Archive for the ‘Technology’ category

04.28.14 FCC plans on net neutrality threaten democracy

April 28, 2014

This past week, the FCC’s decision to utterly destroy so-called “net neutrality” has been in the news. Under the new proposal, the FCC will allow the near-monopoly of internet service providers (ISPs, including such beloved actors as Verizon and Comcast) to set up a multi-speed internet, where those who pay more will get their content delivered quicker than those who don’t. Most of the chatter seems to be about the impact on content providers like Netflix and on consumer prices.

Since the giant ISPs are also in the content-production business, handing them more power to extort will only increase their monopoly power, a serious anti-trust concern. (The lack of competition in this space is why the US consumer already pays more for worse internet access than in almost all other industrialized countries.) It is equally outrageous that this proposal serves to transfer wealth from consumers (whose bills will go up) to corporate elites: another drop in the deepening bucket of policies exacerbating wealth inequality in the United States.

Arguments that favoring Verizon and Comcast is necessary to spur technology innovation are completely specious. In fact, monopolies have no incentive at all to innovate. Their only incentive is maximize their rents (profits) by gouging consumers. They don’t need to provide new or better services to do so. Subscribers to Verizon and Comcast experience the resulting nightmare every single day.

These are are powerful arguments against the FCC proposal and in favor of the better alternative: recategorizing broadband internet as a utility, thereby allowing the industry to be regulated for the public good. What amazes me is that an even more powerful argument is being completely ignored in the debate:  Allowing giant corporations to control content delivery is no less dangerous to civil society and democracy then government censorship. This is doubly so in a flawed democracy, like ours, where corporate elites already own the political process and the Supreme Court is handing them additional power daily.

The Tea Party thinks the federal government is oppressing the citizenry? Hah! Sure, the NSA has obliterated privacy, but corporate dominance of politics has already put meaningful action on climate change and wage equity out of reach (notwithstanding broad popular support), and that’s just scratching the surface. Consider the incident when Verizon prevented the abortion-rights group NARAL from using the mobile services it was paying for to send out text messages to its constituents. This was corporate censorship of political speech it didn’t like, pure and simple. So, how long will it be, Dear Readers, before Verizon and Comcast either throttle your access to this very blog for being hostile to their monopoly interests or give the Koch Brothers and Fox News a speed boost, because they favor that kind of speech.

Make no mistake, an uneven internet is an anti-democratic internet. The FCC’s proposed action takes aim at the very foundation of a democracy that is already teetering on the edge.

©2014 Keith Berner

Advertisements

03.27.11 AT&T + TMobile = Threat to Democracy

March 27, 2011

Commentators are bemoaning the effect of AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile, combining the second and fourth largest cellular providers to become the undisputed number one. As they point out, the elimination of T-Mobile as the lowest-price carrier will certainly bring higher prices to consumers coast to coast.  But the greatest cost to the US public comes not in the form of higher prices, but rather in a further constriction in freedom of access to information.

Cellular consolidation is directly related to the unfortunately named “Net Neutrality.”  I say the term is unfortunate, because non-techies’ eyes tend to glaze over when they hear it.  I’d rather call the issue “internet freedom.” For those of you who have taken an interest in net neutrality, the issue has tended to be painted in economic or convenience terms (just as with the AT&T/T-Mobile merger). True, one hazard of allowing huge corporations to discriminate against content based on its source might be higher prices to get access to certain content or longer download times for content that the given corporation wants to disfavor because a rival produced it.

Much more chilling is the idea that huge corporations will simply prevent you from ever seeing anything they disagree with.  This has already happened at least once.  In September 2007, Verizon blocked NARAL (the abortion rights group) from sending text messages to its supporters. Why? Because Verizon disagreed with NARAL.

A commitment to — and legal enshrinement of — internet freedom would prevent the corporate elite not only from discriminating against the movie studio or TV channel their rival owns, but also against free speech that  they just don’t like. Late last year, the FCC took an apparent step in that direction; however, the “compromise” put forth by the agency applies only to internet access coming through wires (e.g., cable, DSL, FIOS). It totally exempts wireless connections, i.e., those you get through mobile devices.  Guess which kind of connection is the future of internet access.  You got it: the wireless kind.

So, how is the technology industry reacting to the FCC’s feckless compromise?  With absolute fury. Verizon, Google (that old “don’t be evil” motto means nothing) and every Republican in Congress believe that rights of corporations trump those of citizens.  To them, any restriction on corporate freedom — including the right to keep you from consuming whatever content you want on the internet — is to be combatted with all their considerable might.

To make matters worse, this entire spectacle is taking place in the context of enormous media consolidation. As daily newspapers disappear from towns and cities nationwide, broadcast news is now more or less reduced to CNN and Fox. Don’t let the latter’s right-wing ranting blind you to CNN’s ideology. Both networks are pro-corporate, militaristically nationalistic, sensationalist, and superficial.

I have long considered the internet to be the last bastion of freedom and democracy.  While decrying the fact that most Americans get their news from an ever-narrower list of sources — all of which buy into the pro-corporate status quo, I have also celebrated the fact that those of us looking for balanced perspectives and independent voices were free to find them. As imperfect as our democracy is, the threat of government censorship has remained negligible for a very long time.

But it is not government censorship we have to fear in the United States.  Rather, the biggest threat to meaningful freedom of speech and access to information comes in the form of corporate censorship.

Even under the most rosy scenario for net neutrality, the only three remaining cellular providers (AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint) will be exempt.  Sure, they’ll disagree with each other on this or that.  But, they will be in full cahoots with the Koch brothers, the rest of the US corporate leadership, and the US Congress (their nearly wholly owned subsidiary) to make sure that revolutionary thinking (even the unarmed kind) just can’t be found.

This fits precisely with the corporate elite’s purposeful program to dumb down the US public education system: a functionally illiterate populace lacking in analytical ability and spoon-fed an ideology of false freedom won’t have the means or desire to notice its invisible chains.  And corporate control, along with further enrichment of the ultra wealthy, will the unquestioned law of the land.

©2011 Keith Berner

12.6.10 Wikileaks: US Does China One Better

December 6, 2010

Very few things in this world are black and white.  I was as joyful as the next dyed-in-the-wool anti-war activist when Wikileaks published a trove of secret documents about the Afghanistan War a few months ago.  A la Daniel Ginsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame), here was a tiny crusader revealing the dark secrets of the aggressive, imperialist power.  The Question Authority button glued to my psyche (if not my lapel) was shimmering with delight.

My gut reacted less favorably to the dump of diplomatic cables that came out last week.  It’s one thing, I thought, to help end fruitless (if not unjustified) wars.  It’s quite another to break down the secrecy essential to diplomacy.  I’m a graduate of a leading US school of international relations.  It’s in my blood to respect statecraft and its tools. After all, isn’t diplomacy the opposite of war?

So I was already primed to be distressed by this latest Wikileaks case, even before 24/7 mainstream media coverage of Wikileaks’ malfeasance kicked in.  I was also disturbed about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange: stories of disgruntled former compatriots leaving the fold with tales of megalomania and arrogance, not to mention sexual assault charges from Sweden.  (Something nagged at me about whether these stories represented balance or selective support for establishment the world view, but I wasn’t ready to embrace that interpretation.)

I was formulating my reaction, pondering a blog post about how just because something is secret doesn’t mean it ought to be revealed.  (Do your in-laws benefit – or do you? – if they find out you don’t think highly of them, after all?  Won’t that simply mean future Thanksgivings will be less manageable?)  I was prepared to jump on the bandwagon and toss Wikileaks under it.

Then I started reading the tech media’s response to the mainstream media.   (See, particularly TechDirt and ReadWriteWeb.)  Rather than the popular story about Wikileaks’ threat to Life As We Know It, what shows up there is a clear-eyed portrayal of the establishment fighting back:

  • The State Department has warned US students that so much as mentioning Wikileaks in their on-line writing could permanently bar them from the Foreign Service.
  • Federal workers are being forbidden by their employer from reading anything Wikileaks publishes.
  • Amazon.com declared that it would no longer host Wikileaks data.
  • PayPal announced that it would no longer process donations to Wikileaks.
  • EveryDNS.net revoked Wikileaks domain registration (wikileaks.org), making it impossible for law-abiding US citizens (or anyone else) to access it.

What we have here, folks, is a full-throttle attempt by the US government to censor the internet (not to mention free speech), exactly what it accuses China of.  What we also have is another chilling example of US corporations doing the bidding of the US national security state.  (Remember the cell companies’ eagerness to turn over customer records to the government in the 2000s?)

“Wait,” you say!  “You usually accuse corporate America of owning the government.  Now you’re calling them its stooges.”

It’s all the same thing, you see.  The mega-wealthy owners of our economy have a giant stake in the economic and political status quo.  Their relationship with the government is hand-in-glove.  Sometimes one suggests courses of action to the other. Sometimes, it’s the other’s turn to take the lead. For both parties, “democracy” is a useful marketing slogan, as long as it poses no threat to powers that be.

I remain unconvinced that the unveiling of diplomatic cables is a good thing, per se, nor am I unconcerned about Assange’s character and actions.  (I certainly don’t take accusations of sexual assault lightly.)  But whatever might be wrong with Assange and Wikileaks, the spectacle of US government and business collaborating to shut down free speech and access to information, aided and abetted by the mainstream media, is the most significant part of this sordid affair.

©2010 Keith Berner

07.31.10 Apple & the Clintons

July 31, 2010

Surely you’ve heard the hoopla in the past couple of weeks about the horribly flawed Apple iPhone 4.  Even if you don’t care about iPhones, the media frenzy caught the corner of your eye, leaving you with the impression of a failed product.

In fact, the entire thing was a tempest in a teapot: if you happened to hold the iPhone just so, you might have problems with signal strength.  And, if you put a little piece of tape on a particular spot or (gasp!) put the iPhone in a case,  the problem vanishes (and who would want to carry a $400 electronic toy without a case?!).

Much ado about (nearly) nothing.  A scandal without (much of a) cause. And created almost wholly by Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s arrogance.

If Jobs hadn’t been so damn obnoxious (“Well, then don’t hold the phone that way, you idiots!” [not an exact quote]) and if Apple had acknowledged the problem and offered a solution when the story first broke, the problem would have vanished before it got out of hand.

Where do the Clintons come in?  Well, do you remember a little scandal called “Whitewater?”  That little scandal, which consumed the entire two terms of the Clinton administration, culminated in public knowledge of that spot on Monica Lewinsky’s dress (not to mention a certain cigar).

That was a scandal without an originating crime. If the arrogant Clintons had simply opened their books to the media in 2003, if they had stopped stonewalling and dragging things out, POOF, the scandal would have evaporated long before we found out about the president’s sex life.

Ahhh, that old Icarus story.  Hubris kills.  Thinking you are smarter and better than everyone else ends up hurting you.  And when you are in a position of power, that also means you bring everyone else down with you.

Hubris is my least favorite human trait, because it contributes nothing good, not even to the arrogant prick himself.

The Clintons never learned (cf., Bill’s racist behavior during the crucial 2008 South Carolina primary).  Will Apple?

©2010 Keith Berner

05.29.10 Net Neutrality – My Letter in the Post

May 30, 2010


On May 24, the Washington Post's lead editorial called government action to ensure net neutrality "nonsense."  Here is my reply, published on May 29:

The May 24 editorial “Regulating broadband” argued that “advocates of increased oversight . . . ignore the [Internet service providers’] need to provide good service to keep their customers.” In fact, it is The Post that is ignoring the near-monopoly state of the market. Where customers rarely have more than one or two choices, ISPs can behave with impunity, raising rates, providing lousy support, and — yes — discriminating against content they disfavor. After all, consumers have nowhere else to turn.

Only rigorous government intervention can ensure that Internet service providers serve the public good by maintaining the Internet as a free-flowing marketplace of ideas. And only a free and open Internet can protect our democracy in an age of frightening media consolidation.

Keith Berner, Takoma Park

This is cross-posted from my technology blog, KBTechTips

04.30.10 Be Scared: Facebook Is Evil

April 30, 2010

This is cross-posted from my technology blog, KBTechTips,

As a follow-up to my earlier post recommending that you re-check your Facebook privacy settings, here is a chilling article on how far Facebook has already gone toward breaking down societal resistance to invasion of privacy and how little there is to do about it.

I have a Facebook account, but I’m determined to limit my “friends” to people who really are (i.e., nobody from my professional life) and to stay away from quizzes and other applications that can invade my privacy without my realizing it.  I’m not an extremely private person, but Facebook’s record makes me legitimately paranoid.

04.22.10 Corporate Internet Control Is Like Chinese Censorship

April 22, 2010

Sorry to beat a dead horse, but the more I think about this, the more important I think it is.  The New York Times’s lead editorial on Monday was on this topic.  They’re certainly on the correct side of the issue, but I’m not sure they see the urgency in the same way I do.  Here’s the letter I sent them (I haven’t heard anything back, so I assume they’re not going to print it, but that’s ok).

To the Editors:
In an era of media consolidation and codified corporate dominance of elections (cf, Citizens United), a free internet is essential to our democracy.  Control by a small number of giant corporations over what Americans can say and read will be no less chilling than the outright censorship we are used to condemning in countries like China.  We cannot trust Comcast any more than the FBI to decide on our behalf what is worthy of sharing.  Only unfettered access to the free flow of ideas — some of which may be extreme and unpopular — can preserve the spirit of the First Amendment, assuring the open debate that has so enriched our culture and politics since our founding.
Keith Berner