways, this is the driving struggle on the internet right now between all of these different companies, to accumulate the biggest amounts of data on each of us. And Facebook has its strategy, which is basically ask people to tell Facebook about themselves. Google has its strategy, which is to watch your clicks. Microsoft and Yahoo! have their strategies. And all of this feeds into a database, which can then be used to do three things. It can target ads better, so you get better targeted ads, which honestly, I think, you know, sometimes is fine, if you know that it’s happening. It can target content, which I think is much more problematic. You start to get content that just reflects what it thinks you want to see. And then the third thing is, and it can make decisions about you.

So, one of the sort of more surprising findings in the book was that banks are beginning to look at people’s Facebook friends and their credit ratings in order to decide to whom to give—to offer credit. And this is based on this fact that, you know, if you look at the credit ratings of people, you can make predictions about the credit ratings of their friends. It’s very creepy, though, because really what you’re saying then is that it would be better not to be Facebook friends with people who have lower credit ratings. It’s not really the kind of society that we want to be building, particularly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, even more frightening, obviously, is once all of this information, personal information, is gathered, it saves the government, in its ability to surveil its population, a lot of work, because basically the private companies can gather the information, and all the government has to do is issue the subpoena or make the call that “for national security, we need this information.” So, in essence, it doesn’t have to do the actual surveillance. It just has to be able to use it when it needs to.

ELI PARISER: There’s a funny Onion article that has the headline “CIA Rules Out Very Successful New Facebook Program,” implying that the CIA started Facebook to gather data. And it’s funny, but there is sort of some truth there, which is that these companies do have these massive databases, and the protections that we have for our data that live on these servers are far—you know, far less protection than if it’s on your home computer. The FBI needs to do much less paperwork in order to ask Google for your data than it does to, you know, come into your home and look at your computer. And so, increasingly—so this is sort of the downside of cloud computing, is that it allows more and more of our data and everything that we do to be available to the government and, you know, for their purposes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And not only in a democracy, but in an authoritarian state, as well.

ELI PARISER: That’s right. I mean, it’s a natural byproduct of consolidating so much of what we do online in a few big companies that really don’t have a whole lot of accountability, you know, that aren’t being pushed very hard by governments to do this right or do it responsibly. It will naturally lead to abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: Google Inc. announced yesterday that they have launched a bid to dominate a world in which the smartphone replaces the wallet as the container for credit cards, coupons and receipts. The mobile app is called Google Wallet. How does this fit into this picture?

ELI PARISER: Well, it’s just another—I mean, the way that Google thinks is, how can we design products that people will use that allow us to accumulate even more data about them? So, obviously, once you start to have a sense of everything that people are buying flowing through Google’s servers, then you have way more data on which to target ads and target content and do this kind of personalization. You know exactly how to slice and dice people. And again, you know, in some contexts, that’s fine, actually. I don’t mind when I go on Amazon, and it recommends books. They’re obviously not very good recommendations sometimes, but it’s fine. But when it’s happening invisibly and when it’s shaping not just what you buy but what you know about the world, I think, you know, is more of a problem. And if this is going to be sort of the way that the future of the internet looks, then we need to make sure that it’s much more transparent when this is happening, so that we know when things are being targeted to us. And we have to make sure that we have some control as consumers over this, that it’s not just in the hands of these big companies that have very different interests.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have a powerful force, Eli Pariser. You were the head of MoveOn.org. Now you’re what? The chair of the board—

ELI PARISER: I’m on the board, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN:—of MoveOn.org. So, this, MoveOn, has millions of people it reaches all over the country. What will MoveOn do about this?

ELI PARISER: Well, you know, there’s sort of this dance here, because basically MoveOn takes on the issues that its members want to take up. So I’ve been very—you know, I don’t want to sort of impose by fiat that I wrote a book, and here’s—now we’re going to campaign about this. But, you know, there are campaigns that we’re starting to look at. One of them, I think, that’s very simple but actually would go a significant way is just to, you know, have a basic—have a way of signaling on Facebook that something is important, even if it’s not likable. Obviously this is sort of just one small piece, but actually, if you did have an “important” button, you would start having a lot of different information propagating across Facebook. You’d have people exposed to things that maybe aren’t as smile-inducing, but we really need to know. And Facebook is actually considering adding some new verbs. So, this could be a winnable thing. It’s not—it won’t solve the whole problem, but it would start to indicate—it would start to remind these companies that there are ways that they can start to build in, you know, some more kind of civic values into what they’re doing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And any sense that in Congress any of the politicians are paying attention to some of these issues?

AMY GOODMAN: Or understand this?

ELI PARISER: Yeah, there are a few that have been really attentive to this. Al Franken, in particular, has been very good on these data and privacy issues and really pushing forward. It’s obviously challenging because a lot of the Democratic congressmen and women are—get a lot of money from these companies, Silicon Valley. You know, certainly the Obama administration and Obama got a lot of support from Silicon Valley. So, they don’t totally want to get on the wrong side of these companies. And they feel like the companies are on the side of good and on the side of sort of pushing the world in the direction that they want it to. It means that we don’t have as good congressional watchdogs as you would hope, but there are a few good ones. And Franken, in particular, has been great on this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Eli Pariser, I want to thank you for your work and for writing The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, board president and former executive director of MoveOn.org, which at five million members is one of the largest citizens’ organizations in American politics. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

ELI PARISER: Thank you.

 

Back To The Future With ComcastNBC: Will Have Monopolies In 80% Of The Country

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Oldspeak: The Corporatocracy is consolidating its control over all that you see hear and read. “Net Neutrality” will soon be a thing of the past. “Comcast met behind closed doors with the FCC to map out the future of broadband service and video streaming over the Internet. Anyone who wonders how federal banking regulators got captured by the financial industry, or how lawmakers got neutered by the insurance companies on the health care bill, or how big money is going to buy the next presidential election, should study the Comcast merger. It is a cautionary tale of things gone awry in Washington, where corporate speech is heard and heeded and the voices of actual citizens are ignored.”-Peter White

By Peter White @ Truthout:

After hammering out the details in daily meetings with Comcast over a three-month period in late 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) approved the $30 billion merger of Comcast and NBC/Universal in January 2011. The nation’s largest Internet and TV provider is about to get much bigger. The public can comment for 60 days, but it’s pretty much a done deal.

Coriell Wright, an attorney with Free Press, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) opposed to the merger, watched it all go down.

“I was genuinely positive about the process until November. The FCC staff asked great questions, they requested a lot of information from Comcast, But a lot of the good points that were made in the flings didn’t make it to the end game when push came to shove in bargaining with Comcast.”

Wright said a coalition of merger opponents met with FCC staffers about once a week during that time, while Comcast and NBC met with them “once a day or more.”

“I don’t feel we were excluded, but we didn’t have meetings every single day like Comcast and NBC did. And we don’t have hundreds of lobbyists on call like they do,” Wright said.

Comcast spent $100 million to get the merger approved. It hired 100 former government employees and paid $8.8 million to 30 lobbying firms to help seal the deal. It dumped a lot of cash all over Capitol Hill in the past two years. The numbers are here.

Twice in October 2010, the FCC granted Comcast and NBC enhanced confidential treatment, related to their programing and carriage agreements and their “current and forwardlooking business strategies and plans, which contain the company’s analyses of particular sectors of the media and communications industry and detail perceived trends, possible business initiatives to respond to those trends, and customer analyses.”

In other words, Comcast met behind closed doors with the FCC to map out the future of broadband service and video streaming over the Internet. Anyone who wonders how federal banking regulators got captured by the financial industry, or how lawmakers got neutered by the insurance companies on the health care bill, or how big money is going to buy the next presidential election, should study the Comcast merger. It is a cautionary tale of things gone awry in Washington, where corporate speech is heard and heeded and the voices of actual citizens are ignored.

The DOJ checked the deal for any anticompetitive elements. Under a much weakened Taft Hartley law, the DOJ doesn’t really oppose monopolies these days, but rather imposes conditions to protect the status quo of the so-called “free market.” So, under the terms of the agreement, Comcast cannot discriminate against program producers or distributors who want to provide Comcast programs to their customers. About 173 of the agreement’s 279 pages deal with those matters.

About 75 pages deal with the FCC’s job, which is quite different than the DOJ’s legal one. Under its mandate as a federal agency that regulates telecommunications, the FCC has to affirm that the merger would advance the public interest in some way and not just preserve the status quo.

The FCC says the conditions it put into the deal require Comcast/NBC “to take affirmative steps to foster competition” and based on the company’s promises, the FCC found the merger to be “in the public interest.”

“ComcastNBC will increase local news coverage to viewers, expand children’s programing, enhance the diversity of programing available to Spanish-speaking viewers, offer broadband services to low-income Americans at reduced monthly prices, and provide high-speed broadband to schools, libraries, and underserved communities, among other public benefits,” the FCC announced.

“Those are all good things,” says Wright, “but ultimately don’t touch on the problems that are baked into the structure of the new company.” In other words, a newer bigger Comcast won’t change your cable lineup much, if at all.

“I tried to find a place where the FCC says that the merger would result in more competition, lower prices, or more diversity. But that’s not in there because the merger won’t do any of those things,” she said.

How Big Is the Deal?

Very big. In addition to its cable systems in 39 states, Comcast would get a production arm, Universal Studios; and a broadcast network, NBC, with its 10 wholly owned stations; and CNBC, a financial news cable network; and 16 Spanish language stations on Telemundo. The combined company would own or control 125 cable channels, studios, stations and web sites that would provide 20 percent of what people watch on TV, and by next year, according to the FCC, broadband companies like Comcast will have monopolies in about 80 percent of the country.

Media scholar Ben Bagdikian, author of “Media Monopoly,” paints a grim picture of the future when Comcast has its way.

“The Comcast NBC merger will have twice as many customers as any other broadband service. Everyone who is dependent on AT&T for telephone service knows that their response to subscriber complaints is notoriously poor and woefully slow for repairs. NBC’s merger with Comcast will make it the world’s largest cable company and if history is repeated, a public service company that is twice as large as it’s nearest competitor, does not have to worry if it tells its customers to wait for repairs or service and the general public will suffer from restricted choices and programs. A generation ago when Gannett became the giant in newspapers good papers disappeared. If this happens to cable, the fate of newspapers will be repeated in the cable industry,” he said.

Even basic cable coach potatoes like me understand that this bleak future is already here. I’ve seen “Rocky” so many times, I’ve started hoping he’d just stay down in the fifth round and be done with it. I suspect it’s about the same everywhere else: the same action movies over and over and over again. Watching bowl games on New Year’s Day used to be a tradition in America. Not anymore, unless you pay to see them. ESPN carried 33 of 35 bowl games on their subscription channels this year. The take-away lesson about cable TV is that more is really less.

Critics say the merger will mean fewer choices and higher prices for consumers. Well, we’re already used to that. Will the future bring us better fare than “Deal or No Deal,” “Minute to Win It,” or “Dancing With the Stars”? These shows may be popular, but they are also pathetic because so many Americans are downwardly mobile these days. Mainstream TV is just a mass opiate to help us forget our misery.

What passes for quality programing on TV gives cold comfort to the three million Americans facing foreclosure this year, the 15.5 million American kids living in poverty and the 16 million Americans without a job. Remember “Playhouse 90,” “The Honeymooners,” “See it Now,” “The Twilight Zone”? For my money, there’s nothing comparable on TV today at any premium program price.

Rates for Cable TV have been going up 5 percent a year and more Americans aren’t buying it anymore. Last year, 800,000 households in the US dumped their TV provider and that number is expected to double this year. That’s a small proportion of the nation’s 100 million TV subscribers, but why pay money for shows you don’t want to watch, when you can see the ones you do for free or a lot cheaper on line?

Stifling Innovation

Comcast built its empire out of wire and lowest common denominator programing. The first has been around since the telegraph and the second since at least the third or fourth Grade. Now we have satellites, Dish TV, FiOS and wifi and all of these new technologies threaten Comcast, which lost 275,000 cable customers in the third quarter last year.

The Internet as video platform is just a few years old, but already has 150 million people watching at least once a month. Sales of web ready TVs and other equipment to watch Internet video will jump from 14.6 million to 83.4 million by 2014, according to InStat, an Internet, marketing research company.

Here’s the bad news: a combined Comcast/NBC will create a vertically integrated behemoth like the trusts and monopolies of Teddy Roosevelt’s day. It could operate with virtual impunity toward the public and over its rivals, like a Mexican drug cartel.

“The rise of the Internet makes cable companies obsolete…. the only way for them to stay alive is to generate so much power, both as a distributor and content provider, they become a mafia-style vertically integrated market. They will use content as a cudgel to extort exorbitant fees out other cable companies and customers,” said Josh Silver, President of Free Press.

Comcast’s Business Plans

John Dunbar, a former AP reporter who now works at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, published a report in the January/February 2011 issue of Columbia Journalism Review. He looks under the rug of the proposed merger and notes that Comcast wants to protect its revenue streams in broadband and cable, and grow them both, even as TVs and computers become one.

“One way to do that is to keep competition in check. Comcast would be in a unique position to do just that especially because, by adding NBC Universal to its holdings, Comcast will become one of the nation’s largest television programmers, too the only company to have such a large position in programing, cable and Internet distribution,” Dunbar wrote. His article is available here.

“Don’t hold your breath waiting for ComcastNBC Universal to welcome an Internet utopia of free-flowing, no-charge television content,” he concludes.

Comcast says after the merger, broadcast programs will most likely wind up on Hulu, in which it will have a 27 percent stake but no operational control, and cable shows will go to TV Everywhere, a joint venture Comcast started with Time Warner in 2009. Hulu is free, but TV Everywhere is only free to cable subscribers and only for the programs they already pay for.

“It’s not that Comcast thinks it can kill online video. They’re not stupid like the recording industry was,” said Harold Feld, legal director with the Washington, DC, digital advocacy group Public Knowledge. “What they want to do is manage the terms under which we’re going to change so that they can continue to make the tons of money they’re making right now selling their cable service.”

A Short History of Cable TV and Why Americans Are so Dumb

American broadcasters once described, reflected upon, entertained and helped shape our national identity. But maybe I’m just being nostalgic for a time that never really was. Way back in 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow called television a vast wasteland. (Oh, how I long for the days when a federal regulator called a spade a spade.) But let’s review some history.

In the halcyon days of broadcast TV, Walter Cronkite was the most respected man in America. Over time, pretenders, who looked good and could read other people’s copy as if they wrote it, replaced the sober men of Cronkite’s generation. Authenticity went out the window and with it our collective grip on reality. Then we got cable and that’s when everything started to go South. We stopped living the American dream, more or less together, and started listening to hucksters, spin doctors and pundits, dreaming our lives away in some ersatz reality via television.

Getting people to pay for what they used to get for free turned the country upside down. It was a very big deal … for the cable companies. In exchange, we got CSPAN. Then, in 1984, we got the Cable Act. It was the first major revision of telecommunications policy in the US since 1934. The law deregulated the industry that quickly spread like a cancer all over the country and into fewer and fewer hands. By 1991, just nine companies owned more than half the cable business in the US. Today, six media giants control most of what we see, hear and read.

Former Washington Post editor and scholar, Ben Bagdikian, has been like Paul Revere on this issue for nearly three decades. He and other media critics, mostly from the left, have been warning about the dangers inherent in such concentration. In short, robust public discourse is stifled when huge corporations control the marketplace of ideas. Same thing when it comes to cultural programs. Producers get strong-armed, competitors are squeezed out and consumers get gouged wherever a monopoly controls a market. The public interest is not served.

Window Dressing the Public Interest

For its part, the FCC wanted assurances from Comcast that it would play fair after the merger was approved. But that’s like asking the greedy banker not to foreclose on the sweet, old widow because she can’t pay the mortgage any longer. All regulators have a similar problem: they presume the innocence, if not the good will, of the industry players in whatever game they referee. They are hopelessly utopian in a dystopic world. All corporations engage in the single-minded pursuit of money. They aren’t moral or engaged in fairness, and it sometimes takes years before some kind of remedy can be found for the bad things they do. And by then it can be too late. Think Bernie Madoff, not Bill Gates.

Comcast sweetened the deal by agreeing to provide a $10/month broadband service to low income families. And it agreed to add ten new channels, to its D1 Digital Tier lineup. Eight of them will be minority owned or at least partly minority owned. Comcast will pick the owners. It also agreed to give two Asian groups $1 million dollars to develop programs and committed $20 million in venture capital to Hispanic and African-American producers to develop “new media content and applications.” It is not clear if that content would be created for the new channels or not.

That sounds pretty good, but it breaks down to the average price of just one Hollywood action movie spread over eight years and a very wide demographic. There will be no lack of ethnic producers to fight over the money. They will be picked by Comcast, of course, and they may or may not produce programs that rise above your average “ghetto channel” offerings. But even if they do, they won’t be able to reach a really big audience because their programs will likely run only in Detroit; Washington, DC; Atlanta; Chicago; and Philadelphia. Comcast will decide where the channels will be carried, of course. And after a few years it will probably shut them down for failure to thrive.

The company also agreed to support local partnerships between nonprofit news sites and ten of its NBC broadcast stations and six of its Telemundo Spanish language stations. NBC’s San Diego affiliate currently takes two stories a week from a local news startup called Voice of San Diego.

Adding 1,000 more hours of news and public affairs programs a year sounds good, but it comes out to about 16 minutes a day, and its just 16 markets out of about 300. And it will almost certainly be more of the same dumbed-down and warmed over mainstream pabulum that we already have. Why? Because Comcast has not promised a plug nickel to fund the newsgathering operations of their prospective news partners in those markets. Where will the investment come from to nurture news startups in those cities? Presumably, from some rich philanthropist, but it’s a safe bet it won’t be Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.

“You can’t point to any current Comcast owned channels as exemplary public interest programing,” claims Josh Silver, president of Free Press. “Now that they are taking on $30 billion in added debt to NBC, you can be 100 percent sure they aren’t going to surprise us with quality content,” he added.

Its critics say Comcast is a notoriously bad actor on public interest issues. It has a long history of opposing local journalism efforts on public access channels that it is required to provide wherever it operates cable systems. Indeed, the company blocked local PEG channels for decades in Philadelphia, where the company is headquartered. In any case, Comcast’s promises aren’t nearly enough to satisfy opponents of the deal because the conditions the FCC imposed all sunset after seven years.

“The conditions are sort of a side show and the negative impacts of the merger are still going to happen, they just aren’t going to happen until 2018,” Silver said.

Two Cases in Point

If Comcast’s critics are right, the merger puts the entire communications infrastructure, the information superhighway and the entertainment industry all at risk by putting too much control in too few hands.

Take former Vice President Al Gore’s ill-fated Current TV, for example. Even a Nobel Prize-winning author and former presidential contender, some say undeclared winner, even he could not muster enough venture capital to get his channel onto a major cable network.

“It’s because of the whims of these cable companies whose policy decisions are completely corrupt. It’s a walled garden they run,” says Silver. “Their goal is part of a master plan to turn online video into the 21st Century version of cable TV.”

If the past is any guide, the merger won’t boost news and public interest programing, but rather stifle it. Al Jazeera is a perfect example of that. It is well-funded and the quality of its news is first rate and no news organization anywhere can match its coverage of the Arabs-peaking world. By and large, Americans can’t watch it.

“Other than in a handful of pockets across the U.S. including Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C. cable carriers do not give viewers the choice of watching Al Jazeera,” wrote Ryan Grim of Huffington Post recently.

“That corporate censorship comes as American diplomats harshly criticize the Egyptian government for blocking Internet communication inside the country and as Egypt attempts to block Al Jazeera from broadcasting,” he wrote.

On cable systems in Canada, Al Jazeera became widely available after the network ran a successful campaign to get Canadians to demand it from the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission. Not so in the US with the FCC.

“There is no policy teeth, no leverage or hook in order to compel Comcast to carry certain kinds of programs like Al Jazeera,” said Silver.

Is Redemption Possible?

When the FCC approved the merger, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who voted for it, released a statement that sums things up and may prove to be prescient:

“I encourage people to speak out should they see the slightest bit of programing discrimination or any other type of questionable behavior from the soon-to-be-formed entity. My door will remain open and I will be perpetually available to field any and all future concerns in this regard,” he wrote.

“I expect the parties to live up to the letter and spirit of their commitments. I, and the American people, will be watching,” he concluded.

Well, some of us are watching now, and the FCC just gave away the farm with damned little to show for it. So, if exhortation does not work and several years down the road we are faced with more insipid programs, higher prices, and a less informed public, will the FCC step in to fix what they have wrought?

Stay tuned.

Bio: Peter White is a former USFS smokejumper, surfer, and has covered two wars and three civil conflicts on four continents. He has written anchor copy and produced news for a number of foreign networks, NBC, ABC, PBS. NPR, and a number of print media outlets including The New York Times and San Francisco Examiner. He lives in Nashville with his two sons.