Communication rights, and
especially local and regional work to cement them at home, often gets
overlooked, but it is key to so many struggles for health, safety, and
MA has been here for 38 years, always on one kind of edge or another, and we want there to be a year 39. Please join us.
do we protect the right to dissent? Crackdowns on journalists,
whistleblowers and activists are legion as a toxic combination of greedy
telecoms and an unaccountable government try to plug every remaining
space for free expression and organizing. They won't rest until the
Internet is a toll road for big spenders, and a spy net for the rest of
the corporations that run the government won’t help dismantle their own
influence. The system that lulls us into complacency as our human
rights get whittled away wants us doing busy work, not challenging them.
Keeping the challenges going, steady and strong and right here at home
in California where we live and work together, that can only be
supported by you. Media Alliance will keep lighting the fire. With your
The arc of justice is realized by claiming the space to create alternate narratives.
got some great gifts for you, a 30% discount off the mind-bending
titles from MIT Press, including Low Power To The People, the chronicle
of the pirate radio movement. Local filmmaker Donna Lee's video story of
blogger Josh Wolf's 226 day stay in federal prison to protect his
videos, a crucial moment in the history of citizen journalism and
Chinook Book, a modern-day coupon book featuring discounts and gifts at
local sustainable Bay Area businesses to help you really buy local.
A public records request by Ars Technicahas secured the entire City of Oakland dataset from 33 automatic license plate readers installed about the city: 4.6 million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December
23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. The dataset is likely one of the largest ever
publicly released in the United States—perhaps in the world.
*State Senator Jerry Hill has introduced SB 34 to establish standards for the use and handling of ALPR datasets. It goes to the Senate Transportation committee on April 7th. Media Alliance is an endorser of the bill. See our letter of support below.
Cyrus Farivar's coverage
If you have driven in Oakland any time in the last few years, chances
are good that the cops know where you’ve been, thanks to their 33
automated license plate readers (LPRs).
Now Ars knows too.
In response to a public records request, we obtained the entire LPR
dataset of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), including more than 4.6
million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23,
2010 and May 31, 2014. The dataset is likely one of the largest ever
publicly released in the United States—perhaps in the world.
After analyzing this data with a custom-built visualization tool, Ars
can definitively demonstrate the data's revelatory potential. Anyone in
possession of enough data can often—but not always—make educated
guesses about a target’s home or workplace, particularly when someone’s
movements are consistent (as with a regular commute).
For instance, during a meeting with an Oakland city council member,
Ars was able to accurately guess the block where the council member
lives after less than a minute of research using his license plate data.
Similarly, while "working" at an Oakland bar mere blocks from Oakland
police headquarters, we ran a plate from a car parked in the bar's
driveway through our tool. The plate had been read 48 times over two
years in two small clusters: one near the bar and a much larger cluster
24 blocks north in a residential area—likely the driver's home.
“Where someone goes can reveal a great deal about how he chooses to live his life," Catherine Crump, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Ars. "Do they park regularly outside the Lighthouse Mosque during times of worship? They’re probably Muslim. Can a car be found outside Beer Revolution a great number of times? May be a craft beer enthusiast—although possibly with a drinking problem."
In August 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic
Frontier Foundation lost a lawsuit to compel the Los Angeles Police
Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to hand over a mere
week’s worth of all LPR data. That case is now on appeal.
In Oakland, OPD's current LPR dataset shows only a few data points
for most vehicles. But there are exceptions—such as the car seen 459
times over two years on a certain block of Chabot Road, east of the
Rockridge BART station (one of the city’s richer areas). As Oakland and
cities like it deploy more LPR cameras, such datasets could quickly grow
“Project forward to a world where LPR technology is cheap and they
can be mounted on every police car and posted at every traffic light,"
said Crump. "Do you think that anyone with a badge should be able to
search through that data at their discretion? If not, then you should
support restrictions on how long law enforcement agents can store this
data, and who can access it, and under what circumstances.”
One car we found turned up in a cluster here at 25th St. and Martin
Luther King Jr. Way, which we assume is this person's residence.
Specialized LPR cameras mounted in fixed locations or on police cars
typically scan passing license plates using optical character
recognition technology, checking each plate against a "hot list" of
stolen or wanted vehicles. The devices can read up to 60 plates per
second and typically record the date, time, and GPS location of any
plates—hot or not. (There have been incidents where LPR misreads have
led to dangerous confrontations.) Some cities have even mounted
such cameras at their city borders, monitoring who comes in and out,
including the wealthy city of Piedmont, California, which is totally
surrounded by Oakland.
LPR collection began in Oakland back in 2006, and an early OPD
analysis showed that the overwhelming majority of the data collected was
not a “hit.” In April 2008, the OPD reported
to the city council that after using just four LPR units for 16 months,
it had read 793,273 plates and had 2,012 hits—a “hit rate” of 0.2
percent. In other words, nearly all of the data collected by an LPR
system concerns people not currently under suspicion.
Despite this, in that same report,
then-OPD Deputy Chief Dave Kozicki (who has since retired) dubbed the
LPR setup an “overwhelming success.” Today, OPD's LPR hit rate has
fallen slightly, to just 0.16 percent.
In addition to LPR data, Ars obtained a list of OPD vehicles and
found that the most frequently seen one is plate number 1275287, a 2007
Crown Victoria marked patrol car. Between January 15, 2012 and May 31,
2014, the OPD scanned that vehicle 879 times all over town, primarily in
the downtown and North Oakland areas. In fact, nearly all of the 100
most frequently seen cars were other OPD vehicles scanned several
hundred times each.
Law enforcement policies vary widely
as to how long LPR information can be stored. In California, the
wealthy Silicon Valley city of Menlo Park (home to Facebook) retains
data for just 30 days. By contrast, the Los Angeles Police Department
(LAPD) retains data for two years.
Neither the Oakland City Council nor the OPD has ever imposed a
formal data retention limit, though OPD has deleted older LPR data as
needed to make room for newer data. As LPR devices and storage prices
continue to fall, it's likely the volume and rate of such data
collection will continue to rise, and its retention time can become
“If I’m law enforcement, I would keep it forever,” Brian Owsley,
a former federal judge turned law professor at Indiana Tech, told Ars.
“That’s the privacy advocates’ concern is that this stuff goes into a
database—gigabytes are essentially free now—and this stuff stays
There's no evidence that the OPD has abused its database. But absent
any strict controls, auditing, or even basic guidelines, it’s hard to
know what might or might not have been done.
make sense of the LPR data—which was originally provided in 18 separate
Excel spreadsheet files with hundreds of thousands of lines each—Ars
hired Mike Tahani, a Bay
Area data visualization specialist. Tahani created a simple tool
allowing us to search any given plate and plot the locations on a map.
We did not use the data for any purpose beyond our journalistic
attempt to understand what such a large license plate reader dataset
reveals. While OPD and other law enforcement agencies have the ability
to match a given plate with registration records from the Department of
Motor Vehicles and the National Crime Information Center,
revealing a car's owner, Ars does not. In cases where we searched a
known individual's plates, we did so only with their explicit consent.
When shown data on their own movements, local residents had widely varying reactions.
“Doesn’t bother me personally,” said Jon Kaufman, an Oakland resident. “I have nothing to hide.”
a physicist who works at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,
told Ars that he didn’t know that OPD even had LPRs. With his
permission, we ran his plate and showed him a map of the five instances
where a camera had captured his car, guessing that they were near where
he lived or worked. Matis replied by e-mail: “You are correct, they are
places that I and my wife go all the time.”
Matis wasn't worried about OPD capturing such data, but he was less comfortable knowing that the data was released to the media.
“If anyone can get this information, that’s getting into Big
Brother,” he told Ars. “If I was trying to look at what my spouse is
doing, [I could]. To me, that is something that is kind of scary. Why do
they allow people to release this without a law enforcement reason?
Searching it or accessing the information should require a warrant.”
Matis immediately fired off an e-mail to Dan Kalb, his city council member:
Do you know why Oakland is spying on me and my wife? We haven't done anything too radical or illegal.
I gave my license plate to a journalist and he found my wife's and my
car in their database. One of the locations is right near our house.
The astounding thing about this information is that anyone, and I
mean anyone, can get this information. Some of the information is more
than two years old.
I can see lawyers using this information for lawsuits. I can check
where my wife is located. Car companies can see my habits. Insurance
companies can check up on their clients. We have entered the world of 1984 with the difference that anyone can get the information.
Ars contacted every member of the Oakland City Council, including newly elected mayor Libby Schaaf, to show them the Oakland LPR data. Dan Kalb,
the recipient of Matis' e-mail, was the only council member who agreed
to meet. (Neither Mayor Schaaf nor the recently departed mayor, Jean
Quan, responded to requests for an interview.) Kalb represents District
1, which includes some of the city’s richer neighborhoods—including
Oakland Hills and Rockridge—and other less affluent regions in the
in Kalb's cluttered City Hall office, Ars explained the LPR issue. We
asked for Kalb's plate number and, within seconds, showed him what the
OPD knew about his travels. Our tool revealed that OPD had seen the
councilman 51 times between May 2012 and May 2014.
On 16 occasions, Kalb’s car was scanned parked on the street just
outside City Hall in the spaces reserved for council members. On another
20 occasions, at various times of day, Kalb’s car was spotted in a
tight group on a certain block in the Temescal neighborhood. When Ars
guessed that this block must be where he lives, he said that it was.
“I knew these things existed, but I had not delved into the level of detail that you're sharing with me,” he said.
Kalb is relatively new to City Hall, having only been elected in
2012. Though he did know that the city had LPRs, he said he didn’t know
the extent of its usage.
“My awareness is that we have something like this, these mobile LPRs,
and I presumed that their primary purpose was to track down stolen
vehicles or assist in the investigations of other crimes that knowing
the license plate would help,” he told Ars. “It raises the question:
what's the purpose of retaining records for a long period of time?”
The purpose, of course, is to enable retroactive investigation of movements.
Anthony Finnell, the head of OPD’s civilian oversight body (known as the Citizens’ Police Review Board), told Ars that this wasn't a serious privacy concern.
“I can see as a former investigator that there would be a tool, if a
crime had happened you may want to put that person's plate in and
backtrack," Finnell, a veteran of the Indianapolis Police Department,
said. "That doesn't discount a person's concern. But I can just say from
a personal standpoint, I don't see it as a big problem, because there's
so many other ways to track somebody.”
Oakland has a higher murder rate than Los Angeles. For three years
running, the city has held the dubious honor of being America’s urban robbery capital.
The city recorded 4,922 robberies in 2013—or 14 per day. Police see
LPRs as one more tool used to put a dent in the crime rate.
Anecdotally, cops often say that LPR data is great for finding stolen
vehicles or locating criminal suspects, and it's easy to imagine how
such license plate reader data could be correlated with financial
information, cellular data, or even surveillance video in a more complex
One LPR case often cited on the East Coast is the 2007 murder of five people in Fishkill, New York.
Local police were able to access the LPR records of a state trooper who
happened to be nearby. That data showed the suspect's car was in the
vicinity of the killing when it happened, which dismantled his alibi.
"They were able to coordinate GPS positions and time and place that
car in front of the house shortly before the alarm was raised with the
local fire department," Pete Kontos, a New York State Police senior
investigator, told the Hudson Valley Journal News in 2009. "It was a substantial piece of evidence used in the trial."
Oakland police captain Anthony Toribio, a department employee for 25
years, echoed this sentiment. He told Ars that LPRs are useful to his
"It's a significant tool to have because it can speed up the
investigative process by identifying vehicles, linking them to crimes,
linking them to locations where that car has been flagged so to speak or
identified by the LPR system,” he said. When he served as an area
commander, he “used it frequently.”
Toribio noted that Oakland purchased 20 new cameras in 2014, and he
said that the city was exploring the use of trailer-mounted “fixed
cameras” that could be moved as needed.
“We try to strategically place these cars in areas or beats that are
high crime areas,” he said. Toribio cited an occasion when, as a result
of a high incidence of burglaries in the hills of North Oakland, he once
ordered an LPR-equipped car to that area.
“Often times you have the suspects that are casing the area and
driving around, and you never know when a cop car may drive by and
they're not doing nothing at that point, but a short while later they
may be driving by and it's good to have that information.”
Any OPD officer can search the department’s LPR database. While the
individual officer’s name is logged, no reason for the search has to be
entered. Toribio noted that OPD policy requires officers to have a
"legitimate law enforcement purpose, such as following up on a criminal
investigation" in order to access the database. "Accessing databases for
personal use is a policy violation and illegal in some circumstances,"
Evidence for LPR effectiveness remains largely anecdotal. Toribio
could not provide any quantitative evidence to suggest that the LPR
system made the police more effective overall at catching suspects than
before implementation in 2006. Academics studying the issue say that the
question remains open.
“The research is so limited at this point that we don’t know a lot of the answers,” Linda Merola,
a criminology and law professor at George Mason University, told Ars.
Her university has spearheaded many of the academic efforts on LPRs.
“At this point there have been a handful of evaluations of trying to
look at what is the impact in an immediate sense: what is the impact of
arrests?" she added. "Can we find more stolen vehicles? Even that
research is very limited, and it hasn’t shown very much. What is the
impact, if any, on saving data? There have been times anecdotally, but
we really don’t know if it serves any purpose other than a theoretical
While the potential for LPR dragnet surveillance worries some privacy
advocates, the police perspective is that public actions are... public.
In 2006, for instance, Gina Bianchi, the deputy commissioner and
counsel at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, wrote in a memo
to all local law enforcement agencies across the state, "A license
plate reader merely accomplishes, more efficiently, the same task that a
police officer may accomplish by reading a license plate and manually
entering the number into a database. Therefore, it is reasonable to
assume that a court would not hold that the use of a license plate
reader would constitute a search."
Toribio put it more plainly.
“You have to remember the data that we get from the LPR is limited to
the plate, the photo, and the location,” he said. “Any information that
comes in that alerts us that that vehicle was involved in a crime, the
officer has to do more homework. But what expectation of privacy do you
have when you're out in public?”
Toribio is referring to a unanimous 1983 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Knotts.
That case famously found: “A person traveling in an automobile on
public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his
But Knotts came before it was possible to build automated
systems that track and store the movement of every car passing by over a
period of years. More recently, as part of the unanimous 2012 Supreme
Court decision on warrantless GPS tracking, United States v. Jones, Justice Samuel Alito referred to the Knotts decision and said it might not apply as "public" surveillance becomes more comprehensive.
Under this approach, relatively short-term monitoring of a
person's movements on public streets accords with expectations of
privacy that our society has recognized as reasonable. See Knotts, 460 U.S., at 281-282.
But the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most
offenses impinges on expectations of privacy. For such offenses,
society's expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others
would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and
catalogue every single movement of an individual's car for a very long
While the distinctions between LPR camera systems and GPS tracking
are notable, huge LPR databases start to move closer toward the GPS
model and might one day run into trouble with the courts. For now, the
use of license plate readers has been upheld in numerous criminal cases around the country. And police and prosecutors are happy to use them.
“From a police perspective we are looking at this data to help solve
crimes and to help individuals who are solving crimes,” Toribio added.
“What I did on a regular basis when reviewing crime reports is look for
license plates and then use the license plate reader to get a picture of
the vehicle, and its location, and provide that information to police
officers to help identify individuals.”
“We have nothing to hide”
In Oakland, no one in the city government has told the police to stop
collecting LPR data for years at a time—nor to avoid sharing it.
Therefore, the police have done both.
“There is a process that needs to be in place to purge data, and I
think that is one of the things that the city is working on, is how long
do we keep data?” Toribio said. “We need input from the city attorney
and the city needs to decide.”
When asked what would be an appropriate retention period, he replied, "I would say five years is a good amount of time."
But when Ars told him that the public records request didn’t come
back with records older than 2011, he said he would check. Hours later,
he called back, saying that the OPD deletes data “as necessary” to free
up storage space. Toribio then clarified his position, saying that the
LPR data should be kept for two years. (That may explain why some of my
own records from April 2012 are missing from the dataset.)
“I know that for OPD, transparency is very important, and unless
there is a reason not to release information—if it is part of an ongoing
active criminal investigation, for example—we have nothing to hide,”
Toribio said. “I think it's important for a law enforcement organization
to be transparent, and it goes to being credible and establishing
legitimacy in the community.”
UPDATE Wednesday 1:38am CT: Bryce Newell,
a doctoral student at the University of Washington, wrote Ars to say
that this collection from Oakland, while large, is not the largest ever
released: "I have been examining (for research purposes) an ALPR
database from Seattle Police Department disclosed years ago with more
than 7.3 million scans (it was originally disclosed to the ACLU of Washington,
not me). I have a number of other databases from the Seattle Police
Department and Minneapolis Police Department that all have millions of
scans (and other, smaller, ones from elsewhere)."
all the cable, telephone and Internet companies, the one with the most
awful reputation is Comcast. Type the words “Comcast customer service”
into a search engine and prepare to be flooded with customers using
words like “nightmarish,” “embarrassing,” “worst ever,” “epic failure”
and “customer service from hell.”
And America is not enduring this for the sake of bargain-basement prices.
Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen, who is
trying to persuade the California Public Utilities Commission to approve
Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable, thus creating the largest
broadband service provider in the United States, said when the deal was
announced: “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going
to go down or even increase less rapidly.”
If they had a choice, many of Comcast’s customers
wouldn’t be their customers. If the merger with Time Warner goes
through, that choice is about to get a whole lot worse.
Economists use a scale called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index
to measure the level of concentration in a market. Anything with an HHI
increase of more than 200 points is likely to enhance market power. The
HHI increase for the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is a
4,927-point increase in the fixed broadband market.
California customers have nowhere to run.
Some 76 percent of them will not be able to get
broadband service at the FCC-defined high-speed download rate of 25
megabits per second from anyone but the merged Comcast-Time Warner
Cable. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Both Verizon’s FIOs
service and AT&T’s U-verse service have slowed new deployments in
California, and Google Fiber is developing slowly. The speed gap between
DSL and cable Internet connections is growing, and DSL connections are
becoming less viable for many users.
No real competition means no real choice to keep
prices in line. Cohen is right. Post-merger, consumer bills are not
going to increase less rapidly.
And it’s even worse for content and application
providers. As owners of NBCUniversal, Comcast has interests in content
and power over the distribution of competing content. For example, the
company was tagged with preventing customers from streaming HBO Go on
Sony PlayStations. Roku, another streaming service, also experienced
carriage problems with Comcast.
California’s public and educational channels, as well
as some independent foreign-language channels, have complained for
years about cable-system menus that move channels into the stratosphere,
making them hard for consumers to find or dropping them from cable
systems entirely. With Charter Communications systems reverting to
Comcast and the removal of Time Warner Cable from the cable market,
Comcast’s dominance means its treatment of smaller channels in cable
systems and carriage issues with disruptive providers such as Roku and
Sony PlayStation would extend throughout much of the state.
While some Internet protection may come from new
network neutrality rules, there isn’t much doubt those rules are going
to face challenges, both in Congress and in the courts. Without them, in
the words of CPUC Administrative Law Judge Karl Bemesderfer: “This is
precisely the 'terminating monopoly’ power that intervenors fear. The
power of the terminating monopolist to discriminate or otherwise act
anticompetitively could increase the cost and reduce the attractiveness
of competing content.”
The federal government must approve the merger, but
each state must approve license transfers. The California Public
Utilities Commission will vote on whether to transfer certain state
licenses from Time Warner Cable to Comcast.
To read the recent 100-plus-page decision
from the CPUC, you wouldn’t think this proposed merger is good for
anyone. The regulator approved the merger with more than two dozen
conditions to mitigate the bad impacts on Californians.
The huge list of conditions is designed to make the
merger “less destructive” to digital inclusion, consumer protection and
competition in the cable and broadband markets.
the problem. The public has limited funds and resources to take
mega-corporations to court. The commission, under fire for getting too
cozy with industries it regulates, is giving itself a mighty big job to
proactively enforce 25 different conditions for the next five years.
Concerns of Comcast failing to abide by these conditions isn’t just a
rumor. On Tuesday, the company filed objections to
20 of the proposed conditions. And fines and other punitive actions
won’t really prevent the destructive impacts on Californians suffering
from high prices, bad service and limited access.
There’s an easier solution. If something takes two
dozen onerous conditions to prevent significant damage, then maybe the
public is better off without it. On March 26, the commission will vote
on the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. A million conditions can’t make
this a good enough deal. There comes a time to just say no.
The goal of this event is bring together musicians, the
anti-surveillance activist community and casual supporters for an
evening of music, discussion of work against mass surveillance and
fundraising of on-going anti-surveillance efforts.
Restore the Fourth is a national chapter-based 501(c4) political
organization that lobbies for increased privacy protections from
government, supports efforts at technological protection from
surveillance through security and cryptography and educates the
community about these issues through crypto parties. Pow Magazine
supports D.I.Y. San Francisco Bay Area music, particularly SF Psych
music 'happenings', which is the one of the largest movements today.
We also add alternative articles about political commentary,
technology, science, art, film making, lifestyle and music (our main
brand) from other news sources to our social media web sites and
visit music festivals throughout the west coast.
We are pleased to welcome Shahid Buttar as our featured guest for
the evening.Shahid Buttar, executive director, leads the Bill of
Rights Defense Committee in its efforts to restore civil liberties,
constitutional rights, and rule of law principles undermined by law
enforcement and intelligence agencies within the United States.
The Omni Commons is comprised of several Bay Area collectives with
a shared political vision—one that privileges a more equitable
commoning of resources and meeting of human needs over private
interests or corporate profit.A space that fosters an ethic of
radical collaboration across disciplines and between individual
collectives, creating a living model for future radical spaces.
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on February 28th, 2015 Media Alliance
On February 26, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission
reclassified broadband services ("the Internet") under Title 2 ending
blocking, throttling, paid prioritization fast lanes and enshrining
digital equality and net neutrality as the law of the land on a 3-2
party line vote. The Commission also granted the petition from the
cities of Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennesse striking down
state laws preventing the expansion of municipal broadband networks.
You did. In one of the biggest grassroots people-powered movements of
the 21st century (so far), 4 million people wrote, commented, rallied
and stopped the corporate takeover of the Internet. You crashed the FCC
servers (twice), rallied through snow and sleet and sunshine (California
winter) and never relented even when it looked like there was no chance
the former head of the cable and wireless lobbying association would
ever hear us.
Make no mistake. This didn't happen on the beltway in a chamber
filled with people in suits. It happened because the people would not
take no for an answer. It didn't happen because professional activists
wrote action alerts. It happened because you spoke from your heart about
what communication and connection means and what it makes possible in
every social change movement from Black Lives Matter to Immigration
Justice to Raising The Minimum Wage. And what it makes possible in every
human life when the ability to share across distance and divides knits
us together in community.
Will It Stick?
Media Alliance has heard from a lot of you worried this isn't real. Let's address a few of those myths.
The new rules haven't been published. How do we know they say
what the FCC is claiming they do. What is in those 300 pages we haven't
What is in the 300 pages, which will shortly be published in the
Federal Register, is a line by line analysis of Title II regulatory
code, originating in the 1934 Communications Act and most recently
updated in 1996. Nineteen years ago, the Internet was not what it is
today nor is the definition of a common carrier as applied to landline
telephones entirely applicable to the massive telecoms and cablecos of
In order to give us strong net neutrality rules, the FCC is drawing
on the foundation of Title 2, but forbearing on a number of outdated
regulatory codes. The 300 pages are a lengthy and detailed description
of exactly what applies and what doesn't.
But we know from the summary provided that the central net neutrality
issues of content blocking, throttling (slowing down), paid
prioritization (fast lanes on the Internet) will be upheld and placed,
for the first time, on a solid basis that will introduce no
jurisdictional or authority problems for the Commission.
Will the Cablecos and Telecoms Go To Court?
You can probably take it to the bank that that the big corporations will go to court to try to overturn the new rules. In fact, AT&T already said so. (AT&T:
"We're going to sue the Government", Feb 4, 2015 CNN). But the courts
already told the FCC they could protect the open Internet by
reclassifying providers as common carriers and reclassifying the
Internet as a telecommunications service. They just couldn't do it
without reclassification, as the FCC tried to do in 2010.
So the short answer is yes, they will go to court and no, they are
not likely to win in the long run. It's important to state for the
record that Sprint went on the record supporting reclassification, the
biggest provider to do so to date,
Will the Republican Congress Overturn The New Rules?
The attempt to pre-emptively limit the FCC's jurisdiction prior to
the passage of the new rules was a big failure with Senator John Thune,
chair of Senate Commerce conceding the day before the vote.
While there will almost certainly be an attempt at a legislative
undermining of the new rules, Democratic support for Title 2 has greatly
solidified in the past few months and polls show that between 2/3 and
3/4 of Republican voters also support strong net neutrality rules
against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. A presidential
veto is likely through the end of 2016.
What Did We Learn?
In January of 2014, The LA Times informed us that "Net Neutrality Is Dead". They suggested we bow to our corporate overlords, Comcast and Verizon.
That's not what happened.
In October of 2014, the "hybrid" net neutrality plan proposed by the
former cable and wireless lobbyist now heading the FCC, Tom Wheeler,
persuaded many there was nothing to be done but to try to make the
inevitable compromise as palatable as possible.
But the "Frankenstein's monster" was quickly derided as #fakenetneutrality and died a rapid death. We didn't split the baby.
Big thank yous are due to the three FCC commissioners, who have been
under a vast amount of pressure as the DC hothouse shined brightly on
them. You can thank them and you should. @TomWheelerFCC, @MClyburnFCC
A study of social justice media as used in the Occupy Movement by
USF professor (and former MA board member) Dorothy Kidd. Media
Alliance contributed to this essay.
Summary: "This article takes the Occupy movement as a case
study, and examines its historical antecedents, composition of social
actors, communications, repertoires and strategies of social change.
My findings suggest that the Occupy movement was significant, not for
its contribution to political change, but for its contribution to
democratic communications. Occupy represented a new watershed in
social justice communications, in which the movement itself directed
its own media, reducing, for a time, the dependency of social justice
groups on the dominant commercial media. Using a transmedia approach,
beginning with the creation of communications commons in reclaimed
public space, the Occupy movement converged many different social
justice groups who employed a panoply of old and new communications
repertoires. Although the movement itself has faded, its repertoire
has been remediated in social justice movement communications
practices throughout the world"
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: This Is How We Will Ensure Net Neutrality
After more than a decade of debate and a
record-setting proceeding that attracted nearly 4 million public
comments, the time to settle the Net Neutrality question has arrived.
This week, I will circulate to the members of the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) proposed new rules to preserve the internet as an open
platform for innovation and free expression. This proposal is rooted in
long-standing regulatory principles, marketplace experience, and public
input received over the last several months.
Broadband network operators have an understandable motivation to
manage their network to maximize their business interests. But their
actions may not always be optimal for network users. The Congress gave
the FCC broad authority to update its rules to reflect changes in
technology and marketplace behavior in a way that protects consumers.
Over the years, the Commission has used this authority to the public’s
Tom Wheeler is the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
The internet wouldn’t have emerged as it did, for instance, if the
FCC hadn’t mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s.
Before then, AT&T prohibited anyone from attaching non-AT&T
equipment to the network. The modems that enabled the internet were
usable only because the FCC required the network to be open.
Companies such as AOL were able to grow in the early days of home
computing because these modems gave them access to the open telephone
I personally learned the importance of open networks the hard way. In the mid-1980s I was president of a startup, NABU: The Home Computer Network.
My company was using new technology to deliver high-speed data to home
computers over cable television lines. Across town Steve Case was
starting what became AOL. NABU was delivering service at the
then-blazing speed of 1.5 megabits per second—hundreds of times faster
than Case’s company. “We used to worry about you a lot,” Case told me
But NABU went broke while AOL became very successful. Why that is
highlights the fundamental problem with allowing networks to act as
While delivering better service, NABU had to depend on cable
television operators granting access to their systems. Steve Case was
not only a brilliant entrepreneur, but he also had access to an
unlimited number of customers nationwide who only had to attach a modem
to their phone line to receive his service. The phone network was open
whereas the cable networks were closed. End of story.
The phone network’s openness did not happen by accident, but by FCC
rule. How we precisely deliver that kind of openness for America’s
broadband networks has been the subject of a debate over the last
Originally, I believed that the FCC could assure internet openness
through a determination of “commercial reasonableness” under Section 706
of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While a recent court decision
seemed to draw a roadmap for using this approach, I became concerned
that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to
mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers.
That is why I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.
Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest
open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable,
bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and
throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for
the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My
proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want,
when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products
without asking anyone’s permission.
All of this can be accomplished while encouraging investment in
broadband networks. To preserve incentives for broadband operators to
invest in their networks, my proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring
it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to
construct competitive networks. For example, there will be no rate
regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling. Over the last 21
years, the wireless industry has invested almost $300 billion under
similar rules, proving that modernized Title II regulation can encourage
investment and competition.
Congress wisely gave the FCC the power to update its rules to keep
pace with innovation. Under that authority my proposal includes a
general conduct rule that can be used to stop new and novel threats to
the internet. This means the action we take will be strong enough and
flexible enough not only to deal with the realities of today, but also
to establish ground rules for the as yet unimagined.
The internet must be fast, fair and open. That is the message I’ve
heard from consumers and innovators across this nation. That is the
principle that has enabled the internet to become an unprecedented
platform for innovation and human expression. And that is the lesson I
learned heading a tech startup at the dawn of the internet age. The
proposal I present to the commission will ensure the internet remains
open, now and in the future, for all Americans.
UCC OC Inc.,
Center for Media Justice and MAGNet teamed up with religious
organizations, civil rights groups, labor and many others to submit a
letter today supporting further reforms to end predatory prison
phone rates. The letter supported the FCC's proposal to end "kick-back"
payments, known as commissions from phone companies to prisons, jails
and detention centers. The letter also urged
the FCC to cap local rates and to block unfair fees, to build on the
FCC's historic decision to cap long-distance rates in 2014. We also
urged the FCC to take rapid action to protect people with disabilities,
and to investigate unscrupulous rates for email
and video visitation.
January 12, 2015 Chairman Thomas Wheeler Federal Communications Commission 445 12th Street, SW Washington, DC 20554 Re: Rates for Inmate Calling Services, WC Docket No. 12-375
Dear Chairman Wheeler:
The undersigned represent a diverse coalition of religious, civil rights, public interest, labor, social justice and community-based organizations —from across the country —who join together to support equitable and fair charges for phone calls to and from prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers. We write to support the new set of proposals put forth by the Commission1 to eliminate payments from prison phone companies to the institutions that hire them, cap local rates, ensure that related fees are not predatory, and urge the Commission to act with all possible speed on the severe harm to disabled individuals who remain most challenged in their access to adequate and affordable communications.
The FCC’s vote in 2013 was historic, ending after a 10 year delay, the predatory rates for long-distance interstate calls. The FCC’s leadership in this area was extremely helpful, bringing down immediately long-distance rates for many families, and causing a number of other jurisdictions to become aware of the problem and encourage them to take action on their own.2 Families around the country are able to telephone their loved ones who are incarcerated or detained far away. This is no small victory and our thanks and gratitude are warmly given to the FCC leaders and staff who have been instrumental in this change. The new proposal outlined by the FCC this fall is another welcome step. Most important, we are pleased to see the Commission take steps to align the interests of telephone companies and families by eliminating site commission payments from phone companies to the institutions that contract with them for telephone service. The FCC’s successful data collection revealed that families of inmates have paid $460 million in 2013 alone in “pass-through payments” “to pay for programs ranging from inmate welfare to roads to correctional facilities’ staff salaries to the state or county’s general budget.”3 While this number is an extreme burden on families and friends, it represents 0.3 percent of prison budgets overall.4 These payments create perverse incentives – encouraging prisons, jails, and detention facilities to hire telephone companies that offer the highest commission payments, which often means hiring the companies with the highest prices. The most beneficial aspect of this decision, from our perspective, is the rapid and simple way in which this will empower normal contracting and procurement processes to perform their functions—competition for the lowest prices.
We encourage the FCC to not only eliminate site commission payments, but also to backstop them with local rate caps that reflect competitive rates outside prisons, jails and detention facilities. The overwhelming majority of calls to and from these facilities are local calls. Further, with caps now in place for long-distance calls, there is a risk that companies and facilities will merely shift the cost centers from long-distance to local calls. Inmate calling service providers are clearly monopoly providers able to charge “supra-competitive prices” because inmates do not have access to competing alternatives. Only a few states and local jurisdictions have begun to respond since the Commission’s action last year. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 granted the Commission broad authority to regulate intrastate payphone rates, which includes rates charged inmates and their loved ones.
We are pleased the FCC is taking a serious look at the fees and practices associated with inmate calling and is proposing reforms. As the Prison Policy Institute found, ancillary charges represent 38 percent of all consumer payments for ICS.7 Consumers are no less damaged when unreasonable costs come in the form of unjust fees and charges related to adding money to accounts, per-call fees, credit and other predatory practices. We have a strong concern about the incentives that per-call fees give to inmate call providers. Many inmates and their families report excessive and repeated call disconnections, ostensibly when third party calls or other violations are detected. If the provider had no financial incentive to disconnect a call, it would be more likely that these disconnections would be limited to instances of rule violations. As the FCC recognizes in its notice, if inmate calling providers are able to increase associated fees without limitation, it is likely that those fees will increase to compensate for lower rates. We encourage the FCC to establish robust consumer education obligations for this uniquely vulnerable population. We also share the concern of the FCC that facilities are starting to charge outrageous rates for access to newer technologies—such as fifty cents for one email—or to limit in-person access by replacing it with video access.8 We commend the FCC for developing a record on these practices and encourage whatever steps can be taken to encourage competition and fair-dealing in the provision of these services.
Finally, we urge the FCC to be proactive with regard to the needs of prisoners with disabilities. The deaf and hard of hearing community face unique challenges while incarcerated or detained. We are gratified the FCC clarified that no additional charges can be imposed on inmates using the TRS (telecommunications relay services). In the present day and age, when technology is often used to make communications simpler and more seamless for people with disabilities, reliance on outdated technology for incarcerated people is not acceptable. We urge you heed the advice offered by the disabilities communities themselves, including comments filed by Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD). These stakeholders should be directly involved in any decisions the Commission makes with regard to their needs. This action would be a commendable step to implement your strong commitment to find mechanisms for the Commission to assist people with disabilities.
For all the above reasons, we urge you to address unreasonable local phone rates to prisons, jails and detention centers and take up the task of addressing the needs of incarcerated people with disabilities. We look forward to working with the Commission as you consider these important issues.
Alliance of Baptists American Friends Service Committee Arkansas Cradle to Prison Pipeline Initiative Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC BEST: Building Entrepreneurs for Success in Tennessee Center for Media Justice Color of Change Common Cause Communications Workers of America Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) Congregational Church of Algonquin Day One Demand Progress Disciples Justice Action Network Franciscan Action Network The Greenlining Institute Healing Communities USA Highlander Research and Education Center Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice Iowa Unitarian Universalist Witness/Advocacy Network The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Martinez Street Women's Center Darren Mitchell Meade, Investigative Reporter Media Alliance Media Literacy Project Media Mobilizing Project Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office Metodistas Asociados Representando la Causa de los Hispano Americanos (MARCHA) NAACP Nation Inside National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd National Council of La Raza National Hispanic Media Coalition National Religious Campaign Against Torture National Urban League New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees Open Technology Institute, New America Peace Action Group of Plymouth Church Seattle, UCC Picture Projects/360degrees.org The Peoples Press Project Public Knowledge Texas Death Penalty Education and Resource Center Dr. Artika R. Tyner Unitarian Universalist Association United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society Voices for Racial Justice
Our friends and Media Action Grassroots Network colleagues May First/Peoplelink's statement on their federal gag order.
May First/PeopleLink is one of the New York anchors for the national media justice coalition Mag-Net (Media Action Grassroots Network www.mag-net.org).
Recently they were subjected to a federal gag order due to their work with the Athens, Greece Indymedia Center.
Here is their statement on the gag order.
May First/People Link's leadership has been under a Federal gag order
since early September. The gag order prevented us from discussing a
subpoena for member information and the existence of the gag order
itself. As of today, that gag order has expired.
The gag order protected a subpoena that was issued by the Department
of Justice on September 5, 2014, which demanded account information
about the Athens (Greece) Indymedia Center membership. Apparently, the
target of the investigation was a member of an organization wanted by
the Greek law enforcement who is believed to have used the Indymedia
website at one point.
On the request of the Athens IMC, we refused to release personally
identifying information to the department of justice to shield members
of the Athens IMC from political persecution in Greece. We then publicly
announced the existence of the subpoena to our membership and posted
that information on our website.
Two weeks later, we were served with the gag order forbidding us from
talking about the subpeona and forbidding us from even acknowledging to
anyone outside our Leadership Committee that the order existed. We were
to act as if nothing had happened.
We were informed that any violation of this order could result in
fines and imprisonment, which could have destroyed the organization.
Under the advice of our lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation we obeyed the order.
Because the order has now expired, we want to comment on two issues arising from this episode that we consider important.
First, May First/People Link has always espoused the principle that
the release of member data is a violation of our members' right to
privacy: a fundamental human right and one that protects the ability of
our members to engage in activism and political organizing. It is at the
crux of our
responsibility as an organization. We do not cooperate with government
intrusions unless the specific affected members agree to such
cooperation. It is this policy that guides our actions.
In the case of the Athens IMC, we had no data of any real value to
this investigation and that fact makes our second concern even deeper.
Hitting us with an order that forbids us from speaking about a
government demand for our members' information and then forbids us from
publicly acknowledging that there is such a demand is grotesquely
repressive and damaging to our organization's members and their right to information about their data and their organization.
We believe you have the right to privacy and to withhold from any
investigation information you may have that is legally obtained and
legal in and of itself. We believe you have the right tell others that
the government is investigating you or demanding that kind of
information from you. Moreover, we believe you have the right to tell
others when the government forbids you from revealing information about
These rights are particularly precious at a time when people the
world over are fighting for our freedom and opposing government
repression and brutality. No repressive act can be hidden and no
injustice will go unopposed when there is a truly open and free
Protecting and broadening that free Internet is our mission as an
organization. Facilitating, defending and protecting our members' data
and their ability to function as activist organizations is at the very
core of that mission.
When Barack Obama came out publicly
for the reclassification of the Internet as a public utility, his
announcement indicated that the decades-long battle to maintain
neutrality on the Web had entered a new high-profile stage.
wonky side discussion found mostly in the technology sections of major
newspapers and on computer blogs, net neutrality had suddenly morphed
into a national obsession, filling up late-night TV and social-media feeds with one meme after another and finally crashing the FCC's website with 4 million public comments.
The deliberations of agency chair Tom Wheeler, a former cable and wireless lobbyist appointed by a Democratic president, became a public drama, as one half-baked compromise proposal after another bit the dust in the face of public outrage.
the battle heats up again, some Internet activists are saying net
neutrality is important but isn't the only game in town. They say the
intensity of the fight over net neutrality has diverted attention from
other steps that can be taken to keep the Internet consumer-focused and
equally accessible to all, instead of a prioritized toll road that not
everyone can afford to drive on. Particularly, they point to the idea of
So what is structural separation?
David Isenberg, a technology expert and a fellow at the Institute for Global Communications, says:
separation means that providers of an Internet connection can't have a
financial interest in what's carried on that connection. This ensures
that when the Internet connection provider does network management, it's
not motivated to discriminate in favor of one content or service
provider at the expense of another. Enforcement of neutrality is easy
when there's a bright line between conduit and content.
Such a policy, had it been in place, might have stopped the Comcast/NBC-Universal merger dead in its tracks, as vertical integration of content carriers and content providers would have been forbidden.
a consistent element in conversations abroad, the subject has been
largely off the table domestically since the last time something like it
occurred, the 1984 breakup of AT&T. In the ensuing period of time, voluntary structural separation occurred or is in process in Australia and New Zealand and was forcibly applied in 2007-08 in Mongolia.
the obvious benefits of the 1984 antitrust action against AT&T, it
is a bit of mystery why it isn't a part of today's conversation about
paid prioritization on the Web. With their ownership separate from
AT&T, the Baby Bells no longer had an incentive to favor AT&T
over long-distance competitors. All long-distance competitors obtained
access to local telecommunications services on similar,
The 1984 version of paid prioritization in telecom. Stopped.
Sounds good, right?
Could something like that work on the 21st-century Internet? Can we even talk about it?
enemies of net neutrality describe Title 2 as "the nuclear option," but
it is actually a moderate compromise. Structural separation would be
better way to get net neutrality than Title 2. It would be simpler, more
effective and easy to enforce. But it would mean that Internet access
providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable would
need to spin off some major business assets. Title 2 is like medicine.
Structural separation is like surgery. The disease we need to cure is
Internet discrimination. If medicine won't cure it, maybe surgery will.
not unusual for Beltway conversations about economic policy to restrict
the scope of the conversation to just a few middle-of-the-road options.
also not unusual for options that are on the table in countries across
the world to be dismissed as lunatic socialist fringe here at home.
if the telecoms think reclassification into Title II is "too harsh a
tool" to rein in unreasonable network practices and the threat of slow
lanes on the Internet for everyone without big bucks in their pockets,
they may not be seeing the whole picture.
The fake conversation about Ferguson goes like this: The grand jury heard the evidence. They declined to indict. The riots are happening because some people don't like the result.
That's not what happened in Missouri.
In the fantasyland of American jurisprudence, what occurs is a jury of peers hears the evidence as presented by a skilled and committed advocate for each party in conflict. Each argument for guilt or innocence is given the strongest possible display in order to have the maximal chance at persuasion.
This arrangement constitutes a fair deal per the society, even as it gets increasingly tattered by profiling, selective prosecution, and the ever present role of money and the lack of it.
But in Missouri, the machine didn't even have the decency to play pretend.
Prosecutor McCullough has deep ties to the Ferguson Police Department, ties so deep any rational human being would have demanded recusal on the basis of conflict of interest. No witness was cross-examined, a vital tool for uncovering faked testimony. In other words, no trial happened or is going to happen, except maybe the media trial of the victim for being a "thug who deserved to be shot", a characterization now assigned to all young black men on default, whether armed or unarmed, no matter what they do or don't do.
Dismissal without trial. That is what happened. Not a fair deal and one that consigns the dead body that laid on the pavement for four and a half hours to invisibility. Somebody that just doesn't matter. And one in a long line of black bodies that have been declared not to matter. Exempt from the deal. Another version of 3/5 of a person.
"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious,
makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even
passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears
and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've
got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run
it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will
be prevented from working at all!"
Those who question the rioting, the property damage, the determination to shut it down.
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on November 21st, 2014 Media Alliance
The second community town hall on net neutrality: thrown by the media justice community because the FCC would not.
The event took place on November 20th at SF City Hall, sponsored by Jay Nath, the CTO of the City of San Francisco, and hosted by a variety of groups including Media Alliance, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Common Cause, Free Press and the Center for Media Justice/Mag-Net.
Honored guests included former FCC commissioner Michael Copps and Oakland City Council President Pro Tem Rebecca Kaplan.
In reponse to the growing climate of intimidation directed at journalists in the United States, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has launched a campaign with a letter to President Obama and a petition designed to uphold the right to report despite growing surveillance, targeting and harassment.
The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461
Dear President Obama:
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide, is writing to express its concern about the effects of intelligence and law enforcement activities undertaken by agencies, over which your administration has oversight, on the free flow of news and other information in the public interest.
Although your administration has taken steps to address some of the concerns we first identified to you in an October 2013 letter, the measures do not go far enough to mitigate threats to journalism and the journalistic process. In fact, information revealed over the past year regarding the breadth of surveillance by the National Security Agency calls into question the seriousness of your administration's commitment to reform.
We are deeply troubled by reports that the NSA and allied agencies monitored the electronic communications of journalists and news organizations. For example, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported in September 2013 that the NSA hacked into a protected internal communications system of Al-Jazeera. In February 2014, Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman said a National Security Letter was used to secretly obtain his phone records. Several journalists have also said that the surveillance of journalists has a chilling effect on them and their sources.
We are also concerned by ongoing aggressive leak investigations that target journalists with subpoenas and search warrants. The U.S. Department of Justice continues to pursue information from award-winning journalist James Risen that would make him reveal a confidential source. The Justice Department only recently amended its rules to prohibit federal law enforcement agents from circumventing the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, following public outrage over a search warrant targeting James Rosen, a Fox News journalist who had engaged in ordinary newsgathering activities.
Journalists continue to describe being detained, interrogated, and searched at the U.S. border despite the existence of updated Homeland Security regulations. Journalists' electronic devices have also been searched, which could put the confidentiality of their sources at risk. One journalist--the award-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose films showcase American policy in the post-9/11 era--has said she was detained for questioning at U.S. border crossings more than 40 times between 2006 and 2012. New York Times journalists C.J. Chivers and Mac William Bishop said they were detained before leaving on a reporting trip for Syria in 2013, and Bishop was detained on his way back into the U.S.
In light of these additional revelations over the past year, we ask that you do more to ameliorate the effect of pervasive surveillance on the free flow of news. We recognize the government's vital interest in protecting U.S. national security, but there must be reasonable limits--and meaningful, independent checks--on the powers of any one person, agency, or branch of government. As New Yorker staff writer and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll recently told the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, "Every national security reporter I know would say that the atmosphere in which professional reporters seek insight into policy failures [and] bad military decisions is just much tougher and much chillier."
Although Congress and the courts have a role in ensuring that U.S. policies are necessary, proportional, and lawful, there are steps your administration can immediately take to mitigate the harm caused to journalism in recent years. In order to more fully protect the newsgathering process, we request that your administration:
Issue a presidential policy directive prohibiting the hacking and surveillance of journalists and media organizations.
Limit aggressive prosecutions that ensnare journalists and intimidate whistleblowers.
Prevent the harassment of journalists at the U.S. border.
We last wrote to you in October 2013, prior to the release of CPJ's special report on press freedom conditions in the United States, and requested a meeting to discuss our concerns and recommendations, which included a focus on ending the chilling effect generated by overbroad leak prosecutions and remedying the overall lack of transparency in your administration. We remain concerned about these issues and are disappointed that we have not received a substantive response to the issues we raised.
We understand and appreciate that your administration has taken some measures toward reforming U.S. surveillance and law enforcement practices that touch upon these matters, such as taking steps to better comply with both the letter and spirit of the Privacy Protection Act and to increase oversight prior to the issuance of secret subpoenas and other legal processes that seek journalists' materials. However, we ask that more be done to ensure that journalists are able to do their jobs without fear of reprisal or censorship. To that end, we once again respectfully request a meeting with you to discuss our concerns and our recommendations for improving the press freedom environment in the United States.
We thank you for your attention and look forward to your response.
Sandra Mims Rowe
Josh Earnest, White House Press Secretary
Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States
Jeh Johson, Secretary of Homeland Security
Brian Fallon, Director of the Office of Public Affairs, the United States Department of Justice
Tanya J. Bradsher, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, the United States Department of Homeland Security
It's not life and death, but the distribution of press passes from the White House to the floors of major industry conventions, has long been a fraught process that can confer, or by contrast, remove "credibility" from sectors of the journalistic community. There have been long successive battles about whether citizen journalists are journalists, whether bloggers should get press passes, and about diversity in newsrooms, both ethnic and gender diversity and also viewpoint diversity.
It looks like these battles are far from over.
Comic-Con International is a 45-year old comics tradeshow, expanded from a small one-day gathering in 1970 to a multi-day extravaganza with 130,000 participants in 2014. Comic-Con correctly describes itself as a focal point for the world of comics, an industry that folds in creative artists, politics, youth, independent publishing and some of the biggest media titans in the world. What happens at Comic-Con International matters for media-watchers.
Kevin Robinson is executive producer at Medium Rare, a project of Fractured Atlas. Medium Rare is an online site that chronicles the achievements of women and people of color in television, film and the gaming industry. They specifically try to focus on work that is otherwise under-reported, overshadowed and overlooked.
Robinson identified Comic-Con International as a place where Medium Rare could locate the kinds of stories it wants to tell - stories of people doing innovative work and bringing diverse viewpoints into a field that has traditionally been dominated by white men. So he applied for a press pass to cover the large convention. It was denied without comment. To add a little bit more grist for frustration, Robinson, who got his application in by the deadline, found out via the grapevine that another outlet which had applied after the deadline, had received a press pass, although his own had not. Bothered by the rejection, Robinson decided not to take the verdict lying down and sent a polite letter of inquiry to Comic-Con, asking for a reason. His letter is attached below. Here is the text:
"We were denied press access to Comic Con this year and are trying to understand the rationale for our credential application being denied. Adding to our curiosity, is knowing that at least one other outlet obtained access to the convention after the press deadline. All of our materials were submitted by the deadline and several attempts have been made to contact your Director of PR and Marketing for clarification, to no avail.
We understand that Comic Con is inundated with requests for access, but being a reputable, credible outlet of color should mean something. Addressing a larger issue, we would like to know how many outlets of color did in fact receive press approval.
Although it might be an oversight, we feel that Comic Con may be coming up short in granting fair and equal access to journalists of color. We would welcome the opportunity to help rectify this perceived oversight".
The letter was copied to Media Alliance, an Oakland-based democratic communications advocacy organization.
Here's what came back from the public relations department at Comic-Con. Can anyone say "form letter"? (Original attached below).
"Thank you for contacting us. Each year we receive thousands of applications from press outlets around the world interested in covering the convention, unfortunately we cannot accommodate each request. Race or color is not a determining factor on acceptance and is not a criteria on whether an entity is approved or denied credentials. As a result, we have no way of knowing how many entities or individuals of color report on the show. However, a few things we look into when reviewing applications, but are not limited to, are web traffic to the site along with social media following and the regularity of updated content. We hope this information can be useful to your outlet and will be taken into consideration if you choose to apply next year".
Here is what is striking about this. While we do not mean to infer that Comic-Con does not, in fact, in the lead-up to a convention spend hours and hours researching the web traffic and social media following of thousands of applications for press passes, profit margins probably indicate that hours of research are not done on each and every one of thousands of applications. Judgements are being made, largely as most of us make them, about what is credible, popular, mainstream and important, using the filters that most of us employ, filters that contain individual preferences, bias and stereotypes that enter into the casual judgments we make everyday.
A strict algorithmic analysis of social media metrics and web hits can only lead to the conclusion that the most critical information contained on the web and that is of the most import to the largest number of people is cute cat videos. Does anyone actually believe this?
Diversity-blindness - as caricatured in the "I don't see race" comics found all over the web - does not generally lead to the most engaging, relevant coverage of an event. Nor does it deliver the fullest range of perspectives, unless one believes that we are all the same. For participants whose work is, as Medium Rare describes, often overshadowed and overlooked, the convention's inability to consider the advantages of a diverse press corps of small and large media outlets, mainstream and indie, those talking of art and politics, as well as industry trends, as well as those looking for stories of non-typical artists breaking new ground, this policy does not serve them. For the industry as a whole, it provides less relevant coverage for those who look for role models who look like them.
In other words, the press pass policy enforces standardization of content that largely marginalizes minorities of all kinds, not simply demographic minorities, but also viewpoint minorities. What is vitally important does not always get the most clicks, but we are all the poorer if no space is made for it to be said.
It is striking in 2014 to see a major artistic and technology event fail to factor in diversity to its policy decisions. Comic-Con International can do better than this - and it should.