Don’t censor right-wing disinformation. Just stop making us pay for it.

Photo (cc) 2007 by Jason Eppink

Two Democratic members of Congress are asking giant cable providers like Verizon and Comcast some uncomfortable questions about their business dealings with three right-wing purveyors of toxic misinformation and disinformation — Fox News, Newsmax and OANN.

Among other things, according to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney want to know what “moral and ethical principles” are involved in carrying the channels and whether they intend to keep carrying them after their current contracts expire. This is not a good road to take. As Wemple writes:

The insertion of Congress into the contractual relationships of video providers with particular news/propaganda outlets, however, is frightening. Asking questions is a protected activity, of course — one that lawmakers use all the time. Yet these questions feel a lot like coercion by government officials, an incursion into the cultural promise of the First Amendment. Eshoo and McNerney’s letter hints that, unless the carriers proactively justify keeping OAN, Newsmax, Fox News and the like, the signatories would like to see them de-platformed right away.

The very real problem is that Fox News and its smaller competitors are unique in the extent to which they spout falsehoods and outright lies about everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the outcome of the 2020 election. But what can we do about it without posing a threat to the First Amendment?

Liberal activists have pressured advertisers from time to time, which is well within their own free-speech rights. But Fox, in particular, is all but immune from such pressure because most of its money comes from cable carriage fees. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On the Media”:

They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box, and Fox is in the process right now of renegotiating 40 to 50% of all of their contracts.

A far more promising avenue is one suggested by the media-reform organization Free Press. Contained within its daily missives demanding that Congress take action against Fox, Newsmax and OANN for spewing “hate and disinformation into homes and businesses across the country” is a proposed solution that we all ought to support: mandating  à la carte cable so that consumers would only have to pay for the channels they want. (Bye bye, ESPN!)

The problem with these right-wing purveyors of lies isn’t that they exist. It’s that, unless we’re willing to cut the cable cord, we’re forced to pay for them whether we watch them or not, whether we’re appalled by them or not. It’s time to bring that to an end.

So yes, there’s a way to do something about cable hate without raising constitutional issues. Reps. Eshoo and McNerney should take note.

Become a member of Media Nation today.

Amazon’s move against Parler is worrisome in a way that Apple’s and Google’s are not

It’s one thing for Apple and Google to throw the right-wing Twitter competitor Parler out if its app stores. It’s another thing altogether for Amazon Web Services to deplatform Parler. Yet that’s what will happen by midnight today, according to BuzzFeed.

Parler deserves no sympathy, obviously. The service proudly takes even less responsibility for the garbage its members post than Twitter and Facebook do, and it was one of the places where planning for the insurrectionist riots took place. But Amazon’s actions raise some important free-speech concerns.

Think of the internet as a pyramid. Twitter and Facebook, as well as Google and Apple’s app stores, are at the top of that pyramid — they are commercial enterprises that may govern themselves as they choose. Donald Trump is far from the first person to be thrown off social networks, and Parler isn’t even remotely the first app to be punished.

But Amazon Web Services, or AWS, exists somewhere below the top of the pyramid. It is foundational; its servers are the floor upon which other things are built. AWS isn’t the bottom layer of the pyramid — it is, in its own way, a commercial enterprise. But it has a responsibility to respecting the free-speech rights of its clients that Twitter and Facebook do not.

Yet AWS has an acceptable-use policy that reads in part:

You may not use, or encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to use, the Services or AWS Site for any illegal, harmful, fraudulent, infringing or offensive use, or to transmit, store, display, distribute or otherwise make available content that is illegal, harmful, fraudulent, infringing or offensive.

For AWS to cut off Parler would be like the phone company blocking all calls from a person or organization it deems dangerous. Yet there’s little doubt that Parler violated AWS’s acceptable-use policy. Look for Parler to re-establish itself on an overseas server. Is that what we want?

Meanwhile, Paul Moriarty, a member of the New Jersey State Assembly, wants Comcast to stop carrying Fox News and Newsmax, according to CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter. And CNN’s Oliver Darcy is cheering him on, writing:

Moriarty has a point. We regularly discuss what the Big Tech companies have done to poison the public conversation by providing large platforms to bad-faith actors who lie, mislead, and promote conspiracy theories. But what about TV companies that provide platforms to networks such as Newsmax, One America News — and, yes, Fox News? [Darcy’s boldface]

Again, Comcast and other cable providers are not obligated to carry any particular service. Just recently we received emails from Verizon warning that it might drop WCVB-TV (Channel 5) over a fee dispute. Several years ago, Al Jazeera America was forced to throw in the towel following its unsuccessful efforts to get widespread distribution on cable.

But the power of giant telecom companies to decide what channels will be carried and what will not is immense, and something we ought to be concerned about.

I have no solutions. But I think it’s worth pointing out that AWS’s action against Parler is considerably more ominous than Google’s and Apple’s, and that for elected officials to call on Comcast to drop certain channels is more ominous still.

We have some thinking to do as a society.

Earlier:

Please consider becoming a paid member of Media Nation for just $5 a month. You’ll receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive content. Click here for details.

Did Verizon pull a fast one on Marty Walsh?

At Universal Hub, cybah analyzes two Huffington Post articles by Bruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, and concludes that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh may have gotten taken for a ride by Verizon.

Let me cut to the chase: Apparently Verizon’s $300 million deal to provide FiOS broadband service to homes and businesses in Boston is a lot less than it seems. Instead, Verizon may be planning to install wireless transmitters on utility poles around the city for two reasons: (1) it costs a whole lot less and (2) it would allow the company to avoid being regulated as a full-fledged cable provider.

I have not delved into this deeply. This is more of an assignment-desk post: well worth following up by local journalists.

More: Additional context from local media and technology activist Saul Tanenbaum, writing for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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.

This one is on us

As we all express our outrage over the Verizon snooping, as we should, let’s remember: President Obama did this legally, following a provision of the Patriot Act that, as a senator, he voted for, and that Hillary Clinton, among others, opposed.

For years, politicians who voted against such things were demagogued as soft on terror. When The New York Times exposed George W. Bush’s illegal secret wiretapping, Bush called the story “shameful,” and some (including then-attorney general John Ashcroft) called for the Times to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

So, yes, we should express our outrage. At ourselves.

What Google and Verizon were really up to

Samuel Axton, writing at Mashable, is unstinting in his assessment of last week’s New York Times report that Google and Verizon were secretly negotiating a deal that would undermine net neutrality for their own benefit. The two companies yesterday announced a proposed regulatory framework that would more or less guarantee net neutrality on broadband land lines, but allow wireless providers to operate with fewer regulations. Axton writes:

The proposal we’re seeing is starkly different from what was described in The New York Times article from last week that accused Google and Verizon of conspiring to upend the principles of net neutrality. We didn’t believe it even then, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in the conference call that “almost all” of what the NYT reported was “completely wrong.” In particular, he stressed that this is not a business deal at all between Verizon and Google, but simply a joint policy statement.

You wouldn’t know it from reading today’s Times, which cites “reports that Google and Verizon had come to a private agreement.” I am not aware of any “reports” making quite that bold a claim except for the initial story in the Times, which Google and Verizon almost immediately said was wrong.

Still, there’s plenty not to like about the framework that Google and Verizon have proposed. As Jeff Jarvis points out at Buzz Machine, a wireless, ubiquitous connection is quickly becoming what we mean when think of the Internet. Guaranteeing net neutrality for a land-line network that may soon be obsolete not exactly in keeping with Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy. Jarvis writes:

Mobile will very soon become a meaningless word when — well, if telcos allow it, that is — we are connected everywhere all the time. Then who cares where you are? Mobile? doesn’t matter. You’re just connected. In your car, in your office, in your bedroom, on the street. You’re connected. To what? To the internet, damnit.

The Save the Internet Coalition puts it this way: “Google-Verizon Pact Worse Than Feared.” The FCC needs to be able to put a stop to this.

Earlier coverage here and here.

Now it’s the Times versus Google and Verizon

For now, at least, it looks like the New York Times is doubling down on its report that Google and Verizon are negotiating a deal that would allow Verizon to offer tiered levels of service for content-providers — a deal that would severely undermine the principle of net neutrality.

In a follow-up today, the Times’ Edward Wyatt reports that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski would oppose such a deal. The story continues:

His remarks came in response to press reports that Google and Verizon were nearing an agreement about broadband management that could clear the way for Verizon to consider offering such a service. The two companies declined to comment on any potential deal.

You will note that the link to “press reports” (plural) brings you to Wyatt’s Thursday story (singular), now disputed by Google. Indeed, writing that Google and Verizon have declined to comment may be true in a technical sense, but it strikes me as disingenuous given Google’s full-throated denial. Verizon has since denied it as well.

Scott Morrison of Dow Jones has more on the sniping between the Times and the two companies, quoting Google spokeswoman Mistique Cano as saying, “The New York Times is quite simply wrong. We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google or YouTube traffic.”

But Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty says her paper is sticking by its story, commenting, “Google’s comment about the New York Times story refutes something the Times story didn’t say.”

A Times commenter, Dan K of Brooklyn (not me, I swear!), has some links to other coverage that raise the possibility that Google is pursuing separate strategies regarding Verizon’s broadband and cellular networks, and that the Times may have confused the two.

But the Times story, if accurate, is a huge embarrassment for Google, which has long been a corporate leader in the fight to preserve the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Net neutrality is what allowed an upstart like Google to become a major media player in the first place, and it’s fostered independent news outlets ranging from Talking Points Memo to the guy in his mother’s basement who blogs about local zoning issues.

Save the Internet has responded to all this with a new campaign called “Dear Google: Don’t Be Evil.”

The closing of the Internet*

Imagine you are trying to start a news site in your community. Your competitor, part of a national chain, offers instant-on, full-screen HD video and a host of other data-intensive features that load the moment you hit “click.” But though you have a broadband connection, even simple videos that you’ve posted load slowly and play in fits and starts.

So you call your Internet provider — most likely Verizon and Comcast — and ask what’s going on. A sales person explains to you that if you want your readers to enjoy the same rich multimedia content as you competitor, then all you have to do is pay another $1,000 a month.

You can’t. You struggle on. And, within six months, you shut down.

That is a likely scenario if we move away from net neutrality — a vitally important principle that all Internet traffic should be treated the same. The FCC has been trying to mandate net neutrality, only to be shot down in the federal courts. And today the New York Times reports that Google and Verizon have been involved in negotiations to come up with a multi-tiered Internet with different levels of service and different levels of pricing. [Update: Or perhaps not. See below.]

“It’s like the end of ‘Animal Farm’ where pigs and humans sit down at the dinner table,” tweeted new-media strategist Steve Yelvington. In fact, Google at one time had been a leader in pushing for net neturality.

Please understand what net neutrality is not. There is nothing wrong with charging consumers more for better Internet service. Broadband costs more than dial-up, and fast broadband costs more than slow broadband. That’s life.

Rather, this involves the other end of the pipe, to fees that content-providers would pay in order to receive preferential service. It would make it far more difficult for start-ups, low-budget projects and non-profits to compete with big media sites. You might say that’s the whole idea.

Net neutrality is the baseline requirement for diverse, independent media. Those of us who spent years railing against corporate media consolidation have been pleasantly surprised, as numerous little guys — including significant players at the international, national and local levels — have been able to make their voices heard.

Along with the advent of closed systems such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, the demise of net neutrality could mark the beginning of the end of this media explosion, and a return to business as usual.

Josh Silver, president of the advocacy organization Free Press, calls the pending Google-Verizon deal “the end of the Internet as we know it.” Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, offers some further thoughts.

For more information, including what you can do, check out Save the Internet.

*Update: Sharp-eyed reader Nick Mendez found a tweet from Google Public Policy claiming that the Times got the story wrong. According to @googlepubpolicy: “@NYTimes is wrong. We’ve not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.”

Wow. This bears watching. Will the Times retract the story?

Public speech, private forums

My latest for The Guardian takes one last look at Verizon’s attempt to ban pro-choice text messages from its cell-phone network. Verizon may have backed down quickly, but the issue — free speech in a public square that is increasingly in the hands of private owners — isn’t going away.