One of the interesting side effects of the debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act earlier this year was the question of whether the legislation would damage the alignment between the tech community the Democratic Party. But as the Republican convention winds down, the GOP isn’t exactly making a major pitch either to Hollywood or to tech donors.
““The Republican Party platform language strikes a very smart balance: it emphasizes the importance of us doing more as a nation to protect our intellectual property from online theft while underscoring the critical importance of protecting internet freedom,” Motion Picture Association of American chairman Chris Dodd said in response to the Republican platform.
But there isn’t that much detail there. The platform talks about intellectual property mostly as a trade issue between nation states rather than as a matter of consumer behavior abetted by the kind of entities the content industries have identified as major malefactors. In the party’s section on China, IP comes up as part of a larger package of issues: “Our serious trade disputes, especially China’s failure to enforce inter- national standards for the protection of intellectual property and copyrights, as well as its manipulation of its currency, call for a firm response from a new Republican Administration.” And in more general terms, the platform promises that “Punitive measures will be imposed on foreign firms that misappropriate American technology and intellectual property.”
On tech, the Republican platform doesn’t really differ from the Democratic promise in 2008 to “implement a national broadband strategy (especially in rural areas, and our reservations and territories) that enables every American household, school, library, and hospital to connect to a world-class communications infrastructure”—it just blames Democrats for making “no progress toward the goal of universal coverage—after spending $7.2 billion more. ” And it has a real contempt for net neutrality, describing it as “trying to micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network,” in itself a revealing sentiment.
We’ve yet to see what the Democratic platform will include, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some attempt to bridge Hollywood and the tech community and make up for the damage done by the SOPA debate. But these are party platforms, and this is a year when the broad strokes of the economy are going to predominate in favor of a segment of the economy that may be key to some donors’ hearts, but won’t swing a huge chunk of swing voters at the ballot box. It’s easy to forget this while we’re immersed in the internet, but we’re a long way from the point where a substantive conversation about cable, the internet, and the way we govern and access content is going to be a mandatory part of the political conversation.
There are a lot of people who want a lot of things about the way we watch television to change: to be able to buy channels on a stand-alone basis rather than in bundles, to be able to buy streaming access to premium networks like HBO without having to purchase a cable subscription first, to be able to stream shows that are available through services like Hulu as quickly and smoothly as if they were airing on a network. As much as I would also like to see some of those things come to pass, and as much as some networks would like to be able to offer some, if not all, of those options it’s been hard to get through to folks that there is a complex system governing cable television and internet that makes those changes difficult to make without current successful business models take a major hit that could disrupt the delivery and quality of the programming we currently find so desirable.
But major changes to that system might be closer than we think.
The Wall Street Journal reports today that the Justice Department is probing many of the elements of the cable and internet delivery system that throw up barriers to alternate means of distributing content. The story’s pegged as an investigation of whether Comcast, in violation of its anti-trust agreement that let it merge with NBCUniversal, is giving preferential treatment to content that streams through its own outlets so it streams faster and cleaner than content that comes over the internet from companies like Netflix. That’s critically important, as is net neutrality generally, but apparently, that’s not the only thing Justice is looking into:
Another issue that investigators have asked about is whether cable companies are acting anticompetitively by making viewers have a cable subscription before being able to access certain online programming. Comcast and some other companies have verification systems requiring viewers to enter their cable subscription details before being able to watch, say, ESPN’s programming on an iPad tablet…
The Justice Department also is investigating the contracts that programmers sign in order to be distributed on cable systems. Some contracts include so-called most-favored nation clauses, which make programmers give the biggest cable companies the best price they are offering anywhere, among other conditions. The Justice Department is questioning whether there are legitimate business reasons for such terms or whether they are intended to stop programmers from experimenting with other forms of online distribution, a person familiar with the matter said.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of the investigation, I’m glad it’s taking place. So much of the conversation around what people find frustrating in the current cable regime is erroneously aimed at networks, rather than the regime they operate within. This investigation should recenter that conversation, and hopefully give us more insight into the fulcrums we need to push on to give us an environment where networks can have more opportunities to monetize their content and to pursue new subscribers without risking the ones they currently have.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the past couple of days about why HBO hasn’t made its content more widely available to non-cable subscribers. While I understand individual consumers are frustrated, I think we need to reckon with the fact that this is not a problem of a single premium network. It’s a limitation of an ecosystem that also happens to have produced the kind of environment where HBO can make the content that makes it so desirable.
Erik Kain started the current wave of this, first blaming HBO for piracy, then, arguing that HBO should offer HBO GO as a standalone service and that the company would make more from those subscriptions than from its current arrangement from cable companies, and eventually backing off for some of the reasons I’ll articulate. But it’s important to reiterate that a stand-alone service is not a minor change . There are major forces at work here, and both HBO and we would do well to be attentive to them.
First, I agree with Yglesias that commentators, particularly those of us who cover entertainment technology, tend to dramatically overrate the extent to which cord-cutting is actually happening and to which consumers want to and are dropping their cable in favor of streaming services. Even if broadband gets cheaper and broadband adoption gets more serious, that doesn’t mean that people are going to prefer streaming services to cable. As I wrote earlier this week, people are dropping cable subscriptions, but not yet in a way that indicates a cultural shift rather than a tough economy. The cable companies aren’t wilfully ignoring overwhelmingly compelling evidence. They’re waiting out a trend to see if it’s real. And until sports in particular, a much bigger driver of cable subscriptions than the premium networks, get unbundled from cable, I’m just not sure we’re going to see huge, permanent accelerations in this trend, particularly if use of streaming services like Hulu gets tied to authentication of a cable subscription or a tacked-on fee.
Second, waiting that out isn’t evidence of idiocy or a desire to do harm to consumers (though it’s a mystery to me why folks who consume content assume entertainment companies’ main purpose is to be nice to them rather than to make money). HBO and other premium cable channels have a very solid and established business model here. Cable subscriptions overall may be dropping, but HBO added 190,000 subscribers in the fourth quarter of last year, the biggest growth the network’s experienced since 2006. Folks may not like paying for bundled cable, but there isn’t actually compelling evidence that HBO in particular rather than cable companies in general should be worried about cord cutting.
And though Erik suggested that it would be easy for HBO to make up lost revenue by charging more for HBO subscriptions, I think he dramatically understated the difficulty and unpredictability of that move. It’s not just that “HBO has deals with cable companies that may make this move difficult, and quite possibly very expensive.” It’s that there is no way the cable companies would let this go quietly. At all. As Todd VanDerWerff put it: Read more
Welcome to The Morning Pride, ThinkProgress LGBT’s 8:45 AM round-up of the latest in LGBT policy, politics, and some culture too! Here’s what we’re reading this morning, but let us know what you’re checking out too.
- Let’s try this again… Today is the day! The Twitter rumor mill has accentuated the anticipation as we await the conclusion of the marriage equality fight in New York. (Of course, if it does not pass, the fight presses on for another year!) Debate continues in closed sessions about religious exemptions as other issues (like a property tax cap and rent control) also demand attention. Even Sen. Greg Ball (R), who has opposed the bill, is calling for an up-or-down vote. Carlos Maza at Equality Matters debunks the fear-mongering coming from “legal experts” and Paul Schindler of Gay City News offers an eloquent analysis this morning on the anxiety and weariness of the long fight.
- President Obama is on his way to New York tonight for a an LGBT fundraising event, a $1,250-per-plate ”Gala with the Gay Community.” Many are wondering if he will chime in on the marriage fight (and if it will be in time to help New York). A coalition of direct action groups will demonstrate outside the event “for Full LGBT Equality.”
- Despite optimism earlier this month that he might, it now seems unlikely that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will certify the repeal of Dont’ Ask, Don’t Tell before he retires.
- Equality California is the latest LGBT organization to withdraw an anti-net neutrality letter, following similar actions by GLAAD and The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. The influence of AT&T on these organizations’ boards seems to be the root cause of this burgeoning controversy.
- A jury of Methodist clergy have unanimously found The Rev. Amy DeLong of Osceola, WI “guilty” of marrying a lesbian couple in 2009. She was acquitted, however, of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” herself. Her penalty has not yet been decided, but it could range from suspension to defrocking, according to the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline.
Century Strategies, the lobbying firm founded by Tim Phillips and Ralph Reed
As the New York Times and ThinkProgress have reported, Ralph Reed has returned as a force in the political world. A decade ago, Reed was a kingmaker in Republican politics and a corporate lobbyist who counted Fortune 100 companies like Enron and Microsoft as clients. His fall from grace, starting with the Jack Abramoff scandal and culminating in a humiliating loss in his run for lieutenant governor of Georgia, is apparently now behind him. Times reporter Erik Eckholm points out that Reed has successfully revived his work as an operator within the Republican Party, most notably with his ability to ensnare nearly every Republican presidential contender to a conference he’s hosting this weekend.
However, little is known about Reed’s work reviving his business as an astroturf lobbyist. According to documents obtained by ThinkProgress, the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA), a trade association that represents cable providers like Comcast and Qwest Communications, has provided Reed’s lobbying firm with at least $3,462,117 worth of contracts in the last three years alone. Century Strategies, the firm founded by Reed and fellow astroturf lobbyist Tim Phillips in 1997, received the contracts for what NCTA deemed “legal and advertising” services. View a screenshot of the relevant documents here and here.
ThinkProgress has queried several staffers at Reed’s lobbying firm to learn about the contract. At CPAC this year, one employee for Reed told us that he did not work on the NCTA account and knew little about it. I spoke to another staffer in Reed’s Atlanta office this week and asked if the firm ever provides any kind of legal or advertising work for clients. “None at all,” she replied to the legal question. “Nope, we don’t,” she said in response to a question I had about Century Strategies creating or purchasing advertisements for clients. Why did the cable industry pay Reed millions for advertising work, then?
Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission passed “network neutrality” regulations, which aim to ensure equal access to all legal Internet content. Service providers will not be allowed to block rival services, nor will they be able to divide traffic to certain sites into fast and slow lanes, thus giving priority to preferred web content providers. The new regulations are still opposed by many open internet groups for not going far enough, and came after years of debate and millions of dollars of lobbying.
The announcement of a new federal regulation prompted a characteristic outburst from conservative leaders, who have consistently fear-mongered against net neutrality regulations as an evil progressive scheme to control the Internet. On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) accused the Obama administration of trying to “nationalize” and “control” the Internet; radio host Rush Limbaugh also said Obama just took over the Internet (at the behest of George Soros, of course) and suggested Hugo Chavez would be jealous:
– McCONNELL: Today the Federal Communications Commission is expected to approve new rules on how American access information on the Internet. There’s a lot of people rightly concerned. … The Obama administration, which has already nationalized health care, the auto industry, insurance companies, banks, and student loans, will move forward with what could be the first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet by establishing federal regulations on its use….The Internet is an invaluable resource. It should be left alone. As Americans become more aware of what’s happening here, I suspect many will be alarmed, as I am, at the government’s intrusion. They’ll wonder, as many already do, if this is a Trojan horse for further meddling by the government.
– LIMBAUGH: Today the FCC approved a proposal by chairman Julius Genachowski to give the FCC power to prevent broadband providers from selectively blocking web traffic. And that’s just a ruse. Net Neutrality is not what this is really all about. This is about the feds wanting to control the Internet just as they control the public airwaves. They want to be able to determine who gets to say what, where, how often — they want to be able to determine what search services are providing what answers to your queries. It’s total government control of the Internet, and the regime has just awarded it to itself.
It’s another gleaming aspect of free speech, free market, private industry Obama has decided to take over as a Christmas present to himself and the Democrat National Committee and to Mr. Soros. He’s even beaten Hugo Chavez to the punch. Chavez is just talking about taking over the Internet in Venezuela; Obama has got it done.
Watch a compilation:
Elsewhere, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) tweeted that “unelected, unaccountable Democrat FCC commissioners are taking over the Internet.” Incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) released a statement blasting “yet another government takeover.”
Of course, these provisions do nothing of the sort. Network neutrality rules are explicitly designed to prevent anything like Internet censorship or control — they prohibit providers from being able who gets to “determine who gets to say what, where, how often,” in Limbaugh’s words. In fact, as noted, open Internet groups like Free Press believe the new rules do not go far enough because they do not protect the Internet over mobile devices, and contain exemptions for companies like AT&T. Needless to say, there is nothing in the provisions that would allow the government to censor or control Internet access.
These complaints about network neutrality are almost completely divorced from the reality of the new provisions — but they are nothing new. For months, Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have been sounding these same notes; for example, on May 6, Beck said network neutrality would “control every aspect of the Internet…. We are losing our country.” These claims are wildly inaccurate, but almost exactly mirror the messaging being pushed by the telecom industry and its front groups. Americans for Prosperity has frequently labeled network neutrality a “government takeover.” ThinkProgress has documented how Beck’s statements about network neutrality in particular are almost identical to the industry’s spin.
On Fox News’ “Happening Now” this morning, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) claimed that now “we’re starting to see the FCC say you have to come to us to get permission to manage your own website.”
As ThinkProgress has previously documented, many of the likely Republican heads of House committees in the new Congress have deep ties to lobbyists and corporate interests. On the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) — who is infamous for apologizing to oil giant BP for government effots to hold it accountable following the company’s oil spill in the Gulf Coast — is in line to become Chairman.
One of Barton’s likely new colleagues on the committee is Rep.-elect Charlie Bass (R-NH), who defeated progressive Ann Kuster to return to Congress after a four year hiatus as an energy consultant. The National Journal reports today that one industry lobbyist who remembers Bass as a net neutrality skeptic and a “strong supporter of industry” says that Bass has the “best case” to get back on the committee he served on for six years:
Charlie Bass, a Republican who defeated Ann McLane Kuster on Tuesday to win back his post as House Representative of New Hampshire’s second district, is a likely candidate for the Energy and Commerce Committee in the 112th Congress.
Bass, who served in the House from 1995 to 2006, spent six years on the Energy and Commerce panel. From 2003 to 2006, he served on the Communications subcommittee.
Given his experience, “I’m pretty sure he has the best case to get back on the Committee,” said an industry lobbyist, who also remembered Bass to be a “strong supporter of industry,” and “skeptical of net neutrality.”
As Blue Hampshire notes, “Bass collected over $36,000 in campaign contributions from the energy industry including the Nuclear Energy Institute, the American Gas Association and the Amercian Electric Power PAC. He received another $34,000 from the communications and electronics industry including donations from AT&T, DirectTV, and Verizon.”
During Bass’s previous terms in Congress he was instrumental in crafting the 2005 energy bill that included huge giveaways to the energy industry. Additionally, Bass was one of seventeen Republicans and six Democrats who voted down strong net neutrality protections drafted in the House Telecom Subcommittee.
Net neutrality is more endangered than ever following the recent election. Every single House or Senate candidate who signed the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s pledge to protect net neutrality lost last week. That a major net neutrality opponent who wins praise and campaign donations from industry lobbyists is poised to return to a committee where he repeatedly stood against the interests of consumers just four years earlier should be troubling for all who want a fair and free internet.
Net neutrality, a guiding principle for preserving a free and fair Internet, means that Internet service providers are not allowed to discriminate based on content for its customers. However, telecommunications firms — like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others — are firmly against net neutrality because they would like to increase their profits by deciding which websites customers can see, and at what speed. The telecom industry has dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into a lobby campaign against net neutrality. As the FCC now takes up net neutrality rule making, the industry is pushing an “outside approach” of hiring front groups and astroturf operatives.
This morning, representatives from various front groups launched a new coordinated campaign to kill net neutrality. Speaking on Capitol Hill, these front groups took turns decrying the evils of the principle of a fair and unbiased Internet. LULAC, which is funded by AT&T, called Net Neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet.” (LULAC was not present at the press conference. The Hispanic Leadership Fund, another group funded by the telecom industry and opposed to net neutrality, spoke at the event. We apologize for the error.) Americans for Prosperity — a corporate front group founded by oil billionaire David Koch but also funded by telecom interests — unveiled a new ad smearing net neutrality as a “government takeover” (the initial ad buy is $1.4 million dollars). And Grover Norquist, representing his “Americans for Tax Reform” corporate front group, said net neutrality is like what China does, “putting policemen on every corner, on the street or on the Internet.” Watch it:
ThinkProgress has obtained a PowerPoint document which reveals how the telecom industry is orchestrating the latest campaign against Net Neutrality. Authored by representatives from the Atlas Network — a shell think tank used to coordinate corporate front group efforts worldwide — the document lays out the following strategy:
– Slides 7-8 calls for the campaign to target “libertarian minded internet users and video gamers” and “social conservative activists” with anti-government messages and a rebranding of net neutrality as “Net Brutality.”
– Slide 9 calls for a strategy of creating a Chinese blog to compare net neutrality to Chinese government censorship, outreach via social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
– Slides 10-11 detail how representatives met at Grover Norquist’s infamous “Wednesday morning meeting” to orchestrate the new campaign. Norquist is known to use his Wednesday meetings to plot strategy and conservative coalition building towards lobbying goals.
The PowerPoint was created on April 14th, shortly before the campaign website officially launched. The “Net Brutality” website relies heavily on Americans for Prosperity sources, as well as a website called NetCompetition.org — which is openly funded by the American Cable Association, At&T, Comcast, and the US Telecom Association.
During the Jack Abramoff investigation, Norquist was exposed for selling support from his front groups to corporations. In one damning e-mail, Norquist is promised $50,000 dollars in exchange for providing his Americans for Tax Reform support to one of Abramoff’s clients. Today, Norquist was not only parroting the PowerPoint talking points at the press conference, but he also brought in other key conservative movement leaders and Republican lawmakers to the event.
In addition to the front groups, the loudest voice against net neutrality is still Glenn Beck, who has smeared free Internet proponents as Marxists and Communists, and has adopted the attack that net neutrality constitutes a “government takeover.” However, it is important to realize that even Beck is being fed with opposition research dug up by operatives at Americans for Prosperity. This research document, compiled by Americans for Prosperity staffers, lays out point by point the attacks Beck has used in the past few weeks to disparage net neutrality supporters. If Beck picks up this new outreach to video game enthusiasts and the false comparison to Chinese censorship, then the impact of the “Net Brutality” PowerPoint will be even more apparent.
Telecom firms like AT&T and Verizon are among the most profitable in the world, yet America lags behind other countries in terms of broadband access and speed. Instead of dumping lobbying money into anti-net neutrality front groups and fear-mongering campaigns, the telecom industry should invest in improving service and accessibility.
Right-wing media outlets have seized upon McCullagh’s erroneous report that this presentation was created by students learning about free market campaigns. One of the authors of the “No Net Brutality” campaign is David MacLean, a Canadian who has worked at a myriad of big business front groups, including the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Alberta Enterprise Group. MacLean is featured in the PowerPoint standing outside of Norquist’s headquarters in DC. He has worked as a professional in front group communications since 2002.
,CNET’s Declan McCullagh has posted an item critical of this post. However, McCullagh misleads his readers by claiming the presentation was created only by “students” unrelated to any industry groups or lobbyists. The author and administrator of the “No Net Brutality” website is Kristin McMurray, a staff Project Manager of Americans for Limited Government’s Sunshine Review front group. McCullagh playfully acknowledges the presenters met with the lobbyist-organized “Wednesday morning meeting,” but takes their word that their “three minute” presentation had no influence. Of course, as this post notes, Norquist was caught yesterday parroting the same talking points from the presentation, along with the other telecom industry-funded front groups at the event. As Stopthecap.com observed yesterday, McMurray is using a professional PR service to track Internet discussion of her anti-net neutrality site. Grassroots, indeed.
In September, ThinkProgress dissected how Glenn Beck’s successful character assassinationcampaign against former White House environmental adviser Van Jones was fueled by Americans for Prosperity’s Phil Kerpen, who had taken credit for notifying Beck of some of Jones’ past comments. On his Fox News show yesterday, Beck followed Kerpen’s lead once again, this time in an assault on net neutrality.
In a segment featuring Kerpen last night, Beck warned his audience that the Obama administration “just might be trying to take over the media.” “This is a big week, isn’t it, for freedom of speech?” Beck asked Kerpen, who said that it was because “the FCC on Thursday is going to decide what the future of the Internet looks like”:
KERPEN: It is a very big week because the FCC on Thursday is going to decide what the future of the Internet looks like, if it looks much like the past 10 years where you have private competition and pretty much people can do what they want on the Internet or whether we have a much, much heavier government hand. And they’re going to take the first step on that Thursday.
BECK: OK. I want to start just real quick – Net neutrality, because it happens on Thursday. This is that everybody should have free Internet, right?
KERPEN: Well, essentially. You know, they dress it up the way they dress up a lot of their things. They turn it upside-down by saying that evil corporations, phone and cable corporations are going to block what we can do block or we can say.
Beck then used net neutrality as a jumping off point to outline how he believed the Obama administration was trying to shut down freedom of speech. “You have a freedom of speech or the government. You can’t really have both,” said Beck. Watch it:
When he introduced Kerpen, Beck described him as “the chairman of Internet Freedom Coalition,” an alliance of conservative groups that opposes all taxes and regulations related to the internet. Kerpen’s group released a Beck-like conspiracy chart today that attempts to expose the so-called “Obama Information Control Hierarchy.” Hours before Kerpen appeared on Beck’s show, he pushed the idea that net neutrality is a threat to freedom of speech in his daily podcast, warning that regulation would lead to “a government-owned and controlled network” and eventual “content restriction” that would “decide that certain speech is out of bounds.”
Beck also appears to have no idea what net neutrality actually means. Science Progress aptly explained it last year:
At the most basic level, net neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet; all content on the Internet is equally accessible, and once a person pays for access to the Internet, they alone get to choose how they use it. This means that providers should not be allowed to block access to certain sites or applications, or charge different customers different amounts for services.
Kerpen, from whom Beck apparently cribbed his understanding of the concept, claims that there is no reason to be concerned about internet service providers blocking access or charging customers differenty. “Proponents of net neutrality rely on the scare tactic that big bad cable and phone companies will block access to Web sites and cause other mischief unless the benevolent federal government rides to the rescue, and soon,” wrote Kerpen on FoxNews.com earlier this month. “But they’ve been ringing this alarm for the better part of a decade and none of the horrors they warn us about have happened.” In fact, in 2007 it was revealed that Comcast had disrupted peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic on its network, leading to an FCC investigation. There was also an incident where “Verizon Wireless denied Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, access when the group asked to the carrier to allow Verizon customers to sign up for text-messaging alerts.”