Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

Net neutrality and the politics of pizza

Imagine living in a world in which Domino’s could pay your phone company to make it impossible for you to call other pizza joints. That can’t happen because, legally, phone services are considered “common carriers,” which must accept all traffic in a non-discriminatory manner. Which is what the battle over net neutrality is all about.

This week the FCC’s three Democrats backed a too-weak proposal to ensure net neutrality that the Republicans vowed to oppose anyway. I don’t pretend to understand all the technical arcana, but, according to news reports like this one, net neutrality will be more or less assured on wired broadband networks such as cable and FIOS, while the market will have its way on wireless networks.

Which network do you suppose will be more important in 10 years — or two, for that matter? Wired or wireless?

Take a look at this post on Engadget, which obtained an actual proposal for wireless broadband providers to charge extra for access to Facebook, Skype and YouTube. It’s a variation on a theme that Sen. Al Franken sounded in a must-read essay. Franken points out that, without net neutrality, Verizon could block Google Maps and charge you extra to use its own inferior mapping service. Franken writes:

Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist. That’s why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time.

Back when the debate was over media concentration, old-school conservative organizations like the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition made common cause with liberal groups to stop the FCC from making a bad situation worse. Unfortunately, the newly ascendant Tea Party right is so hostile to government activism that it opposes efforts to ensure net neutrality.

This week’s action by the FCC was not definitive. Net neutrality is an issue that we’ll be revisiting again and again in the years ahead. But given President Obama’s stated support for neutrality, this may be as good as it gets. And it’s not very good.

To learn more, and to take action, visit Free Press.

Did Acorn help Al Franken win? (II)

It’s been more than 24 hours, and Katherine Kersten has not responded to my e-mail asking how voter-registration fraud in Minnesota could have led to election fraud that helped put U.S. Sen. Al Franken over the top in his race with Norm Coleman.

At this point I have to assume she’s firing blanks.

The heart of her argument, published in the Star Tribune, is that Acorn registered 43,000 new voters in Minnesota last year; that, given Acorn’s track record, some of them must have been fraudulent; and that since Franken won by just 312 votes, only a tiny fraction of those registrations needed to be transformed into votes in order to explain Franken’s victory.

Of course, the alchemists believed that if they could transform just a tiny fraction of the lead they had in their possession into gold, they’d all be rich.

Let’s try to keep in mind what this is about. Acorn hired temporary field workers who, in many cases, were paid by the signature to sign up new voters. That created an obvious incentive for the workers to fill in as many names as possible and thus make more money.

I’m not aware of an allegation being lodged anywhere in the country that an ineligible voter showed up on election day, identified himself by one of those phony names and then cast a ballot. The right has spent months — years — looking for such evidence only to come up with nothing.

And when you understand the nature of the very real fraud that was committed, it’s impossible to see any connection. It’s like tying the health-care debate to the color of Queen Elizabeth’s hair.

Did Acorn help Al Franken win?

Mickey Kaus is excited about an opinion piece in the Star Tribune suggesting that U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s narrow victory over Norm Coleman may have been the result of Acorn voter-registration fraud.

For a long time now, the Acorn-obsessed right has struggled to explain how voter-registration fraud becomes ballot fraud. Well, here’s a golden opportunity. I’ve sent the following e-mail to Katherine Kersten, who wrote the Star Tribune piece in question:

Dear Ms. Kersten —

I would like to ask you a question about your commentary regarding Acorn and the Minnesota Senate race.

As has been reported pretty extensively, the Acorn voter-registration fraud consisted of field workers making up names so that they could get paid more. Your argument is based on the notion that some small percentage of those fraudulent names might have been used by real people who showed up at the polls on election day and cast ballots for Al Franken. You tell us that “Minnesota’s laws on proof of voter eligibility are notoriously loose.” I’ll take your word on that.

But what you don’t tell us is how it is even remotely conceivable that a field worker would write down a fake name — say, Peter Smith of 34 Jones Ave., St. Paul — and then some ineligible voter claiming to be Peter Smith of 34 Jones Ave., St. Paul, would then show up on election day and request a ballot. To me, at least, it makes no logical sense.

Could you help me out?

I plan to post your response on my blog, Media Nation.

Thank you,
Dan Kennedy

I’ll post Kersten’s response as soon as she sends it.

Please do not post any comments to this item. I’ve asked a question, and I want to wait for Kersten to reply.