Op Ed: DAC As Planned Was Serious Case Of Mission Creep
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on March 23rd, 2014
The arguments for and against the Oakland Domain Awareness Center project are well-established. After hours of community testimony at the Oakland City Council meetings Feb. 18 and March 4, the council voted to rein in the planned surveillance center.
What isn't so well-established is what the center was for in the first place, and what policies would prevent the Orwellian nightmare presented by DAC opponents.
The bad news is there isn't any policy.
I came by this information accidentally, after receiving an invitation to the Advisory Committee to work on the privacy framework for the new spying machine.
I was more than a little surprised because my organization has a not very subtle anti-surveillance position.
However, I dutifully read over the first draft and submitted five pages of comments, which can be found on the Media Alliance website.
Here's what I found:
The surveillance system has a mission. "The mission of the Domain Awareness Center (DAC) is to: (1) improve readiness to prevent, respond to, and recover from major emergencies at the Port and in the greater Oakland region and (2) ensure better multi-agency coordination in response to emergencies across the larger San Francisco Bay Area."
I'm familiar with mission statements and "mission creep," which means the distance between what you say the purpose is, and what you really do. So mission creep was evident when the DAC became a colossus of crime-fighting and the missing ingredient to control Oakland's street crime problems.
An emergency can be many things. What is an emergency in Oakland's privacy framework?
"Air pollution, fire, flood, storm, epidemic, riot, drought, sudden and severe energy shortage, plant or animal infestation or disease, the state governor's warning of an earthquake or volcanic prediction, or an earthquake, or other conditions, which are likely to be beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment, and facilities of the city of Oakland and require the combined forces of other political subdivisions to combat."
As it turns out, during fires, floods and earthquakes, protests, smoggy days and invasions of avaricious raccoons, as outside forces are being imported for mutual combat, DAC geo-location data can be released to, well, just about anybody.
"During a major emergency, city of Oakland agency directors and/or their designees in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and outside governmental agencies and non-governmental agencies' staff assisting with the major emergency or disaster (such as the Red Cross) that would report to EOC may have access to the DAC computers and display."
Even the IRS is not excluded.
"Third party auditors, federal, state, or local grantor auditors or the city auditor may have access to any stored data."
The Oakland Privacy Framework is a framework for the elimination of personal privacy. Mayor Jean Quan commented to this paper that the vote "will give us time to talk about privacy."
The whole country has been talking about privacy since June. The consensus is that an emergency doesn't mean it is open season on human rights and civil liberties.
Oakland has a rich legacy of civil rights advocacy. This is a vicious case of mission creep.
Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, an Oakland-based democratic communications advocate. For more information, go to www.media-alliance.org.
Announcing Wavelength Media Arts
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on March 9th, 2014
Wavelength Media Arts
Faced with epic changes in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors, and inspired by the power of horizontal/grassroots culture and technologies, IAM and Media Alliance are launching Wavelength Media/Arts as a collaborative partnership to focus and amplify our complementary strengths in advocacy, fiscal sponsorship, artist and producer services, and community engagement programming.
We hope to address the needs of media and arts practitioners in an open, affordable and collaborative setting that will provide structural support and advocacy for public policy favorable to independent producers and community vitality.
Wavelength Media/Arts is made possible in part by the San Francisco Foundation Nonprofit Transitions Fund, which helps nonprofits “rethink and regroup in response to the downturn in the economy” and “reduce costs and time spent on administrative work, as well as increase productivity.”
Announcing Three Workshops for the Future of Bay Area Arts & Democracy
* Presented by Independent Arts & Media and Media Alliance
* Save the Dates! April 7, May 5, June 2, 2014, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Wavelength Media/Arts – a joint service project co-founded by Media Alliance and Independent Arts & Media is hosting a three-part discussion series on April 7, May 5 and June 2 from 6 to 8 p.m. to explore the needs of working and aspiring artists and media producers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Please join us!
Your participation will shape these conversations and define our programming for 2014 and beyond.
The three-part Wavelength Media/Arts discussion series will explore and define:
(1) What type of “Professional Development” services should be offered to advance a thriving independent, noncommercial arts and media sector;
(2) “Advocacy” and government policy issues affecting arts- and media-makers, such as housing, health care and Net Neutrality;
(3) Communications” and connections which exist between artists, media-makers and the communities they serve.
April 7: “Professional Development” – at CounterPULSE (San Francisco)
May 5: “Advocacy” – location TBD (Oakland)
June 2: “Communications” – at CounterPULSE (San Francisco)
The events on April 7 and June 2 will be hosted by CounterPULSE in their new space at 80 Turk Street, just a block from the public transport hub at Market and Powell Streets in San Francisco.
As an MA constituent, you are in the best position to guide this process and set the stage for a new suite of services designed for your benefit.
To ensure your participation, please RSVP by emailing Tracy Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jason Wyman at email@example.com
First Peruvian-based Community Media Crowdfunding Campaign: Wayka for the Lima Metro
Posted by on February 23rd, 2014
A really exciting project based in Lima, Peru for a free street newspaper to take advantage of the brand-new Lima metro. Please spread the word to help attract the support these folks need to get started up. Here's a bit of their pitch.
There is currently a tremendous opportunity to start such a project in Lima. This is because the city has a new and rapidly expanding public transportation system, with no newspapers currently offered at the stations – let alone newspapers that are free.
In order to fill this gap, Wayka will be a non-profit community newspaper distributed for free at metro stations across Lima. It will be a space for the voices of civil society and community groups that are rarely heard – or, when they are heard, they are overwhelmingly censored and misrepresented – in mainstream media.
Wayka will also incorporate a website and use social networks in our outreach so that people can interact directly and contribute their points of view. We will thus give the public a direct say in what will be published in the print versions of our paper. Furthermore, Wayka will serve to promote the many talented Peruvian musicians, filmmakers, writers and other artists that are currently ignored by commercially oriented media
We believe Wayka will be a major means for people to empower themselves, work towards greater social justice, and reclaim our democracy from special interests. It will break the oligopoly over the means of communication, which is currently led by one extremely wealthy company that is also heavily entangled with government.
The Radio, The Internet and The Jetsons
Posted by Pete Tridish on February 23rd, 2014
Pete Tridish on why terrestrial radio still matters
Activists fought over fifteen years for this moment. In October, community groups across the country got the opportunity to apply for a Low Power FM (LPFM) radio license from the Federal Communications Commission.
Doubts abound. Now that 12-year-olds have cell phones and Google knows us better than we know ourselves, those of us who invested years of our lives for this opportunity have to wonder: Was it worth it?There were over 2800 applications and it should lead to the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history. This will be the first time that a significant number of new community radio stations are started in the top 50 urban markets since the ’70s, and most cities have between three and seven new channels available. Some cities have dozens of competitors for these channels. The grassroots struggle for legal, local (low power) community radio in the United States started in the 1990s and, finally, FM radio is opening for participatory, community use.
Did we succeed in winning a sliver of a solution to the 1996 problem of media concentration– in 2013? Will FM go the way of 8 track tape, just when we have managed to win more democracy on the FM dial? Once the Internet is widely accessible on the car dashboard, will the bottom fall out of FM? Has time defeated us?
Looking So Far Ahead That You Trip On The Ground Beneath Your Feet:
In recent US history, technology has created more change in the way we live our lives than any changes arising from our stalemated political system. We see technological change all around us that appears to move us forward, while the politicians seem to only run around in circles. But we often focus more on the dramatic technological changes and forget how many things have stayed surprisingly the same, and that can cloud our analysis about how technology will affect our lives in the future. Back in 1975, it was pretty obvious to everyone that, given the rate we were going, we would have outposts on the Moon and Mars by 2013…
The former president of NPR, Vivian Schiller, caused a big stink among her network of stations when she said in an interview: “Radio towers are going away within 10 years, and Internet radio will take their place.” This was met with guffaws from engineers and radio folks everywhere; one compared her statement to The Jetsons, the old cartoon show which glibly predicted fantastic technological innovation with flying saucer cars and robotic appliances. The Jetsons is much more demonstrative of the blithe values of the early 60s than predictive of the future.
Because we are fascinated with how technology is going to change our lives and also because companies like to get insight into how to get products to market, there is a great deal of study on the diffusion and adoption of new technologies. Yet, there is not nearly so much study of what keeps us using older ones. 93% of Americans over the age of twelve listen to at least two hours of radio a week, but if people can listen to whatever, whenever they want online, why would anyone still use radio?
For that matter: Why use a hammer when nail guns are available, and why continue using pencils in light of computer word processing? Often when a new technology moves into use, people get excited about the pluses and tend to overlook some of the places where the old technology still does a better job. A hammer cannot only put in a nail, but it can also take one out— you can’t do that with a nail gun. Pencils can write upside down on almost any surface in any language in places you would not want to carry your computer and portable printer. Older technologies tend to lose their dominance, yet retain niches that their replacements were not designed to address. Radio will never again have the power that it did in the 1940s. But that does not mean that FM will not remain in the media mix or that the coming wave of community radio across America will not have an impact.
We start with a list of internet audio’s clear advantages over radio and describe the ways that internet audio will likely displace radio. Next, we offer seven reasons why there will still be FM radio towers in ten years. And we close with five predictions on where radio will maintain a strong presence.
Internet audio is just so much better because:
1. Time Shifting: With FM, you have to plan your life around hearing your favorite show. With podcasts and playlists, you can hear it any time that is good for you. It allows the listener to access her favorite programs anytime from anywhere with an internet connection.
2. Choice abounds: The infinite variety of content that is available online dwarfs local FM band offerings that have no more than 40 channels on the air in a typical city. The Internet also allows you to aggregate listeners from around the world, so even if there are only a handful people in your city who would like to listen to the newest Reggae Opera fusion band, one can find thousands of people around the world who listen to them online.
3. Low Startup Cost: From a producer’s perspective, the Internet can also be an inviting place to host content, considering there are not the brick-and-mortar costs of studio space and there’s no need for an FCC license. This allows you to try something, even if you are not sure it will be a winner.
4. As Quirky As You Want To Be: And of course, internet services like Spotify and all the others allow you to customize the programming you hear too, so if you want to listen to Japanese surf music—you don’t have to find a station that happens to be playing it. And search functions allow you to ask for anything you want and it appears.
5. Your Cellular Swiss Army Knife: Internet listening is integrated into a device that you use for lots of other things—like making a call, banking, using video, email, dictionaries, maps, a digital carpenter’s level, playing games, or texting your friends about being late.
There Will Still be Radio Towers in Ten Years Because:
Radio might be outpaced by the Internet in many ways, but it’s certainly not obsolete.IMG_1846
1. Haves and Have Nots: The Internet is not as available as we’d like to think. One third of U.S. adults lack a reliable broadband connection. America ranks 28th in the world in broadband penetration and 8th in the world when it comes to Internet speed. The digital divide is a problem still in want of fixing, as internet service providers refuse to build out in areas where a profit cannot be predicted –despite receiving public subsides– and high school students sit in the parking lot of McDonald’s to go online to complete their homework. Although there is finally now a comprehensive national broadband plan, the U.S. is years behind our global counterparts.
2. Listening to a radio station is not rocket science: A radio receiver has two dials: one for channel and the other for volume. Radio doesn’t necessitate technological literacy or expensive equipment. It’s as easy for the young as it is for the old and only requires a power source. The average American household has five FM radios in it. They all most likely work as well as the day that they were bought–unlike computers, which become outdated in three years, or phones that break in 18 months, if you are lucky. Someone who turns on a radio to listen to it can rest assured that they will not push the wrong button and get hacked or get their radio infected with a virus and end up with their bank account drained.
3. Internet radio is only cheap if your station has few listeners:
Each person that tunes in to your webstream requires their own channel of data coming to them, and their own connection to your stations servers. Hardware and bandwidth costs add up for every additional listener. If radio stations made a complete transition to the web, in order to continue to reach their listener base, they would be paying a fortune in Internet bills to host those connections, the streaming equipment, and the higher price of royalties for online streaming. A public radio executive, William Kling, brought up this example at a hearing at the FCC.
… we can reach 14 million people in Los Angeles with a transmitter that runs on 600 watts of power. If we tried to reach million people with broadband as somebody said earlier we’d be bankrupt. We spend now $500,000 a year in our company alone on broadband spectrum in order to serve the audience… I don’t think everybody realizes that every time someone does that it’s a collect call to us, and if you can keep that in mind and think about the devil’s in the details, but how could you as part of a regulatory environment where certain gifts of broadband regulation are made to people, what could you take back for public interest?
FM has a high start-up cost, but it costs nothing to the station every time a listener tunes in. As audiences grow, FM is far more economical and efficient than internet.
4. The Royalty: While radio has thus far been exempted form certain forms of intellectual property payments, the regime for payment of royalties for streaming copyrighted materials on the Internet has been a perpetual mess. 80% of Pandora’s revenue is dished out to music licensing companies. The prices are so high that the streaming music website just purchased a small station in Rapid City, South Dakota in order to try to classify as a radio station to save on their royalty payments. It is important and fair to pay artists for what they create. But the constant haggling over rates, the extremely high demands of content owners, and the record keeping and legal ambiguity around the issue have crippled streaming internet audio and hampered creativity in the new medium. In the early days of streaming, many colleges shut down their streams because they were afraid to stream when they did not know how much content owners would demand from them.
5. The NSA Knows When You Listen To Public Enemy: Radio listeners don’t get spied on. That’s a big plus considering today’s headlines about government surveillance and corporate data mining. Neither the broadcast company nor the government can trace your listening habits in the way that an internet company or the federal government collects records of online behavior in the hopes of either pinning you as a suspect or flashing you creepy, contextual ads based on the content of your emails.
6. In A Crisis, Keep It Simple: You can turn on a radio in the dark and run it off of a battery. Radio is connected to the Emergency Alert Service, and let’s be real: How often does your Internet cut out? When the cell phone towers go down and the televisions don’t have electricity, radio remains the number one communication technology in times of emergency. With radio, everyone listens to the same thing at the same time- a crucial aspect of emergency information that is, most importantly, current and not inconsistent. All radios stations in the US are connected to the Emergency Alert System, a national warning system run by the federal government.
7. The Internet Is Like The Wild West, But The West Was Eventually Tamed: While we are accustomed to relatively free expression on the internet, there are several major efforts underway that are attempting to transform the internet into a much more closed experience. Internet service providers are trying to further monetize the internet by favoring web products that they own or that pay a fee to reach users faster than other websites. Companies like Google record your every move online and try to direct you to sites of advertisers. And all the while, people around the world live in countries where the internet is filtered, disproving the 1990s myth that the Internet is immune to censorship. There are far more threats to Internet freedom today than there were in the 1990s and those threats are only escalating.
The Internet will undoubtedly upset part of radio’s applecart. Eventually, much of what is now on the radio will move to some form of the web. But the problems with the Internet we have described are not trivial and will not go away with hand-waving and wishful thinking. Chances are good that, for one reason or another, many people will still use an analog FM radio ten years from now for some of their listening.
And Finally, 7 Niches Where FM Will Survive:
FM will take a big hit in the coming years, but since 93 % of Americans listen every week, it has a long way to fall before it is dead. Here are some of the ways it will keep making an impact as some listeners move to internet:
1) Hello? It’s Free.
People who don’t want to pay by the byte are going to keep listening to radio. While many will go online to satisfy a niche taste, many others will not see this as worth the expense when they can listen to one of the local channels (which, after all, carry the 40-50 most popular types of programming) for free.
Internet companies already charge for the amount of data that we use by offering consumers tiered price plans based on how much data they consume each month. Audio streaming uses a lot of data and, if this pricing trend continues, those who stream audio for hours a day will see that reflected in their monthly bill.
2) Stop Fiddling With Your Facebook And Drive! There will be a major disruption to radio when internet really establishes itself in cars. Broadcasting is a one-way technology, while the internet is more designed for interactivity. But we don’t want people to interact with the Internet while they drive!! Until most cars drive themselves, internet for cars is going to have to be designed very, very carefully to avoid what has already happened with texting while driving. The laws around texting and driving have fallen into place, and auto manufacturers will have to seriously consider how they will keep safety up when introducing more interactive communications into cars.
3) Immigrants: Radio has long served as a resource for minority language communities to share news and information in languages other than English. And for those who don’t read in English, affordable broadcast media, like radio, is an essential service for news, entertainment and information. The internet demands a high level of literacy, both in terms of technological and reading ability. What’s more, the internet is a dangerous place full of scams and charges that catch people who have not developed strong digital literacy skills.
4) Youth: We must be kidding, right? Young people don’t know what a radio is anymore, right? Although the homogenized, rather predictable content of commercial radio has lead to a general decline of interest and youth listenership in recent years, youth participation in community radio is trending up. Stations that position themselves as community media centers and train young people in audio production are bigger than ever. Stations that include youth in participatory programming will attract a young community that do not just think of themselves as listeners, but as radio producers. And that’s cool with us!
5) Strengthening Local Programming: People using an internet audio device will not need their local radio station to hear NPR or Rush Limbaugh. Instead, they’ll be able to go straight to the national source. Content providers, like NPR, are working to cut out the radio middlemen, but stations that produce local programming still have something distinct to offer. The sheer expense of delivering a show like “All Things Considered” to its whole audience via the internet would be enormous. Established FM architecture is way cheaper for mass distribution for a show with millions of listeners, which will keep NPR affiliates reliant on the local stations for a number of years to come. FM stations can survive by building local programs that people love and simply cannot get anywhere else.
6) A Media That is Not Just Social, But Participatory and Collaborative. Commercial radio is dying. This is because most of the industry’s innovation for the last twenty years has been to come up with cleverer and cleverer ways to cut people out of radio. They’ve largely axed call-in shows, live DJs, and airtime for local musicians. Listeners will not remain loyal to a robot jukebox. Community radio stations are places where volunteers come together to make programming.
On the news front, look at a station like WORT in Madison. Their all-volunteer news program, In Our Backyards, has won countless journalism awards. With close to a hundred news producers who help report the news in their city, In Our Backyards is not just a lone opinionated blogger sending off dispatches from his bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, and it is also not hundreds of Twitter users sending off duplicative tweets. The newscast is a collaborative production with standards and fact-checking and hundreds of personal connections in the city through their volunteer production team.
7) They Will Come, But When Will You Build it? As described before—FM is ridiculously efficient at bringing audio content from one point to thousands or millions of listeners in a way that the internet cannot be, at least for many years. The expense of the internet buildout of the capacity for everyone to receive what they already receive for free over FM will cost billions. Eventually, broadband infrastructure will reach communities that are not currently online, but that will not happen overnight, and people will not turn off their FM receiver while they are waiting for affordable, reliable internet connections.
So– radio is not dead. It won’t last forever, but a lot of people still listen to FM and will continue for the foreseeable future. Clear Channel won’t power down their stations for quite some time, because they still reach a huge number of people and are making billions of dollars. We encourage groups to take advantage of this opportunity to get on the air and use this time well. After all, radio didn’t kill newspapers, TV didn’t kill radio, the Internet didn’t kill TV, and George Jetson cannot yet push a button to fold his spaceship up into a suitcase. Neither internet nor video killed the radio star. This is a time to build community media centers and provide a platform for the local expression and circulation of information necessary to maintain healthy communities, a sense of identity, and local voice. And these new radio stations are going to be so exciting because so many are going to be built in urban areas, where just a hundred watt station can easily reach hundreds of thousands of listeners.
Those of us who fought for this got lucky. The political process is so much slower than the process of innovation that often a reform like LPFM comes too late, after the technology has moved on. If we had been fighting for an expansion of low power TV stations, for example, we would have totally missed the boat by the time our bill passed. Fortunately, the decline of FM will be a slow, drawn out affair- not a sudden shock like some communications technologies have seen.
Your FM station should not stick its head in the sand—you cannot just be an FM station anymore. You need to build in such a way to also put your programs on the web. However, internet-only services simply cannot yet do what FM technology has been able to do for the past sixty years, and it will be quite some time before all the pieces come together for it to replace FM. Start an LPFM station and use the long twilight of this technology to its fullest for community broadcasting!
Blog: Mergers Lock In The Status Quo
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on February 19th, 2014
A blog on the Bay Area and media consolidation
The San Francisco Bay Area is often seen across the country as a blue outpost and a place where liberal ideas predominate. This image is especially widespread in media reports which emphasize cultural and political innovations. But the local media system which indulges in the self-congratulatory blather is itself a retrograde example of corporate consolidation and dominance. More like Texas than Vermont, if you like.
If the purpose of media systems is to connect and to exchange information, then Bay Area communication is about as controlled by big media corporations as the US is dependent on imported oil. The statistics are terrifying:
Two companies get nearly half of the TV market's advertising revenues; five companies own more than one commercial TV station. Four companies own half the Bay Area's radio stations and get 80% of the advertising revenues. Two of them own seven radio stations each. The two alternative culture newspaper weeklies are owned by the same company. Being owned by the same company can result in the same content, no matter where you look. The newspaper conglomerate Media News Group will often print the same articles in the San Jose daily paper the Mercury News as they do in Oakland's daily paper the Tribune, 40 miles away.
This news echo chamber is sped along by both formal mergers and insidious semi-mergers, often called joint sharing agreements, where two TV stations or newspapers don't formally merge, but combine most aspects of their operations.
Mergers, formal or informal, lock in the status quo. And diversity, not only in content but also in ownership, is not the status quo. There is only one TV station in the Bay Area with any person of color owning a majority stake, KQSL. And similarly only one owned by women, KTSF. Radio is not much better with 12% minority ownership and only 3 radio stations owned by women.
The price we pay for turning a blind eye to media consolidation isn't just boredom. It's placing the power to determine what is important and what is newsworthy in the hands of just a few. Those few don't look like most of us and by ceding so much public property to 16 corporations and their subsidiaries, the majority of the population becomes marginalized in their own national discussion.
People have had some success turning media consolidation on its head by using social media to spoof the news echo-chamber and vacuous celebrity culture. It's affirmation that most of us don't want what these 16 corporations are trying to sell us. But the tools we use are part and parcel of those corporations, and social media sells our data and spies on us in return for the space to discuss what we want.
It doesn't have to be as bad as it is. Media is licensed and regulated, at least in theory, and consolidation, whether by outright mergers or sharing agreements, can be slowed down. Cross-ownership rules can be tightened. Media diversity studies can become real guides for measuring whether the population is represented by the media that serves them. Sneaky sharing agreements don't have to be approved. And independent and alternative media can be strengthened to provide an antidote to corporate-delivered news and entertainment.
When we look at media through a justice lens, the allocation of broadcasting spaces and internet pipes and newspaper columns is just like the allocation of any other public resource. The vital question is whether it is for the benefit of all or a private playground for the few. The Media Action Grassroots Network (Mag-net) believes media change must happen to end poverty, eliminate racism and ensure human rights.
Because if we wait politely for 16 corporations to let us talk about it, it will be too late.
February 11. The Day We Fought Back
Posted by on
On Feb 11th, the one year anniversary of Aaron Swartz's death, the Internet will become a placard for the right to communicate freely.
Any website you administer, your Facebook page, your Twitter feed, your Pinterest page, your Tumblr blog, can all carry the message.
We don't need to be rats in a cage. The right to communicate belongs to all.
Sign up to fight back on February 11th.
Video from the San Francisco Convergence at AT&T's NSA Facility
Blog: The Center for American Progress and the Nullify NSA Movement
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on February 9th, 2014
The prominent Democratic website Think Progress recently took aim at the anti-NSA surveillance movement with a warning to “Beware of Libertarians Bearing Gifts”. The blog suggests bipartisan alliances between civil liberties advocates and libertarians will sink the New Deal, which some might say is already taking on a bit of water.
The direct target of authors Zack Beauchamp and Ian Millhiser is the Offnow.org coalition, a partnership anchored by the right-wing Tenth Amendment Center and the left-wing Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
(Disclaimer: Media Alliance, my organization, recently joined the coalition).
The premise of Offnow is local legislation in states, counties, and universities to make it policy to dis-invest in mass surveillance. Twelve state legislatures have introduced versions of the 4th Amendment Act (Alaska, Arizona, California, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington). The big target is Utah, home of the huge Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, where the provision of 1.7 million gallons of water by the state every day cools the huge supercomputers.
Think Progress’s objection to turning off the utilities on the NSA emanates from a liberal nightmare of a state like Texas darkening health clinics for poor people or cutting off water supplies to voting rights attorneys.
Let me be clear. I buy the idea that nutty contingents of the Tea Party might advocate for such things. Texas’s recent foray into fetal survival within the carcass of a deceased woman is evidence to never say never. But there is one basic difference.
Mass blanket surveillance of telephone metadata, email and Internet searches without individualized warrants and probable cause, I s unconstitutional. The Bill of Rights doesn’t allow it. Congress didn’t approve it. The American public didn’t know about it until a certain contractor took a trip to Hong Kong. The idea Think Progress is embracing – the rogue activities of the NSA are established government policy – isn’t true.
Even the unaccountable secret FISC court has agreed: “The Obama administration, under pressure from continued NSA leaks, declassified documents Wednesday showing the agency scooped up tens of thousands of emails and other online communications from Americans beginning in 2008 that it wasn’t allowed to target, and was told to stop by the secret court that oversees the program”.
The Dems at The Center for American Progress also seem stricken by an attack of amnesia about the long tradition of local disinvestment movements to impact American policy – by progressives.
The anti-apartheid movement advocated for disinvestment in South Africa under apartheid from both private and public sources including state universities. By 1984, 53 U.S institutions divested, by 1987, 128 including the University of California. By the end of 1989, 26 states, 22 counties and over 90 cities had taken some form of binding economic action against companies doing business in South Africa. Most of this pre-dated the 1986 Comprehensive Apartheid Act by Congress.
Over 110 American cities have declared themselves sanctuary cities that will provide limited or no local cooperation with the Secure Communities deportation program run by the Department of Homeland Security.
Vermont, the state most often described as a progressive Disneyland has developed a virtual cottage industry in defying the federal government. In just the last few years, the state has authorized hemp growing without a permit, passed a law prohibiting patent trolling not addressed by the US Patent Act, opted out of the Affordable Care Act, and has considered a GMO labeling bill, currently stalled by litigation threats from Monsanto.
If the New Deal is sinking, the most progressive state in the nation appears to be steadily poking holes in the hull of the boat.
In the latest version of “you’re with us or you’re against us”, the Center for American Progress has embraced an a-historical definition of progressivism that prioritizes not sleeping with the enemy over principled dissent against unconstitutional activities.
The last line of the Think Progress article is “Ideology matters”.
Does it really matter more than justice?
Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance (www.media-alliance.org), an Oakland CA-based democratic communications advocacy organization. Research assistance with this article was provided by Alexander Houk.
Blog: A Thousand New Radio Stations: Whose Will They Be?
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on February 9th, 2014
The future of democratic media may come down to a bunch of lawyers.
Twenty-five years after pirate radio aficionados and media activists pushed for and eventually won the Low Power Community Radio Act, the fate of hundreds of radio licenses is up in the air.
Almost 3,000 applications were filed for low-power radio stations in neighborhoods across the United States. Some were filed by long-established community groups, others by new groups that came together around the opportunity to operate a station and still others by church-based chain broadcasters.
One thousand six hundred seventy-two groups are fighting for 400 frequencies that represent the last new broadcast infrastructure the country may ever see.
Are they battling with their hands tied behind their backs? And what does their struggle mean for a media landscape where localism is becoming a quainter and quainter relic in the era of nonstop media consolidation?
The process for awarding licenses when there are multiple applicants for the same spot on the dial is anything but simple. While a points system implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides some rankings, for hundreds of "MX'ed" groups (in FCC lingo), the only way forward is to navigate complex time-sharing agreements or file petitions to knock their unqualified (mostly because they are not truly local) opponents out of eligibility.
These are not tasks for rookies.
Community organizations are mission-focused and often minimally staffed. While they may see the value a radio license could bring to their ongoing work, they didn't necessarily sign on for a crash course in telecommunications law. And one of the advantages of being a chain broadcaster is access to the resources of larger organizations.
You can see where this is going. Without some help from law schools and clinics, legal firm pro-bono departments and the few "movement" lawyers everyone depends on when they get into trouble, the good guys may not win.
Nobody fought for 25 years for 1,000 new radio stations that all sound the same.
As advocates Prometheus Radio Project put it:
"What we are seeing is not a move away from radio, but a move away from homogenous news sources. People seek information that they can participate in and is relevant to them within their social networks - community radio provides just that. The future of community radio will integrate broadcast and digital technologies to allow stations to be more accessible and participatory. With a cell phone and laptop, the whole community becomes a mobile studio. We are building a participatory media infrastructure for social change and community expression"
Nothing could be more needed, but without a mobilization - not of people in the streets, but of lawyers at their desks - it may not happen.
The FCC wants low-power radio to succeed as much as anyone. For an organization often maligned as being in the pockets of industry, the opening of the low-power radio window was a unique moment. But bureaucratic rules are bureaucratic roles, and everyone has to play by the rules of the game.
It would be sad if groups like the Tohono O'Odham Nation in San Xavier, Arizona, Causa Justa in Oakland, The Bakersfield Burrito Project, The Washington Peace Center in the capital, The United Workers Association in Baltimore, Art FM in Lousiville and The Islamic Center in Gulfport, Mississippi, get sliced out of a piece of the media pie. Voices like theirs are the exception rather than the rule.
But without a well-written petition to deny aimed at a shell opponent or a professionally crafted time-sharing agreement, that's exactly what will happen.
Media activism groups like the Committee on Democratic Communications of the National Lawyers Guild, Prometheus Radio Project and Media Alliance can direct donated or low-cost services to applicants in need. Template samples for petitions to deny and time-sharing agreements can be made available to law school students, clinics, firms and even recovering lawyers who want to help in the next few months to make broadcasting space open up.
The low-power radio movement argued that the wasted space between large radio licenses belongs to the people, not the corporations.
Hundreds of groups took the government at its word - that in this case, it agrees.
Now they need support to take their rightful place on the airwaves.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Want To Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities
Posted by Virgina Eubanks on February 9th, 2014
The American Prospect
Virginia Eubanks writes in American Prospect about the shock troops on the frontlines of surveillance: the poor and how the dystopian future many warn out is already playing out in marginalized communities across the country.
ince Edward Snowden started disclosing millions of classified NSA documents in June, terms like metadata, software backdoors, and cybervulnerability have appeared regularly in headlines and sound bites. Many Americans were astonished when these stories broke. In blogs, comment sections, and op-ed pages, they expressed disbelief and outrage.
But I wasn’t surprised. A decade ago, I sat talking to a young mother on welfare about her experiences with technology. When our conversation turned to Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT), Dorothy* said, “They’re great. Except [Social Services] uses them as a tracking device.” I must have looked shocked, because she explained that her caseworker routinely looked at her EBT purchase records. Poor women are the test subjects for surveillance technology, Dorothy told me ruefully, and you should pay attention to what happens to us. You’re next.
Poor and working-class Americans already live in the surveillance future. The revelations that are so scandalous to the middle-class data profiling, PRISM, tapped cellphones–are old news to millions of low-income Americans, immigrants, and communities of color. To be smart about surveillance in the New Year, we must learn from the experiences of marginalized people in the U.S. and in developing countries the world over. Here are four lessons we might learn if we do.
Lesson #1: Surveillance is a civil rights issue.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, we are targeted for digital surveillance as groups and communities, not as individuals. Big Brother is watching us, not you. The NSA looks for what they call a “pattern of life,” homing in on networks of people associated with a target. But networks of association are not random, and who we know online is affected by offline forms of residential, educational, and occupational segregation. This year, for example, UC San Diego sociologist Kevin Lewis found that online dating leads to fewer interracial connections, compared to offline ways of meeting. Pepper Miller has reported that sometimes, African Americans will temporarily block white Facebook friends so that they can have “open, honest discussions” about race with black friends. Because of the persistence of segregation in our offline and online lives, algorithms and search strings that filter big data looking for patterns, that begin as neutral code, nevertheless end up producing race, class, and gender-specific results.
Groups of “like” subjects are then targeted for different, and often unequal, forms of supervision, discipline and surveillance, with marginalized communities singled out for more aggressive scrutiny. Welfare recipients like Dorothy are more vulnerable to surveillance because they are members of a group that is seen as an appropriate target for intrusive programs. Persistent stereotypes of poor women, especially women of color, as inherently suspicious, fraudulent, and wasteful provide ideological support for invasive welfare programs that track their financial and social behavior. Immigrant communities are more likely to be the site of biometric data collection than native-born communities because they have less political power to resist it. As panicked as mainstream America is about the government collecting cellphone meta-data, imagine the hue and cry if police officers scanned the fingerprints of white, middle-class Americans on the street, as has happened to day laborers in Los Angeles, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Marginalized people are in the dubious position of being both on the cutting edge of surveillance, and stuck in its backwaters. Some forms of surveillance, like filmed police interrogations, are undoubtedly positive for poor and working-class communities and racial minorities. But marginalized people are subject to some of the most technologically sophisticated and comprehensive forms of scrutiny and observation in law enforcement, the welfare system, and the low-wage workplace. They also endure higher levels of direct forms of surveillance, such as stop-and-frisk in New York City.
The practice of surveillance is both separate and unequal. Acknowledging this reality allows us to challenge mass surveillance based on the 14th Amendment, which provides for equal protection under the law, not just on the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens against unwarranted search and seizure. Surveillance should be seen as a collective issue, a civil rights issue, not just an invasion of privacy.
Lesson #2: To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
We can intuit the shape of surveillance-to-come by keeping an eye on developing countries, as well as exploring its impacts on marginalized communities here in the United States. The most sweeping digital surveillance technologies are designed and tested in what could be called “low rights environments”—poor communities, repressive social programs, dictatorial regimes, and military and intelligence operations—where there are low expectations of political accountability and transparency. Drones that deliver Hellfire missiles, Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) that send pain-inducing tones over long distances, and stun cuffs that deliver 80,000 volts to detainees via remote control allow users to avoid direct responsibility for the human suffering they cause.
Many of these technologies are first developed for the U.S. military to deploy in the global south, and later tested for civilian purposes on marginal communities in the United States. LRADs, for example, were developed by San Diego-based military contractor American Technology Corporation in response to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and then famously used to disburse G20 protestors in Pittsburgh in 2009. Technologies designed for the military carry expectations about the dangerousness of the public, and can be used over-aggressively in community policing and crowd control. To a technology designed for counter-terrorism, everyone looks like a bad guy.
Then there is the digital side of things. “Law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and militaries invest in Trojans, bad software, malicious network attacks and other things that we normally associate with heavy criminality,” says Amelia Andersdotter, member of the European Parliament and the Swedish Pirate Party, which is dedicated to reforming copyright and patent laws. “No one is obliged to inform users of security flaws or to fix vulnerabilities.” In fact, as the Guardian and The New York Times reported in September, the NSA spends $250 million a year to work with technology companies to make commercial software—including encryption software—more “exploitable.” Insecure by design, this software is passed on to business and the public sector.
A standard of design liability—already common for architects—might work to hold software producers accountable. Presently, we mandate penalties for vendors that fail to security test their software in the airline and shipping industries, but not in other crucial areas: healthcare, nuclear plants, electricity grids. Andersdotter suggests that design liability regulations could hold software companies liable for not disclosing security flaws, responsible for damages they cause, and obliged to help users fix problems. But this solution may pose more questions than it settles: Who will administer the standards if software vendors and national governments are already subverting data-security requirements? How much transparency is possible when data holdings are centralized by commercial entities like Google, or by state entities, as in Brazil’s proposed national data centers?
Lesson #3: Everyone resists surveillance, not just the bad guys.
Resistance to surveillance is as common as surveillance itself. “There is always a cross-section of the population working to trick the system,” explains John Gilliom, co-author of SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance. “Whether it's a college kid getting a fake ID, or the middle class family hiding a little bit of cash income to lower its tax bill, or the food-stamp recipient hiding an extra roommate. We often call this fraud or cheating, but something this widespread is more than misbehavior. It is resistance.”
“Data is the new oil. Beyond collecting information, it also means gathering power,” argues Joana Varon Ferraz, researcher from the Center of Technology and Society at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “Every government has become dataholic.” Dataholic political and commercial systems foster defiance. We don’t necessarily resist because we’ve done something wrong. We resist because surveillance is not just about privacy; it is about power, control, self-determination and autonomy.
If people remain concerned about the impact of surveillance on their lives they may voluntarily withdraw from the digital world. Gilliom suggests we might even see “a hipster social trend where disengagement becomes a form of cache.” But digital disconnection can simply be an excuse for maintaining ignorance; many people don’t have the option to disengage. For example, public assistance applicants must sign a personal information disclosure statement to permit social services to share their social security number, criminal history, personal, financial, medical and family information with other public agencies and private companies. Technically, you can refuse to sign and withhold your social security number. But if you do not sign, you cannot access food stamps, transportation vouchers, cash assistance, childcare, emergency housing assistance, and other basic necessities for survival, or even talk to a caseworker about available community resources.
There are alternatives to disengagement. Brazil and Germany introduced a joint resolution to the UN condemning the member countries of what is unofficially known as the Five Eyes Alliance—the U.S., U.K., New Zealand, Canada, and Australia—for massive electronic surveillance and infringement of human rights. The EU is developing a General Data Protection Regulation that would unify data protection under a single European law. The BRICS cable, a 21,000 mile, 12.8 Terabyte per second fiber system connecting Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and Miami—is creating an alternative data pipeline to lower the cost of communication among major economies of the global south and provide non-U.S. routes for world communications.
Answers to the dilemmas we face in the surveillance society are not likely to come from Silicon Valley or Washington. This year, the Obama administration was put in the position of defending the National Security Administration’s snooping while stumping for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that boosts security for online shoppers. It is still unclear how President Obama will respond to his Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies’ report calling to terminate the storage of bulk data collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Lesson #4: Privacy is not the problem.
In his Christmas Day address on the U.K.’s Channel 4, Edward Snowden trotted out the hoary old clichés about George Orwell, Big Brother, and the end of privacy. But for most people, privacy is a pipedream. Living in dense urban neighborhoods, public housing, favellas, prisons, or subject to home visits by caseworkers, poor and working people might wish for more personal space, but they don’t make Snowden’s mistake of assuming that privacy is “what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”
We need to move away our fixation on privacy and towards a future based on digital human rights. We can take some cues from Brazil, which is currently creating a collaborative, multi-stakeholder “Internet Constitution,” the Marco Civil da Internet. The Marco connects digital communication to deeply held democratic values: internationalism, active citizenship, access to information, freedom of expression, democratic governance, civic participation, multilateralism, inclusivity and non-discrimination, plurality, cultural diversity, freedom of speech. The Marco also addresses network neutrality, personal data protection, and, yes, even privacy. But it is not the central issue. Seeing privacy as the cornerstone for democracy is a kind of naiveté we can no longer excuse nor afford.
We should care when national governments engage in surveillance of any kind, not just when they spy on us. Shock and outrage are callow luxuries, and the Snowden leaks eliminated our last justification for ignorance. Software designed for authoritarian political aims spawns repressive political environments wherever it is used. Systems tested in low rights environments will, as Dorothy informed me a decade ago, eventually be used on everyone.
January 23rd Panel on Our Almost Orwellian State
Posted by Our Almost Orwellian State on January 29th, 2014
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee, EFF, famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and author Norman Solomon discuss the legal, ethical and political impact of the Snowden disclosures.
Blog: A Tale of Two Prisoners
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on January 10th, 2014
A Tale of Two Prisoners
Meet Prisoner A: Incarcerated at Soledad Prison in California for a botched armed robbery committed in the thrall of an expensive drug addiction, Prisoner A is 3 years into a 10-year sentence. Committed to rehab and clean and sober for two years, A tries to keep in regular touch by telephone with two people: the aunt who raised him from a toddler in Oakland, CA and his 8-year old son, who has relocated with his ex-wife and her new husband to Oregon.
Calling his aunt, thanks to 2008 CA legislation, is free of commissions (often called kickbacks). A monthly 15-minute call to keep in touch is affordable, even for a financially-challenged senior, at a price of about $7 per call.
Calling his kid in Oregon? Until this year, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to cap prison interstate calling rates and get rid of commissions, the cost for that same 15-minute phone call was $18, causing the boy's mother to pull the plug on calls more than once a month between father and son.
Why did a phone call out of the same prison cost twice as much?
Just wait for Prisoner B.
Prisoner B is a 15-year-old incarcerated in Solano County's Juvenile Detention Center in Fairfield, CA. His family lives nearby in Vallejo, CA, but has been financially struggling since his father was laid off from a full-time job and has since only.been able to find part-time work. His mother earns low wages in a retail job and there are 3 younger siblings.
Because the county juvenile facility B is locked up in isn't included in California's legislation, the telephone provider charges a a 72% commission on all phone calls giving $600,000 a year back to Solano County that is extracted from prisoner families. But in B's case, his family pulled the plug due to financial exigency, stopped taking his calls, and he's had no contact with them since their last visit 4 months ago.
You don't have to be a professional sociologist to make a guess about whose post-prison life looks more promising: prisoner A who is retaining ties to loved ones or prisoner B who feels abandoned and cut off from a family riven with financial stress.
Every study confirms that guess. Prisoners who retain steady contact with family and friends while in prison have a dramatically lower recidvism rate. A better outcome for individuals and a better outcome for taxpayers.
That's why the California State Legislature took action to reduce predatory kickbacks at state-run prison facilities by 2011. That's why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took action to reduce interstate calling rates. There's a nationwide consensus that putting the welfare of prisoners and prisoner families ahead of profit is the right thing to do.
The crazy quilt of differing county and state legislation, which is what accounts for B's predicament, needs to become a thing of the past.
There's no difference between prisoners in federal prisons, those in state prisons and the occupants of local juvenile facilities, county jails, and immigration detention centers. In fact, the people most victimized by these insane commission rates are, in most cases, charged with less grave crimes and incarcerated for briefer periods of time.
In my state, California, this double standard is the rule, and it's not the only one. If local sheriffs departments are balancing their budgets on the back of the families of juvenile offenders, they need to come up with another funding model.
Prisoner families are often a stressed out and disorganized constituency. That is no surprise. So it's up to all of us to peek under the curtain at the county we live in and see how many hundreds of thousands of dollars are being taken in as kickbacks. If you're living in a county with 30%, 40%, 50%, 60% commissions, talk to the local newspaper and the local TV station and ask why we are colluding in the loss of contact between troubled kids and their families.
As a first step, go to the National Campaign for Prison Phone Justice website and see if there's a local group in your state working to halt predatory prison phone rates.
Sometimes the ability to connect can save a life.
Feinstein Endangers Silicon Valley Prosperity
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on January 4th, 2014
San Francisco Chronicle
An op-ed in the SF Chronicle on Senator Dianne Feinstein's attempt to derail NSA reform and the impact on CA's tech-dependent economy.
Feinstein endangers Silicon Valley prosperity
Published 4:53 pm, Thursday, December 26, 2013
It's not a good feeling when your congressional representatives dip into your pocketbook, but that's how thousands of California's tech workers feel today. It's an old story with a new twist, because we're not talking about an unwanted tax increase or a regulatory action. We're taking about the FISA Improvements Act, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's Patriot Act for the next decade.
After National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations began to steadily appear in the U.K. Guardian, California's Silicon Valley heard the reverberations loud and clear. The promise of the Internet 2.0, a fabulous tool of connection and innovation that turned so many of us into content creators and editors, promised that any kid with a talent for coding could become a millionaire by the age of 30, and lured Grandma onto Facebook to watch the grandkids frolicking 3,000 miles away, wasn't what it seemed.
It was the equivalent of a nosy neighbor with a telescope pointed at our bedroom window.
Saving pennies all year long to put the latest techno-gadget under the Christmas tree wasn't supposed to be an audition for a starring role in George Orwell's "1984."
That is why six leading technology companies (Yahoo, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL) took the virtually unprecedented step earlier this month of imploring the government for more regulation - of the government. They begged the government to help protect the legitimate privacy needs of their users all around the world - before it is too late. The biggest obstacle to the growing perception that bulk, warrantless data collection by the government gives Americans the creeps and needs to stop, is right here in California - and representing Silicon Valley.
California's senior senator, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is working overtime to destroy the Internet as we know it. Her FISA Improvements Act improves blanket and indiscriminate scooping up of enormous quantities of data by making sure the questionable legality of the NSA programs is enshrined into law - and the programs are expanded.
Even Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, an original sponsor of the USA Patriot Act, has balked at going that far, instead choosing to co-introduce a genuine NSA reform bill, the USA Freedom Act.
Silicon Valley's own senator is killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, a Bay Area democratic communications advocate. If you think California's senators should look after the state's economy, not to mention the U.S. Constitution, sign the open letter to the senator at www.shameonfeinstein.org, a coalition of several Northern California civil liberties groups, including Media Alliance.
FCC Commissioner Pai Stands With ALEC
Posted by Ajit Pai on December 20th, 2013
Federal Communications Commission
In case anybody was wondering, new Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai had astonishingly warm words for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) duringa meeting with their telecom task force.
Pai began his effusive greeting with "I am honored to be with you today to give the keynote address at this meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Task Force on Communications and Technology. It isn’t every day that a group comes to Washington, DC to advocate for a vibrant free market, limited government, and
federalism. In fact, it’s kind of like the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling coming to Las Vegas or Atlantic City. But I am proud to stand beside you in fighting for these cherished principles".
In truth, it's not at all like the Coalition Against Legalized Gambling coming to Las Vegas, but if you'd like to read the rest of Pai's comments, they can be found here.
For more on ALEC, listen to this NPR discussion on documents recently leaked to the UK Guardian.
The Exploited Laborers of the Liberal Media
Posted by Charles Davis on December 20th, 2013
God knows, Media Alliance is no example of paying a living wage and there are real economic questions about how the new media is funded and if it is funded, but this article by Salon and Al-Jazeera contributor Charles Davis is thought-provoking.
I was 21 years old when I took out my earring, combed my hair, and tried concealing my distaste for power and Washington, DC, in order to ask questions at press conferences. It was the summer of 2006, and I had just left college to work for a small, do-gooding nonprofit that covered Capitol Hill for public radio.
I went through the whole experience of being a journalist in the nation’s capital: attending deadly boring policy luncheons, interviewing near-dead lawmakers and dead-inside lobbyists, and dying a little inside myself every time I saw my work “edited”—turned into shameful garbage—before going on air.
Like any other reporter, I pitched stories at morning meetings and then did the legwork to put them together, in the process learning the job. While my gut impulse at first was to righteously confront the powerful with strident questions highlighting their logical inconsistencies and factual errors, I soon found it was often smarter to affect an earnest demeanor just a hair shy of sarcastic. You need to let the person being interviewed explain why he is terrible, which is more easily done when he thinks you are stupid or on his side.
What I did looked and felt like an entry-level job in the media. And I enjoyed it—I liked going up to any old white guy in a suit and asking him to explain in his own words why he’s destroying the country. I felt as if I had sort of made it, as much as an English major can. I wasn’t living at home, I got to carry a microphone, and my work was broadcast over the radio. To an outsider looking in, I almost looked like a respectable person.
The problem was I wasn’t being compensated for any of that work or my veneer of respectability. What I did every day might have appeared to be a job, but I was labeled an “intern,” meaning I got paid in experience and networking opportunities, not anything tangible. I made rent by taking a part-time job serving mediocre Mexican food across from the National Press Club and asking Washington Post columnists if Pepsi was OK instead of Coke. Periodic calls to Mommy and Daddy also helped. That was what was expected of me—I’m part of a generation conditioned to believe that if you just work for free hard enough and long enough, you can become president some day.
I was fortunate, all things considered. My labor was being exploited by a boss who took in $100,000 a year, but I was privileged enough that I could afford the exploitation for a few months, sort of. I had parents who could kick me some cash every now and then with only moderate-to-severe grief. And it hadn't yet hit me that I had to pay back all those student loans.
The problem with unpaid internships is that interns are people, and in capitalist economies people generally must work for money in order to obtain food and shelter. While I managed to pull it off, a lot of those who want to become journalists aren’t lucky enough to be born white and middle class. My family had enough money to support my stupid “dream,” while others, many no doubt more talented and deserving than I, were barred from even trying because they were too poor to work for nothing.
America’s leading liberal periodicals are aware of the obstacles to advancement the less privileged face in our decidedly not meritocratic society. Indeed, they often provide excellent coverage of the class war, from union-busting at Walmart to the fight for a living wage at fast-food chains. At the same time, though, many of them are exploiting workers in a way that would make corporate America proud: relabeling entry-level employees “interns” and “fellows” in order to dance around US labor laws.
Paying people little to nothing because you can—a practice aided by the awfulness of the job market and the desperation of people trying to make it in “glamour” industries like journalism—is both exploitive and discriminatory, but many good liberals do not appear to recognize it as such, even as they decry that behavior elsewhere.
Do as I Say, Not as I Pay
Robert Reich served as labor secretary under Bill Clinton and is outspoken in his support for a living wage. But when I asked him about the trend of entry-level jobs being relabeled “internships” and being stripped of the pay, benefits, and legal rights they once offered recent college grads (by some estimates, half of the estimated 1.5 million interns in America are unpaid), he professed ignorance.
“This is not a topic I've given much thought,” said Reich.
Reich is a busy guy, but he should think about the issue more. His political advocacy group, Common Cause, is only one of the organizations he has a hand in that relies on free or near-free labor. In a recent listing, The American Prospect, a magazine founded by Reich and other veterans of the Clinton administration, announced it was looking for editorial interns to assist “with fact-checking and research.” The interns will be “encouraged to contribute editorially and participate in meetings in addition to pursuing their own projects.”
Sounds good, but, “This is a full-time internship and comes with a $100 weekly stipend,” according to the listing. That comes to about $2.50 an hour, or “not nothing” if you are a glass-half-full type. However, there is a catch: “Interns who receive full course credit are ineligible for the weekly stipend.”
The American Prospect did not respond to a request for comment, but a writer for the magazine explained the inequality-compounding problem with unpaid, for-credit work in 2010: “If you can't afford to work for free, you certainly can't afford to shell out money for tuition on top of that.” That, of course, is what the Prospect is asking from its interns. And that publication isn’t the only one exempting its own interns from its concern over exploited workers.
Last year, progressive magazine Mother Jones, named for a 20th-century radical who campaigned against child labor, rechristened its internship program. Editor Clara Jeffery had previously written that the magazine “couldn't live without our interns,” but using unpaid and low-paid labor was rapidly becoming controversial in the media world, so the magazine decided to be proactive. No longer would young people be expected to work long hours for crumbs as lowly “interns”—they would now be “fellows.”
“We used to call some of these positions internships,” the magazine explains in a job listing. “But in late 2012 we changed the title because this is no entry-level internship… You should be ready to drill down into complex research, fact-checking, and strategic projects and have the reporting bona fides or other relevant experience to show you're ready.” And you should be prepared to do it full-time for six months.
“We'll work you hard and demand your best,” the magazine says. “And in the end you'll learn a ton, and be our hero.”
The fellowship offered by Mother Jones isn't an entry-level menial gig—“No coffee or laundry errands here!” says the magazine—but the compensation could fool you: “Fellows receive a $1,000 monthly stipend.” Assuming a 40-hour workweek (many journalists work much longer hours than that), that means a fellow at Mother Jones earns less than $6 an hour in a state, California, that just decided to raise the minimum wage to $10. In San Francisco, where the magazine is based, $1,000 a month isn’t enough to pay for both food and shelter.
“It's not easy, but our fellows… make it work,” said Elizabeth Gettelman, a spokesperson for Mother Jones. “Some supplement their incomes with freelance work, and they find shared housing in the Bay Area that they can afford. But we are very aware of the financial challenges they face.” She added that the magazine is always looking for ways to “improve the level of financial support.” After six months, she noted, a fellowship at Mother Jones can be extended the rest of the year at a rate of $1,400 a month. (See update below)
That's a raise, but it's still not enough. In California, a single adult needs to earn more than $1,900 per month “to make a secure yet modest living,” according to a living wage calculator on the Mother Jones website. Work a full year as a fellow at the magazine and you will make $14,400—or put another way, about $11,000 less than you will need to support yourself in a place that enjoys the highest rents in the nation. When it's all over, you may get a better title on your resume, sure, but you will also lose the title to your car.
One former MJ intern who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity told me they “slept on an air mattress for six months while I worked there because I couldn't afford a real one.” Another former intern said, “During our first meeting with HR at Mother Jones, we were advised to sign up for food stamps.”
It must be said that MJ appears to treat its nonfellowship workers pretty well—about half of their employees, including some editors, belong to the UAW union. And as with most major publications, the names at the top of the masthead are very comfortable. Editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery each make more than $167,000 a year, while chief operating officer Madeleine Buckingham makes $159,000.
Are You Experienced?
Employers will usually say they offer internships as a form of training to those who lack the experience to get hired. They say this because they are legally required to in order to justify paying people below minimum wage. But at the liberal online news magazine Salon, internships are not for those just starting out.
“Some professional experience is required,” says a listing for an editorial internship at Salon. If you get that job, you’ll be helping “research, report, write and produce our news and culture coverage,” which sounds a lot like a job. The position, based in New York City, is unpaid.
Though it does not pay its professionally experienced interns a dime, Salon (which has published my work in the past) has had the chutzpah to run a number of stories on the plight of unpaid workers, such as, “'Intern Nation': Are We Exploiting a Generation of Workers?” and “Unpaid and Sexually Harassed: The Latest Intern Injustice.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The New Republic is another liberal outlet with a problematic labor record. Owned by a co-founder of Facebook worth more than $600 million, the magazine is currently hiring interns whose responsibilities include “conducting research for editors,” as well as “pitching and writing blog posts and web pieces.” Previous experience in journalism is “preferred, but not imperative.”
TNR used to advertise that its internships “are full-time, unpaid, and based in the DC office,” but that language was removed soon after the magazine became aware of this story. Spokesperson Annie Augustine told me that despite the change in language, “there has not been a change in policy.” However, she added that “interns are given the option to work flexible hours so they can take part-time jobs.” She also pointed out that the magazine offers a separate “reporter-researcher” program that comes with benefits and a $25,000 salary, though that is still a couple grand short of a living wage in Washington, DC.
Augustine did not explain why the magazine does not pay all its full-time employees, but the publication has written about the issue before—in a piece published this past summer, TNR editor-at-large Michael Kinsley mocked the idea that uncompensated interns supplant paid employees and deserve to be paid themselves. “Right,” wrote Kinsley. “Why, just the other day we saw Rupert Murdoch wielding an allen wrench over the pieces of an Ikea desk,” which the intern who copy-edited his piece probably found uproariously funny. (Another piece recently published by a paid contributor to the magazine: “Yes, Young Writers Should Give Their Work Away for Free.”)
TNR has the money to pay interns but doesn’t, likely because there is an established culture in the media world that treats working for free as the cost of admission. And when everyone else is doing it, why not? And so Harper's is looking for interns to “work on a full-time, unpaid basis for three to five months”; the Seattle-based YES! magazine is hoping to hire an “online reporting intern” to work up to six months for free (though it does offer housing); and the Washington Monthly, which claims to be “thriving” thanks to “generous long-term support from foundations and donors,” is offering internships that are “unpaid and can be either part-time or full-time.”
“The reason we don't pay interns is that we're a small nonprofit operation and we can't afford it,” explained Paul Glastris, editor of the Washington Monthly. “We think it's a valuable experience—it certainly was for me, having started in this business as an unpaid intern at the Washington Monthly.”
That internships provide interns experience is not in doubt; so do most jobs. And there's no disputing that internships can lead to more lucrative work down the line; so do most jobs. The issue is that asking people to work for free is exploitive—and no one would do it were they offered a paying gig elsewhere. When left-leaning outlets in particular refuse to provide a living wage for the people producing and editing their content, it’s not a good look. In These Times, which has published work by left-wing icons such as Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich, is currently hiring interns to do everything from editing to fundraising—but none of those funds are set aside to pay those raising them. On its official Twitter account, the publication has said, “Interns must unite to stop the trend toward free labor becoming the norm,” but it did not reply when asked if such a campaign should include its own employees.
Meanwhile, Democracy Now!, the venerable progressive broadcast hosted by journalist Amy Goodman, requires interns at its new, LEED Platinum–certified office in Manhattan to work for free for two months, for a minimum of 20 hours a week, after which “a $15 expense allowance is provided on days you work five or more hours.”
“They really held that $15 over us,” said one former intern, who added that “they told us pretty explicitly on our first day that the internship wouldn't lead to a job.” According to the source, who requested anonymity, interns were required to fill out daily accounts of the “results” they achieved each day. (“Wrote headline tweets for the day, monitored stream from last night, listened to interviews for quotes”; “Got a retweet from Lupe Fiasco (rapper).”)
In 2011, Democracy Now! asked its $15-a-day employees to work the program’s 15th anniversary gala, a major fundraiser. Interns were asked to “greet and thank guests, check their coats, make sure the event goes smoothly, and help clean up,” according to an email obtained by VICE. “We will provide you with a delicious pizza dinner, but ask that you refrain from eating the catered dinner at the event.”
Back then, interns did not have to wait two months to get their $15 stipend, which probably made the Domino’s go down easier. But while entry-level staffers at Democracy Now! are paid less than ever, not all have shared in the sacrifice: Goodman made more than $148,000 in 2011, twice what she took home in 2007—and that doesn't include income from book sales or speaking engagements.
Requests for comment were not acknowledged by Democracy Now!.
Raising the Bar
“When one restricts internships to people who can afford to work for free, you institute a form of economic-based discrimination,” said Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, an outlet that focuses on investigative journalism. ProPublica pays all of its interns $700 a week for the simple reason that $700 a week (which works out to around $35,000 a year) is “what we thought was a competitive wage” for an entry-level journalist in New York City.
ProPublica does not claim to be liberal or progressive. But Tofel, a former assistant publisher at the Wall Street Journal, appears to believe—sort of radically for his industry—that people who work should be paid a wage, even if they are in their 20s and haven’t yet suffered through a crucible of unpaid internships. The experience these internships offer is great, he said, but not enough.
“I don't think there's any question that unpaid internships can be enormously beneficial to interns,” said Tofel. “But that's not the issue.”
Experience is great and can open doors, but unpaid and low-paid internships can also slam doors shut. Failing to pay young journalists a decent wage is effectively a way of saying that those too poor to work for nothing need not apply. That socio-economic filter leads to a pool of journalists—even at good, upstanding progressive publications—that is wealthier and whiter than the public as a whole. And that hurts the final product.
“Any time you have a more diverse workforce, you get better coverage,” said Tofel. “Any time you have a less diverse workforce, you get worse coverage.”
Liberals should know all about the virtues of diversity and providing ways for poorer people to climb into positions of influence. Yet maddeningly, they continue to exploit the idealistic people who are willing to give their labor away for free, which isn't just wrong, it hurts the mission of a liberal news organization.
Money is not an excuse. If you set out believing you are obliged to pay your employees, you find a way to do it. The progressive Utne Reader manages to pay its interns minimum wage. Dissent magazine just started paying their college interns $2,000 a semester, which comes out to about $7.80 cents an hour by my calculations. And the left-wing Truthout.org pays every intern $10 an hour. None of these places are rolling in money.
Other publications have had their hands forced by an increasingly emboldened class of young journalists who have presumably taken their employers’ liberal rhetoric to heart. Earlier this year, interns at The Nation penned a letter to their bosses lamenting the fact they were asked to work full-time for five months while receiving a measly $150 a week, “an impossible prospect for many who are underrepresented in today’s media.” The magazine was sufficiently shamed that it announced it “took their concerns seriously” and would soon start paying minimum wage.
That's a start, paying people the bare minimum required under US law. But try living off that anywhere in America, much less the ultra-expensive cities where most of these publications are based. You can’t, even if you turn to the generic cat food.
So here's a challenge to the liberal media: If you are in favor of a living wage and oppose discrimination against the poor, let's see that reflected in your newsrooms, not just on your blogs. Support workers, including the young ones who work for you, by insisting they get a fair wage for a fair day's work. There is no justification for not paying people for their labor—that’s why so many lefty publications did not even offer a defense when I asked for one—and failing to do so means failing to live up to one's stated liberal ideals. It also just sets a bad example. If the bleeding hearts aren’t ashamed enough to pay their workers, why should anyone?
UPDATE: After the publication of this article, Mother Jones announced that it had increased its budget for interns/fellows in 2014. "Entry-level fellows will then be in line with the equivalent to California's minimum wage (actually it's above the current minimum wage slightly, $1,500 per month)," Gettelman wrote in an email, "and we plan to keep it that way." She also reiterated that the magazine's interns/fellows aren't employees. We've changed some of the language in the above piece to reflect that a fellow is the same thing as an intern.
2/3 of Global Women Journalists Report Harassment
Posted by Press Trust of India on December 6th, 2013
A study by the Intl Women's Media Foundation reports 2/3 of female journalists across the globe report threats and intimidation.
FrommIBN Live (CNN India)
Bangkok: About two-third of women journalists have experienced abuse, harassment or threats at work, according to first global survey on violence against women working in the news media. The survey by the Washington-based International Women's Media Foundation and the London-based International News Safety Institute included 822 women media workers interviewed between July and late November this year.
It found that the majority of threats, intimidation and abuse directed towards women media workers occurred in the work place and were committed by male bosses, supervisors and co-workers, according to a press release.
"It is shocking to see that more than half (64.48 per cent) of the 822 women journalists who responded to our survey have experienced some sort of 'intimidation, threats or abuse' in relation to their work," said Elisa Lees Munoz, Executive Director of the IWMF.
The survey was conducted by Washington's International Women's Media Foundation and the London's International News Safety Institute.
The survey found that the majority of women who are harassed do not report what has happened to them, despite the fact that more than half of them confirmed that the experience had a psychological impact, the release said.
Of the respondents, 82 per cent were reporters with 49 per cent working in newspapers, 24 per cent in magazines, 21 per cent in TV and 16 per cent in radio. Almost 29 per cent of the respondents worked in Asia and the Pacific, over 21 per cent in North America, 19 per cent in Europe, about 13 per cent in Africa, 11 per cent in Latin and South America, and 5 per cent in Arab states.
The survey was carried out with funding from the Government of Austria and supported by UNESCO.
Net Neutrality: What's At Stake
Posted by Marvin Ammori on November 18th, 2013
An excellent article by Marvin Ammori in Wired Magazine about Verizon vs FCC and the Internet toll bridges that will come to pass if the DC Circuit does not protect network neutrality.
Net neutrality is a dead man walking. The execution date isn’t set, but it could be days, or months (at best). And since net neutrality is the principle forbidding huge telecommunications companies from treating users, websites, or apps differently — say, by letting some work better than others over their pipes — the dead man walking isn’t some abstract or far-removed principle just for wonks: It affects the internet as we all know it.
Once upon a time, companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and others declared a war on the internet’s foundational principle: that its networks should be “neutral” and users don’t need anyone’s permission to invent, create, communicate, broadcast, or share online. The neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.
But today, that freedom won’t survive much longer if a federal court — the second most powerful court in the nation behind the Supreme Court, the DC Circuit — is set to strike down the nation’s net neutrality law, a rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010. Some will claim the new solution “splits the baby” in a way that somehow doesn’t kill net neutrality and so we should be grateful. But make no mistake: Despite eight years of public and political activism by multitudes fighting for freedom on the internet, a court decision may soon take it away.
Game of Loopholes and Rules
How did we get here?
The CEO of AT&T told an interviewer back in 2005 that he wanted to introduce a new business model to the internet: charging companies like Google and Yahoo! to reliably reach internet users on the AT&T network. Keep in mind that users already pay to access the internet and that Google and Yahoo! already pay other telecom companies — often called backbone providers — to connect to these internet users. [Disclosure: I have done legal work for several companies supporting network neutrality, including Google.]
But AT&T wanted to add an additional toll, beyond what it already made from the internet. Shortly after that, a Verizon executive voiced agreement, hoping to end what he called tech companies’ “free lunch”. It turns out that around the same time, Comcast had begun secretly trialing services to block some of the web’s most popular applications that could pose a competitive threat to Comcast, such as BitTorrent.
Yet the phone and cable companies tried to dress up their plans as a false compromise. Counterintuitively, they supported telecommunications legislation in 2006 that would authorize the FCC to stop phone and cable companies from blocking websites.
There was a catch, however. The bills included an exception that swallowed the rule: the FCC would be unable to stop cable and phone companies from taxing innovators or providing worse service to some sites and better service to others. Since we know internet users tend to quit using a website or application if it loads even just a few seconds slower than a competitor’s version, this no-blocking rule would essentially have enabled the phone and cable companies to discriminate by picking website/app/platform winners and losers. (Congress would merely enact the loophole. Think of it as a safe harbor for discriminating online.)
Luckily, consumer groups, technology companies, political leaders, and American citizens saw through the nonsense and rallied around a principle to preserve the internet’s openness. They advocated for one simple, necessary rule — a nondiscrimination principle that became known as “network neutrality”. This principle would forbid phone and cable companies not only from blocking — but also from discriminating between or entering in special business deals to the benefit of — some sites over others.
Unfortunately, the FCC decision that included the nondiscrimination rule still had major loopholes — especially when it came to mobile networks.
Both sides battled out the issues before Congress, federal agencies, and in several senate and presidential campaigns over the next five years. These fights culminated in the 2010 FCC decision that included the nondiscrimination rule.
Unfortunately, the rule still had major loopholes — especially when it came to mobile networks. It also was built, to some extent, on a shaky political foundation because the then-FCC chairman repeatedly folded when facing pressure. Still, the adopted rule was better than nothing, and it was a major advance over AT&T’s opening bid in 2005 of a no-blocking rule.
As a result, Verizon took the FCC to court to void the 2010 FCC rule. Verizon went to court to attack the part of the rule forbidding them from discriminating among websites and applications; from setting up — on what we once called the information superhighway — the equivalents of tollbooths, fast lanes, and dirt roads.
There and Back Again
So that’s where we are today — waiting for the second most powerful court in the nation, the DC Circuit, to rule in Verizon’s case. During the case’s oral argument, back in early September, corporate lobbyists, lawyers, financial analysts, and consumer advocates packed into the courtroom: some sitting, some standing, some relegated to an overflow room.
Since then, everyone interested in internet freedom has been waiting for an opinion — including everyday folks who search the web or share their thoughts in 140 characters; and including me, who argued the first (losing) network neutrality case before the DC Circuit in 2010.
Web and mobile companies will live or die not on the merits of their technology, but on the deals they can strike with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others.
But, in their questions and statements during oral argument, the judges have made clear how they planned to rule — for the phone and cable companies, not for those who use the internet. While the FCC has the power to impose the toothless “no-blocking” rule (originally proposed by AT&T above), it does not (the court will say) have the power to impose the essential “nondiscrimination” rule.
It looks like we’ll end up where AT&T initially began: a false compromise.
The implications of such a decision would be profound. Web and mobile companies will live or die not on the merits of their technology and design, but on the deals they can strike with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others. This means large phone and cable companies will be able to “shakedown” startups and established companies in every sector, requiring payment for reliable service. In fact, during the oral argument in the current case, Verizon’s lawyer said, “I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these [FCC] rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.”
Wait, it gets even worse. Pricing isn’t even a necessary forcing factor. Once the court voids the nondiscrimination rule, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast will be able to deliver some sites and services more quickly and reliably than others for any reason. Whim. Envy. Ignorance. Competition. Vengeance. Whatever. Or, no reason at all.
So what if you’ve got a great new company, an amazing group of founders, a seat in a reputable accelerator program, great investors and mentors. With the permission-based innovation over “our pipes” desired from the likes of Comcast, Verizon and AT&T… there’s no meritocracy here.
Of course, despite everything the judges suggested during the two-hour argument, it’s possible that they offer net neutrality a reprieve. Given how sticky this morass is, there’s one simple way for you to judge the opinion: If the court throws out the non-discrimination rule, permission-less innovation on the internet as we know it is done. If the nondiscrimination rule miraculously survives, then, for now at least, so too will freedom on the internet.
Raul Ramirez, KQED News Chief, MA member, dies at 67
Posted by on November 15th, 2013
Raul Ramirez, a gigantic figure in Bay Area journalism and in Media Alliance history, died at age 67.
Ramirez was reknowned for skilled reporting, a dedication to teaching and newsroom diversity and maintaining the highest professional standards. One of Media Alliance's earliest campaigns was spearheading the legal defense of Ramirez and Lowell Bergman from a libel suit brought against them by the San Francisco police department for reports filed in the San Francisco Examiner.
A tremendous loss to the Bay Area and to journalism. Rest in peace.
Genderist: A Word Whose Time Has Come?
Posted by on November 15th, 2013
The power of words. Maybe the obsession with words. Do the social conditions make the words or do the words make the social conditions?
Women and words is a long, long, long story. As with all marginalized groups, the words that describe things matter.
So consider genderist, c/o of Joss Whedon
Police Violence Against The Transgender Community
Posted by Jordan Flaherty on November 15th, 2013
Al Jazeera America
Because it has been much in the local Bay Area news, and sometimes it takes a foreign news outlet to do what the homegrown media won't, here's a clip from AJA on police brutality and transgender people.
Posted by Leticia Miranda on November 2nd, 2013
Nation article highlighting immigrant support technology collectives like Undocutech and MigraHack by Magnet's Leticia Miranda
Two days of people huddled over a glowing computer screen and chugging cup after cup of coffee to stay awake. Programmers pouring out lines of code and analysts moving their cursors swiftly through spreadsheets with hundreds of lines of data. In many ways, MigraHack is your typical hackathon, an event in which programmers come together to develop open access digital tools. But MigraHack’s goal for this intense weekend is more ambitious—to redefine the country’s immigration debate through data and visual storytelling.
As much of the country waits on Washington for some movement on immigration reform, a burgeoning group of web programmers, data analysts, journalists and immigrant rights advocates is banding together at hackathons to expand reporting around immigration through technology. MigraHack is a partnership between RDataVox, a non-profit network of people who collaborate with US ethnic media, and the Institute for Justice and Journalism, an organization that strengthens reporting on social justice issues. Another similarly-minded network that hosts hackathons is UndocuTech, which is a product of the immigrant youth-led organization United We Dream and the Center for Civic Media at MIT. These two organizations are opening the door for hackathon events and culture to directly serve the country’s immigrant community.
“I think immigrants are now more confident and want to be a part of this country,” says Claudia Núñez, who launched MigraHack in 2012, during her time as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford. ‘That same feeling applies to MigraHack. The message is that you’re a part of this country and we want to hear from you.”
Núñez did not hear that message when she immigrated to the US from Mexico fourteen years ago at the age of 23. She knew no English and little about the country she would soon call home. Previously a reporter in Mexico, she started working as an investigative reporter with La Opinión, a Los Angeles-based Spanish language newspaper. In 2010, as mainstream outlets began to experiment with data visualization and other web-based storytelling tools, Núñez saw a serious gap in data analysis on immigration issues that she thought could be filled by ethnic media reporters who understand immigrant communities and are often immigrants themselves. Núñez began training herself on web development and design through YouTube videos and online tutorials, and as a part of her self-training, she started attending hackathons, which she found were typically dominated by white men.
“I was like ‘Where are the people like me?’” Núñez says. “I still had difficulty speaking English. I was still working out my immigration status.” Steadfast in her commitment to help ethnic media utilize these new storytelling tools, Núñez decided to host her own hackathon in Los Angeles that would bring together programmers, immigration journalists and activists to develop projects on immigration.
La Opinión donated office space. A local bakery donated pastries. A good friend who is a chef offered to cook. Núñez knew a group of journalists who were interested in participating, so she attended a meet-up in Pasadena hoping to meet programmers who might join. In a crowded room of people, she marched up to the microphone and said, “I’m Claudia Núñez. I’m a reporter serving the Hispanic community and I need your help.” The response was overwhelming. In the end, dozens of programmers, who worked everywhere from Google to NASA, signed up to participate in MigraHack’s first hackathon.
Los Angeles MigraHack, which took place in December of 2012, was intended for thirty participants. One hundred people ended up participating, with at least another twenty-five on the waiting list. The hackathon produced a number of projects including a map illustrating how long immigrants from certain countries waited to receive US green card sponsorship and a tongue-in-cheek Dummies guide to crossing the border illegally that includes data on apprehension. The success of the first hackathon inspired Núñez to host a second one in Chicago in May, which included 120 participants with another twenty-three on the waiting list. The participants ranged from programmers to non-profit advocates to tech geeks.
Participants at the Chicago MigraHack were trained on Google Fusion Tables, a data visualization tool, and data mining, a data analysis process that looks for patterns using spreadsheets and a free data visualization software called Tableau Public. After the workshops, participants worked in teams using different data sets that the organization got from the Census, universities and research organizations. Each team included programmers, journalists and advocates, which Núñez says creates a stronger team and project. At the end of the hackathon, a panel of judges, which included investigative journalists, data experts and programmers, evaluated the projects. Five teams were selected as winners, splitting $7,000.
“We don’t get enough opportunities as tech people to interact with people from other disciplines and with other skills, much less work really intensely on a project together,” says David Eads, a news applications developer for the Chicago Tribune and co-founder of FreeGeek Chicago who worked as a mentor at the Chicago MigraHack in May. “There is a spirit of really trying to say something meaningful with the data rather than make something neat or nifty.”
Eads worked with two journalists from the Chicago Reporter, along with a web developer and a freelance photojournalist on one of Chicago MigraHack’s winning projects: Finding Care. Finding Care is a website that covers issues facing undocumented immigrants who are left out of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The project puts a human face on these issues by focusing on the story of Jorge Mariscal, an undocumented 24-year-old man in Chicago who needed a kidney transplant but was ineligible for the organ transplant list because of his immigration status and lack of insurance. In Mariscal’s case, members of his church went on a hunger strike, eventually pressuring Loyola University Medical Center to admit him. His mother donated a kidney. But, as Finding Care points out: "Many undocumented immigrants are not as lucky. Most don’t have health insurance. They often have to pay out of pocket for care or go untreated."
“We’re not just working alone on our couch,” says Antonio García, a front-end web developer and contract consultant under his own business Coshimel. “The environment at a hackathon is entirely different. There are a lot of ideas bouncing around. It’s a great place to come up with a solution.”
García worked with a data analyst, an immigrant rights advocate and a journalist on an interactive map of Secure Communities, a Department of Homeland Security program designed to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement of undocumented immigrants who are booked into jail. The program is intended to target people who commit a crime, but has ensnared countless undocumented immigrants with no criminal charges. Rather than sifting through pages of numbers, the interactive map easily shows where the program is more aggressive. On the map, dark blue counties denote high numbers of immigrants swept up by Secure Communities and lighter hues show counties with lower numbers.
For García, the project was personal. An undocumented immigrant himself, he is now able to work and live without fear of deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program started in 2012 that protects certain undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from being deported. But until last year, García lived with the constant threat of being suddenly removed from his home country.
“I grew up in a suburb and often times felt afraid even to go get milk,” he says. “From a social justice standpoint [Secure Communities] drives me crazy, but from a programmer standpoint, it really bothers me to see a system in use that does not work. It’s an issue that attacks me from all sides.”
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As MigraHack utilizes hackathons to bridge technology and journalism, UndocuTech sees hackathons as an opportunity to bridge technology and activism. The network was formed through a partnership between United We Dream, a national organization of undocumented immigrant youth, and MIT’s Center for Civic Media in order to expand the immigrant rights movement’s technological capabilities.
“We saw how other movements were embracing media and technology into their organizing strategy,” says Rogelio Alejandro Lopez, a research assistant with the Center for Civic Media at MIT who has been an immigrant rights activist since his days at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The conversation began with ‘What would that kind of organizing around technology look in immigrants rights?’”
UndocuTech held its first “UndocuHack” on June 1, as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, a hackathon event aimed at addressing community issues around the country. UndocuHack had twenty participants across four different locations—Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington D.C—who were helping to develop a prototype app called Education Not Deportation.
“One of our goals is to raise awareness and bring the human element of this debate to light,” says Lopez. “We acknowledge that the immigrant voice is still largely lacking in mainstream media. There is an empowering element to being a part of the creation process of making your own media and telling your own story.”
On October 5, UndocuTech and MigraHack are teamed up to host a storython under the Twitter hashtag #11milliondreams. The storython was a two-day event at UCLA’s Downtown Labor Center and MIT's Media Lab in which participants created digital stories about their immigration to the United States. Remote participants also produced their own stories online and tweeted them using the hashtag. The groups are trying to build support for United We Dream’s 11 Million Dreams campaign, which demands that Congress create a pathway to citizenship and end senseless deportation for all of the country’s undocumented immigrants.
To learn more about UndocuTech or MigraHack visit their websites at undocutech.org and chicagomigrahack.com.