Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Tumblr, Consolidation and The Gentrification of Internet.

Tumblr recently announced it will ban adult content.  Although partially in response to the discovery of a number of communities posting child pornography and subsequent ban of the Tumblr ap from the extremely important Apple ap store, a former engineer at Tumblr told Vox the change has been in works for months. The change was mandated by Tumblr’s corporate parent Verizon (which acquired Tumblr when it acquired Yahoo! after Yahoo! acquired it back in 2013. Why did Verizon want to ban adult content on Tumblr after 11 years? According to the same Vox article, it new ban is an effort to attract greater advertising revenue. Tumblr has a reputation for adult content which translates to advertisers as “porn” (unfairly, in the view of Tumblr’s supporters), and advertisers don’t like their products associated with pornography (or other types of controversial content.)

 

I can’t blame Verizon for wanting to make more money from Tumblr. But the rendering of Tumblr “safe for work” (and therefore safe for more mainstream advertising) illustrates one of the often under-appreciated problems of widespread content and platform consolidation. Sites that become popular because they allow communities or content that challenge conventional standards become targets for acquisition. Once acquired, the acquirer seeks to expand the attractiveness of the platform for advertisers and more mainstream audiences. Like a gentrifying neighborhood, the authentic and sometimes dangerous character rapidly smoothes out to become more palatable — forcing the original community to either conform to the new domesticated normal or try to find somewhere else to go. And, as with gentrification, while this may appear to have limited impact, the widespread trends ultimately impact us all.

 

I explain more below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Pai Continues Radical Deregulation Agenda. Next On The Menu — SMS Texting and Short Codes

In December 2007, Public Knowledge (joined by several other public interest groups] filed a Petition For Declaratory Ruling asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to clarify that both SMS Text Messaging and short codes are “Title II” telecommunications services. Put another way, we asked the FCC to reaffirm the basic statutory language that if you use telephones and the telephone network to send information from one telephone number to another, it meets the definition of “telecommunications service.” (47 U.S.C. 153(53)) We did this because earlier in 2007 Verizon had blocked NARAL from using its short code for political action alerts. While we thought there might be some question about short codes, it seemed pretty obvious from reading the statute that when you send “information between or among points of the users choosing, without change in the form or content as sent and received” (definition of “telecommunications”), over the phone network, using phone numbers that it is a “telecommunications service.”

 

Sigh.

 

On the anniversary of the repeal of net neutrality, FCC Chair Ajit Pai now proposes another goodie for carriers – classifying both short codes and text messages as Title I “information service” rather than a Title II telecommunications service. As this is even more ridiculous than last year’s reclassification of broadband as Title I, the draft Order relies primarily on the false claim that classifying text messaging as Title I is an anti-robocall measure. As we at PK pointed out a bunch of times when the wireless carriers first raised this argument back in 2008 – this is utter nonsense. Email, the archetypal Title I information service, is (as Pai himself pointed out over here) chock full of spam. Furthermore, as Pai pointed out last month, the rise in robocalls to mobile phones has nothing to do with regulatory classification and is primarily due to the carriers not implementing existing technical fixes. (And, as the Wall St J explained in this article, robocallers have figured out how to get paid just for connecting to a live number whether or not you answer, which involves a kind of arbitrage that does not work for text messages.)

 

As if that were not enough, the FCC issued a declaratory ruling in 2015, reaffirmed in 2016, that carriers may block unwanted calls or texts despite being Title II common carriers. There is absolutely nothing, nada, zip, zero, that classifying text messages as Title II does that makes it harder to combat spam. By contrast, Title II does prevent a bunch of blocking of wanted text messages as an anticompetitive conduct which we have already seen (and which is occurring fairly regularly on a daily basis, based on the record in the relevant FCC proceeding (08-7). This includes blocking immigrants rights groups, blocking health alerts, blocking information about legal medical marijuana, and blocking competing services. We should therefore treat the claims by industry and the FCC that only by classifying text messaging as “information services” can we save consumers from a rising tide of spam for what they are – self-serving nonsense designed to justify stripping away the few remaining enforceable consumer rights.

 

Once again, beyond the obvious free expression concerns and competition concerns, playing cutesy games with regulatory definitions will have a bunch of unintended consequences that the draft order either shrugs off or fails to consider. Notably:

 

  1. Classifying texting as Title I will take revenue away from the Universal Service Fund (USF). This will further undermine funds to support rural broadband.

 

  1. Classifying texting as Title I disrupts the current automatic roaming framework established by the FCC in 2007.

 

  1. Classifying texting as Title I may, ironically, take it out of the jurisdiction of the Robocall statute (Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991).

 

  1. Trashing whatever consumer protections, we have for text messages, and taking one more step to total administrative repeal of Title II completely. Which sounds like fun if you are a carrier but leaves us operating without a safety net for our critical communications infrastructure (as I’ve been writing about for almost ten years).

 

I unpack all of this below.

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
We Need To Fix Media, Not Just Social Media — Part III

This is part of a continuing series of mine on platform regulation published by my employer, Public Knowledge. You can find the whole series here. You can find the original of this blog post here. This blog post is Part 3 of a three part series on media and social media. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here. This version includes recommendations that are my own, and have not been reviewed by, or endorsed by, Public Knowledge.

 

And now . . . after more than 6,000 words of background and build up . . . my big reveal on how to fix the problems in media! You’re welcome.

 

Somewhat more seriously, I’ve spent a lot of time in Part 1 and Part 2 reviewing the overall history of the last 150 years of how technology and journalism inter-relate  because two critically important themes jump out. First, the evolution in communications technology always results in massive changes to the nature of journalism by enabling new forms of journalism and new business models. Sometimes these changes are positive, sometimes negative. But the dominance of the large media corporations financing news production and distribution through advertising revenue is not a natural law of the universe or necessarily the best thing for journalism and democracy. The Internet generally, and digital platforms such as news aggregators and social media specifically, are neither the solution to the dominance of corporate media as optimists hoped it would be or the source of all media’s problems as some people seem to think. Digital platforms are tools, and they have the same promise to utterly revolutionize both the nature of journalism and the business of generating and distributing news as the telegraph or the television.

 

In Part 2, I looked at how activists and journalists connected to social media used these tools in ways that changed the way in which the public observed the events unfolding in Ferguson in 2014, and how this challenged the traditional media narrative around race and policing in America. Combining the lessons from this case study with the broader lessons of history, I have a set of specific policy recommendations that address both the continued solvency of the business of journalism and steps to regain public trust in journalism.

 

More below . . .

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Why You Should Treat Any Predictions About Telecom/Tech Policy in 2019 Skeptically.

Under Section 217, Paragraph (b), sub (1) of the “wonk code of conduct,” I am required to provide some immediate analysis on what the election means for my area of expertise (telecom/tech, if you were wondering). So here goes.

 

  1. Everyone will still pretend to care deeply about the digital divide, particularly the rural digital divide.
  2. The MPAA, RIAA and all the usual suspects are probably already shopping their wish lists. This is great news to any recently elected member of staffer who was worried about needing to get tickets to “Fantastic Beasts” or whatever other blockbuster they will screen at MPAA HQ.
  3. Everyone will still talk about the vital importance of “winning” the “race to 5G” while having no clue what that actually means.

These predictions rank up there with “New England Patriots will play football, and everyone outside of New England will hate them” or “The media will spend more time covering celebrity ‘feuds’ than on major health crises like the famine in Yemen or Ebola outbreak in Congo.” They are more like natural laws of the universe than actual predictions. As for substance, y’all remember that Trillion dollar infrastructure bill Trump was gonna do in 2017? I suspect predictions about how federal policy is going to sort itself out will be just as reliable.

 

Why? Because at this stage there are just too many dang meta-questions unresolved. So rather than try to predict things, I will explain what pieces need to fall into place first.

 

Also, it’s worth noting that we had action on the state level that impacts tech and telecom. Start with Phil Weiser winning the election for State AG in Colorado. As Jon Oliver recently pointed out, don’t underestimate the importance of state AGs. This is particularly true for a tech savvy AG in a techie state. Then there is California’s governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who tried to address the digital divide as Mayor of San Francisco with a community wireless network back when people were trying that. Will he continue to make digital divide a major issue? But I’ll stick to my forte of federal policy for the moment.

 

Anyway, rather than try to predict what the policy will be, here’s what is going to have clarify first.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
We Need To Fix News Media, Not Just Social Media — Part II

This is part of a continuing series of mine on platform regulation published by my employer, Public Knowledge. You can find the whole series here. You can find the original of this blog post here. This blog post is Part 2 of a three part series on media and social media. Part 1 is here.

 

In Part I, I explained why blaming digital platforms generally (and Facebook and Google in particular) for the current dysfunctional news industry and the erosion of public trust in journalism is an incomplete assessment and therefore leads to proposed solutions that do not actually address the underlying problems. To recap briefly, we have seen since the mid-1990s the steady decline in the quality of journalism and increasing public distrust of traditional newspapers and broadcast news. Massive consolidation financed by massive debt prompting an ever smaller number of mega-companies to cut costs by firing reporters and closing news rooms, shifting from hard news (which is more expensive to produce) to infotainment and talking head punditry, and the rise of unabashedly partisan talk radio hosts and cable networks were causing the public to increasingly silo themselves in partisan echo chambers. The relentless drive of these media giants to use the news to cross-promote their products, the increasing perception that the news industry had failed to question the Bush Administration’s justification for the invasion of Iraq and general perception that corporate media slanted news coverage to further their corporate or political interests (an impression shared by many reporters as well) all contributed to public distrust with the media and the general decline in consumption of news from traditional outlets long before online advertising was a serious threat to revenue. Finally, the unshakably wrong perception by corporate media that the public have no interest in substantive political coverage (despite numerous surveys to the contrary) prompted an audience hungry for real reporting to look to the emerging Blogosphere and away from traditional journalists.

 

Again, to be clear, there are genuine and serious concerns with regard to the potential gatekeeper and market power of social media and other digital platforms. The incentive of platforms to encourage “engagement” – whether by inspiring agreement or inspiring anger – warps both news reporting and news consumption. This incentive encourages these platforms to promote extreme headlines, hyper-partisanship, and radicalization, which in turn encourages those trying to attract readers to increasingly move to ever more extreme language and positions. These problems require a set of their own solutions, which I will reserve for a future installment. In this post, I want to focus on how we can begin to repair the problems with our dysfunctional news industry and the crisis of trust undermining journalism.

 

More Below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Hurricane Michael A Wake Up Call On Why Total Dereg of Telecom A Very Bad Idea.

Readers of Harry Potter should be familiar with Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic who refuses to believe Voldemort will return because believing that would require taking precautions and generally upsetting lots of powerful and important people. Instead of preparing for Voldemort’s return, Fudge runs a smear campaign to discredit Potter and Dumbledore, delaying the Wizarding World from preparing to resist Voldemort until too late.

 

I was reminded of this when I read Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai’s statement of frustration with the slow pace of restoring communications in the Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael. Pai explicitly echoes similar sentiments of Florida Governor Rick Scott, that carriers are not moving quickly enough to restore vital communications services. Pai is calling on carriers not to charge customers for October and to allow customers to switch to rival carriers without early termination fees.

 

What neither Pai nor Scott mention is their own roll in creating this sorry state of affairs. Their radical deregulation of the telephone industry, despite the lessons of previous natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, guaranteed that providers would chose to cut costs and increase profits rather than invest in hardening networks or emergency preparedness. That is how markets actually work in the real world (as opposed to in the delightful dereg fantasy land dreamed up by hired economists). But rather than take precautions that might annoy or upset powerful special interests, they chose to mock the warnings as the panic of “Chicken Little, Ducky Lucky and Loosey Goosey proclaiming that the sky was falling.”

 

Now, however, the Chicken Littles come home to roost and, as predicted, private market incentives have not prompted carriers to prepare adequately for a massive natural disaster. This result was not only predictable, it was predicted — and mocked. So now, like Cornelius Fudge, Chairman Pai and Governor Scott find themselves confronted with the disaster scenario they stubbornly refused to believe in or safeguard against. And while I do not expect this to change Pai’s mind, this ought to be a wake up call to the 37 states that have eliminated direct regulatory oversight of their communications industry that they might want to reconsider.

 

Still, as Public Knowledge is both suing the FCC to reverse its November 2017 deregulation Order, and has Petitioned the FCC to reconsider its June 2018 further deregulation Order, perhaps the FCC will take this opportunity to rethink the certainty with which it proclaimed that carrier’s have so much incentive to keep their customers that they would never cut corners and risk service going down. Or perhaps Congress will now pay attention and decide that their constituents need enforceable rights and real protections rather than promises and platitudes.

 

I provide a lot more detail below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
The FCC Decides Rural America Has Too Many Broadband Options, So They Are Taking Away 5G Spectrum To Give To The Big Guys.

The FCC is about to take spectrum away from rural providers and we are making a last minute effort to stop it. Last week, my employer Public Knowledge sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking him to change the draft Order altering the rules for the “Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service” (CBRS) to keep several of the old rules in place. Specifically, we want the FCC to keep at least some license areas at census tract size, rather than making them bigger and therefore unaffordable for small providers like wireless ISPs (WISPs). We also want the FCC to keep “use or share,” a rule that says that if the licensee is not using a piece of their license area it becomes open for general use on an unlicensed basis until the licensee actually starts using it. We’re also asking the FCC to leave the license terms at 3 years with no expectation it will be renewed (that is to say, it gets re-auctioned at the end of 3 years) rather than go to 10-year terms with an expectation of renewal. Finally, if the FCC is going to change the terms of the licenses as proposed, they need to have some meaningful build out obligations to ensure that rural areas get served.

 

I explain all this below, as well as linking to this nifty tool so you can contact your member of Congress and ask them to tell the FCC to leave rural America some useful spectrum so those who actually want to serve rural America can do so.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
The Upcoming IPAWS “Presidential Level Alert” Test Is Not A Trump Thing — Really.

There is a bunch of hysteria running rampant about the September 20, 2018 test of the “Presidential Level Alert” functionality of the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA), which is part of the Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS).  (See FEMA Notice of Alert Here.) The thrust of the concerns is that Fearless Leader is creating a propaganda system that can blast through all cell phones and no one can opt out.

 

I ask everyone to please calm down. The fact that it is called a “Presidential Alert” has nothing to do with Trump. This all goes back to The Warning, Alert, Response Network Act (WARN Act) of 2006 (and tweaked by the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Act of 2015).  That Act required that we integrate the old Emergency Alert System (EAS) which is on broadcast and cable with a newly created wireless emergency alert system (WEA) so that we could take advantage of the emerging communications technology (texting in 2006, broadened in 2015) to warn people in advance of disasters.

 

Most emergency alerts are local. Indeed, the primary challenge of EAS and WEA in the last few years has been focused on trying to get as narrowly targeted and hyper-local as possible, so that people who are not impacted don’t receive false alerts, while people who are impacted receive real-time instructions. There is also a long term element about incorporating new technologies capable of handling multi-lingual warnings (and not just Spanish) and other potentially life saving capabilities (such as locating the nearest evacuation shelter).

 

However, one element is the creation of an integrated national emergency alert system in the highly unlikely event that we might have some kind of national level disaster that requires immediate real-time communication of one set of instructions on a national basis. Prior to the WARN Act, such as capacity did not exist. It has now been developed, but it has never been tested on a national basis before. The test of this capability was scheduled for September 20, 2018 well before Hurricane Florence became a concern.

 

This absolutely has nothing to do with Trump. The WARN Act mandates that while users may opt out of other alerts, they may not opt out of  “Presidential Level Alerts.” This was decided way back in 2006, when Congress determined that people should not be able to opt out of anything so important that it triggers a nation-wide alert (although, annoyingly, they did give wireless carriers freedom to opt out of WEA entirely, which tells you a lot about the priorities of Congress back in 2006). See WARN Act Sec. 602 (b)(2)(E). This was not a choice by the Trump Administration. Nor can the current FCC allow people to opt out of “Presidential Level Alerts.” It’s in the WARN ACT of 2006.

 

The IPAWS Act of 2015 (Sec. 526(d)) further limits IPAWS (including Presidential Level Alerts) to messages relating to “natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.) And while it is entirely possible for President Trump to decide that generating support for his reelection campaign relates to either and act of terrorism or other man-made disaster, that still wouldn’t be enough to switch on IPAWS. As with many things, the request goes down the chain of command, with lots of safeguards along the way to prevent abuse of the system. Remember, this was modified back in 2015 by Republican Senator Ron Johnson when Republicans were convinced Obama was an evil socialist Kenyan out to destroy our way of life. You can bet they they put safeties in place.

 

So please, please stop spreading rumors about this. Please stop treating this as more evidence of Trump overreach with all kinds of possible sinister motives. The President can’t just press a button to send out a text. And while a determined President with enough effort can abuse any system, this is not something Trump can just decide to do with his morning Tweets.

 

We have enough real craziness going on in the world. We do not need to encourage people to freak out about a routine test of life-saving technology, or portray it as an abuse of authority or diversion of funds.

 

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was asked during the Obama Administration to apply to the FEMA IPAWS subcommittee to act as a consumer/privacy advocate (See IPAWS Act of 2015 (b)(2)(I)(IX)). My admission was not formally processed and approved until 2017. I have been an active member of the FEMA-NAC-IPAWS for approximately the last two years. This statement is entirely my own. It does not represent a statement of the FEMA-NAC-IPAWS or any other advisory committee or federal agency. This is just me asking people to stop panicking and resist the urge to see everything in the administration as an abuse of authority. Yes, the times warrant scrutiny. But there is a difference between laudable skepticism and scrutiny v. panic and conspiracy theory.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

Tales of the Sausage Factory:
Verizon California Throttling Mistake Shows How Radical Pai’s Repeal Order Really Was.

Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to ensure we would have working communications infrastructure for, among other things, handling public safety. It says so right up front in Section 1 of the Communications Act. This critical authority has allowed the FCC to do things like impose 911 obligations on VOIP providers before Congress got around to it, and even set up the original High Cost and Lifeline Programs before Congress got around to it. So you would think that when Verizon throttled the Santa Clara Fire Department’s mobile broadband connection for coordinating response to the Mendocino Complex Fire — the largest wildfire in California history — that the FCC would naturally be all over it.

 

The vast and mighty silence you hear is the utter lack of response by the FCC — for the simple reason that last December the FCC utterly, completely and totally divested itself of all authority over broadband. This was, as I and others pointed out at the time, utterly, completely and totally unprecedented. Regardless of classification, every single FCC chairman prior to Ajit Pai asserted authority over broadband to prevent exactly this kind of disaster. Under Michael Powell and Kevin Martin it would be under Title I ancillary authority. Under Julius Genachowski and Tom Wheeler (prior to reclassifying broadband as Title II in February 2015), it would have been under Section 706. Under Ajit Pai — bupkis.

 

Which leaves us with a major problem. How the heck do we stop this (and other potential failures of our broadband infrastructure) from happening again when the agency Congress actually directed to handle this has decided to abdicate its responsibility entirely? I have been preaching for nearly 10 years now that Title II authority over broadband is absolutely necessary to protect and manage our critical communications infrastructure. As I keep saying, this goes way beyond net neutrality. As broadband becomes integrated into everything in our lives – including public safety – there needs to be someone other than a group of unaccountable private companies looking out for the public interest. Because, as this event demonstrates, we are not just talking about ‘Netflix and cat videos’ or about ‘innovation’ or any of the other industry deflections. We are talking about stuff that literally impacts people’s lives. According to this report from NPR, the Verizon incident occurred just at the moment firefighters were deploying to stop the Mendocino Complex Fire. It’s impossible to determine just how much this screwed things up and whether the fire could have been better contained at the outset if throttling hadn’t knocked out their entire command-and-control for hours at the outset. But it is certainly safe to say that the first few hours of organizing to contain a wildfire are critical, and having your ISP throttle your command center broadband connection down to effectively useless is like trying to organize a parade while wearing a blindfold, earplugs and a gag over your mouth.

 

Happily, we have an easy answer to the question of “how do we make sure someone is responsible from preventing these kinds of screw ups going forward.” Congress needs to vote the CRA and force the FCC to take back authority for broadband. Or, if you’re California and don’t like seeing your state literally go up in flames while on hold with customer support, then you need to pass SB 822 — the California net neutrality bill. Anything else is literally fiddling around while California burns.

 

Lots more below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory:
I Take the #CallYourRep4TheNet Challenge, and You Can Too!

My buddies at Free Press are running a challenge to get people to call their Member of Congress to support the Congressional Resolution Act of Disapproval (CRA) to repeal the FCC Order eliminating net neutrality rules (more info here). You can find out more about #CallYourRep4TheNet Karaoke Challenge here.

I was tagged by Free Press’ Candace Clement. So here is my contribution. I’m posting the lyrics below the fold. If you can’t think of your own lyrics for the #CallYourRep4TheNet Challenge, feel free to steal use these. Creative Commons attribution license on the lyrics. Music is copyright to Disney. Given Disney’s traditional opposition to net neutrality, I believe this is transformative social commentary/fair use — and I’m hoping they have a sense of humor (but if I get a takedown notice I will let you know).

 

Even if you don’t make your own entry, you can call your Congressional Representative by using this tool from my employer Public Knowledge. And reminder, you don’t need to call your Senators because we already won that vote! Booyah!

 

 

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