Lawrence Krauss is a brilliant theoretical physicist and author of many popular books on science, and teaches at Arizona State University. I stopped by his office the other day to record a video conversation for a project I’m working on, and grabbed a quick video of the surroundings. Wish I had an office like this!

Patrick Frey, who blogs and tweets under the pseudonym Patterico, picked an odd fight yesterday over what should have been a simple disagreement. In the process he made false statements about what I want to see in telecom/media policy.

First, though, here’s where we do agree: The FCC’s move to reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers could have negative consequences. If Frey posted that on Twitter, I’d retweet him in a heartbeat.

While I support the commission’s decision, have argued for it, and have publicly worried about the potential unintended consequences, I don’t assume these consequences are inevitable. Frey does. But to make his point, he resorted to tactics that surprised me, given my prior respect for his work.

He’s blogged about all this at Patterico.com, in a tendentiously titled post that extends his original false claim. I’m responding to the central points in that blog post, not the irrelevant personal stuff or the “nuance-free slogans and analogies” he barraged me (and his followers) with on Twitter, which once again demonstrates its unfitness for serious conversation. Read it and come back. I’ll wait.

For those of you who didn’t read his post, here’s how Frey picked the fight. A blog post by news industry analyst Ken Doctor about plunging single-copy sales of newspapers led me to tweet that by drastically hiking prices of single copies, newspapers had found a new way to commit suicide.

This led to Frey’s opening salvo:

.@dangillmor Final blow for newspapers: they increasingly rely on the Web, and people like you want the government regulating it. @kdoctor

— (@Patterico) March 14, 2015

There are only two rational ways to read this. 1. I want the government to regulate the Web, and by extension what people post on it. 2. I want government to regulate the Web, but I’m too dense to understand what that might lead to. From his later statements, I gather that he meant the second interpretation. Both are false (never mind conflating the Web and the Internet, which as you’ll see below he did correct). Since I write publicly about telecom policy, and since I’ve respected Frey (and said so in my book We the Media a decade ago), I was flabbergasted.

(I called his tweet a lie, and said I was surprised that he would say such a thing. As he has pointed out, a lie is a deliberate, knowing falsehood. Since I can’t read his mind, I’ve retracted that word. I’ll stick with “false” to describe what he wrote.)

Here’s the meat of Frey’s blog post (bold text in the original):

  • Newspapers are increasingly reliant on the Internet to communicate with their audience.
  • The FCC this year is assuming regulatory control over the Internet.

Seeing those two facts together should frighten all Americans. With the death of newsprint, the federal government (under the guise of Net Neutrality, which Gillmor supports) is putting regulatory control over the new printing press — the Internet — in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission.

Is the Internet the new printing press? Sure, and a lot more. Is the FCC assuming regulatory control over the Internet? It is asserting regulatory power over one (relatively) small part, in a small but crucial way. It is working to ensure that the people who create media and other services, using that printing press and other tools, are treated fairly by the cartel of corporate giants that has taken unprecedented control–over how what we create may (or even will) be seen by others who want to see it.

The promise of the Internet “network of networks” was in its radical decentralization. Innovation and true freedom of expression would originate at the edges of those networks, where we wouldn’t need anyone’s permission to innovate or speak because we were free of centralized control.

The corporate giants that control most of the on-ramps to the fabled information superhighway want the right to decide what bits of information get delivered at what speed and in what order, or if they’ll get delivered at all, to those of us requesting the information. And they insist they’d never, ever abuse that control. (They already have.)

Big Telecom doesn’t operate the 21st Century printing presses. You and I do. Big Telecom isn’t the Internet; it is part of the Internet. But it has become the antithesis of the Internet’s promise–a centralized choke point.

The FCC’s Title II decision recognizes the choke point for what it is, and attempts to mitigate the worst effects. The ruling says, essentially, that we–you and I, at the edges of the network of networks–should decide on our own priorities for what we access from digital networks. It says the centralized cartel shouldn’t make those decisions for us.

Frey hearkens back to the early days of the FCC and its subsequent control over broadcasting to frighten us with the specter of FCC Internet content regulation, citing the commission’s pernicious (we agree again!) regulation over broadcasters’ content through the decades. If there was ever a need for policing televised wardrobe malfunctions in an era of government-limited broadcast outlets–there was not, in my view–it ended when the Internet gave us, in theory, unlimited multidirectional channels of communications.

But Frey, citing a slew heavy-handed government threats and actions against broadcasters, predicts the same is in store for the Internet as a result of Title II reclassification. He’s saying, This is what governments do, and it’ll happen again. (He mistakenly says the FCC has turned the ISPs into utilities, when in fact they’ve been reclassified as “common carriers”–the difference is important and highly relevant in this debate.)

Frey’s argument is a bit like saying government regulations about auto safety, such as requiring seat belts, is just the first step toward the government deciding precisely where you can drive. I suppose that’s possible, but one doesn’t inevitably lead to the other.

Governments don’t always go too far. When they’re “of the people, by the people, for the people,” we have a say in what happens.

The nation’s founders had the right idea when they established freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and more in the First Amendment. America hasn’t always lived up to these ideals, which are always under attack from people and organizations who worry about too much freedom. But the FCC decision on net neutrality very much honors the founders’ intent.

The FCC has explicitly said it would apply forbearance (a key word in the legal and regulatory arena), making clear in the rules what it won’t do–which covers the parade of horribles even supporters of Title II fear. (Here’s a Q&A that explains the concept.) And never mind that the public is getting better at understanding what the Internet is and how it works–not to mention increasingly wary of centralized power and downright allergic to government control of what we can read or write.

There’s one bit of forbearance I wish the FCC hadn’t done, in what’s called “unbundling” of the last mile (to our homes and businesses). Given the monopoly/cartel nature of the staggeringly profitable ISP business we’d have been better off if the commission had required the ISPs, particularly the cable companies, to let other companies create ISPs on “their” lines. (Unbundling, by the way, has a track record in several other countries. It’s not the answer but it can help in the short run.

This is exactly what our oppressive government did in the early days of the public Internet. In the 1990s there were thousands of small ISPs competing for our business on wired phone lines. The phone companies were not permitted to discriminate against them, because they were common carriers. And the Internet took off in large part because there was vast, and valuable competition for our business, something the anti-net-neutrality forces never seem to remember.

On one other key point, Frey and I agree entirely, even if we’d undoubtedly get there by different routes: the best fix to this situation is competition. There is a small amount of competition now, but the overall American “broadband” marketplace is a parody of genuine capitalism.

The dominant ISPs got where they are because the marketplace was rigged in their favor. They built “their” networks on the backs of government-granted monopolies in the first place. Then they leveraged their built-in advantages–including cozy deals with various governments–to create a cartel that will be immensely difficult to dislodge, though we should keep trying.

Here’s how we could have genuine competition, or move closer to it:

  • Require monopoly/oligopoly businesses created through special favors to then make their facilities–lines, towers, etc.–available to competitors until such time as there’s actual competition for what they do;
  • Require communities to make their rights of way accessible to all competitors, which would help create the conditions for competition, though it wouldn’t undo the unfair advantages the cartel already possesses as a result of its monopoly days;
  • Forbid state governments from preventing municipalities from installing publicly owned broadband networks (the carriers have “persuaded” lots of state governments to enact competition-killing rules of this kind, and the FCC’s latest rules wisely pre-empt such laws);
  • Free up vastly more unregulated spectrum–ideally created from the airwaves we unconscionably gave to the national and local broadcasters–letting competition emerge there the way it did in wi-fi;
  • Promote, in that spectrum, the promising area of “smart radios,” recognizing that there is a spectrum “shortage” caused by “interference” largely because traditional radios have been so inefficient;
  • And make many other moves aimed at creating the conditions where genuine competition can emerge and thrive.

The chances that the telecoms and their owned-and-operated legislatures would allow actual competition are close to zero. If the opponents of net neutrality really believed in competition, they’d push for something like this. I’m not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, I’ll settle, with misgivings, for Title II. And, working with the enormous group of pro-net-neutrality folks who’ve demonstrated expertise and good will on this issue, I’ll do my best to see that it doesn’t boomerang on all of us. Fear-mongering, even if it’s well-intended, won’t help anyone.

(Note: I’ve updated this post with several small tweaks.)

The Guardian has decided as an institution to put climate change front and center in its journalism. Alan Rusbridger, who’s stepping down as the organization’s top editor this summer, put it this way in an editorial:

So, in the time left to me as editor, I thought I would try to harness the Guardian’s best resources to describe what is happening and what – if we do nothing – is almost certain to occur, a future that one distinguished scientist has termed as “incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community”.

This is what journalism needs to be, and what it needs to do: Stand for something and then put all available resources behind making it happen. This couldn’t be further from the false neutrality of so much modern “journalism.” Nor could it be more important to make a more common practice.

In my last book, Mediactive, I made a list of what I thought news organizations should do in this digital age when the competition for people’s attention has never been greater. One of those recommendations went this way:

The more we believed an issue was of importance to our community, the more relentlessly we’d stay on top of it ourselves. If we concluded that continuing down a current policy path was a danger, we’d actively campaign to persuade people to change course. This would have meant, for example, loud and persistent warnings about the danger of the blatantly obvious housing/financial bubble that inflated during the past decade.

What the Guardian is doing about climate change strikes me as a perfect–maybe the perfect–example of why campaigning should be an essential part of the craft. It’s long overdue for other news organizations to pay attention, and get active, themselves.

One of contemporary journalism’s unique characters is gone. David Carr, a good and generous and talented soul, collapsed in the New York Times newsroom last night, and just like that, his days with us were over. His 58 years were an amazing saga, as the Times’ lovely–and loving–obituary makes clear.

The wider outpouring of sadness and respect encompasses most of the media world that Carr covered, and often skewered, with a rare combination of depth and wit. It is heart-felt, and entirely deserved.

But one of the adjectives that some are using to describe him–“fearless”–feels wrong to me. He was better than that. He was brave.

And, as he knew better than anyone, he was lucky.

I didn’t know Carr well. We only met a few times, and our conversations were brief. But we had a few things in common, especially having been columnists who both championed and slammed the industries we followed.

A decade ago I ended a 10-year run as a business and technology columnist for Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News. No one ever compared it to the New York Times, but in its heyday during the late 1990s, when it essentially printed money along with the news and boasted an enormous and talented staff, the Merc carried significant weight in the tech community inside and outside of the valley.

I loved tech and its possibilities, and admired many of the people who were creating these remarkable new tools of computing, communications, and collaboration. But I declined to be a cheerleader–and regularly pointed out the industry’s manifest foibles, or worse. I had editors, publishers and corporate bosses who got regular calls from industry executives complaining about me, but they stood by me when it counted.

At one point a publication, which is no longer in print, called me fearless. It was laughable. I was anything but fearless. I don’t even think I was especially brave. I was lucky, and grateful. The stars aligned to give me a platform from which I could speak my mind, backed by colleagues I miss to this day.

No one with an ounce of humility or genuine self-awareness could call himself or herself fearless, because the only people who truly are without fear are sociopaths. We all battle our insecurities, of which journalists have more than most.

David Carr came back from personal depths that would have destroyed most people, including drug addiction and cancer. With his own willpower and the help of others, he demonstrated enormous bravery.

In 2008, he published a stunning memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” a work of raw honesty. At the end of the book he wrote the lines that everyone is quoting today:

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

Rest in peace.

rfp killed

I’m a new contributor to Medium’s Backchannel technology publication. In my first post, I ask journalists to ditch any semblance of “objectivity” — a word I consider in the same category as a unicorn, i.e. mythological — when it comes to freedom of expression and the right to publish. On some issues, even trying to be neutral is a trap, and for journalists this is one of them.

Excerpt:

For journalists, there should be no objectivity, no neutrality, about freedom of expression and other key liberties that are at the foundation of self-rule. There should be an open bias toward openness and freedom—and news people who don’t use their reports to push those values are not fit to call themselves journalists.

Powerful governments and corporations are leading the attack against these core values, usually in the guise of protecting us or giving us more convenience. But these powerful entities are also creating a host of choke points. And the result is a locking down of computing and communications: a system of control by others over what we say and do online — a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise.

Here’s the full post.

Journalism watcher and professor Jay Rosen’s “How to be literate in what’s changing journalism” is a solid list of things tomorrow’s journalists will need to understand, and in many cases adopt. As he wisely does in his PressThink posts, Jay asks at the end what he’s missing.

From my perspective, there’s one more major element that every journalist, today and tomorrow, truly needs to grasp and deal with: who’s in control.

The answer, increasingly: Not us.

I’ve written many times in recent years about the dangers we face as a society as centralized entities, primarily governments and corporations, are taking control of the Internet away from those of us who use technology from the edges of the network of networks. The promise of the Net, and of the personal devices that emerged starting with the PC, was a radically decentralized system of computing and communications. Conversations and innovation, in that system, started and thrived at the networks’ edges, not in the center.

Some vital functions are being recentralized, through technological developments and political fiat. Governments that feel threatened by technology increasingly use our devices and systems to spy on us, and much worse.

In many cases, governments act (read: are paid) to protect legacy industries that loathe the liberty that technology can spark. Industries like Hollywood push harder and harder for laws giving them the authority to determine what innovations will emerge, especially if these breakthroughs threaten legacy business models that no longer make sense in a networked arena.

Meanwhile, corporate centralization is burning through the ecosystem. Facebook and Google, in particular, have taken control of wide swaths of the Internet’s key functions. Facebook is becoming what amounts to an alternative Internet — literally so in some countries where mobile dominates — and its growing power over content, along with Google’s search dominance, should worry everyone. (Jay alludes to this in his first point, I should note.)

That centralization may pale next to what telecommunications carriers are attempting: control over how information moves in and across our networks. In the U.S. wired-Internet market, local duopolies of cable and phone companies — the cable companies are effectively monopolies when it comes to actual broadband, not the pathetic imitation that phone-line DSL service provides — are insisting on the right to decide what bits of information get delivered to our devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get delivered at all. Mobile service is completely deregulated on this score. Federal regulators, claiming the opposite, give the carriers more and more power, and the FCC’s pathetic mutterings about restricting carrier dominance tell us network neutrality is on its last legs.

All of the above trends are relevant to journalism. Which is why journalists need to understand at least these key points (among many others in this context):

  1. Carrier dominance is the ultimate in media consolidation. If they get away with their power play, they will determine almost everyone’s future in the media world. They will decide which content, and to some degree which innovation, lives or dies.
  2. Facebook and Google — with Twitter looming on the horizon — are not just incredibly powerful and ubiquitous platforms. They are competitors for advertising, eyeballs and time. Journalists who use Facebook to promote their material — or, with supreme stupidity, as a host for their material — are also feeding a beast that intends to consume them.
  3. Government surveillance and censorship are acts of control that threaten all serious journalism.
  4. The Copyright Cartel’s efforts to restrict deployment of technology that threatens traditional business models is a threat to all innovation of the future.

Again, Jay is entirely right to push journalists to understand the items he mentions. It’s a great list. I hope he’ll add “who’s in control” as another.

Last weekend, like a lot of other people, I watched from afar as the Hong Kong protests took over the city’s Central district. I spotted a tweet showing a photo of hundreds of people holding their hands in the air, and I immediately recalled the prior (and ongoing) protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where people had held their hands up as well.

Here’s what I put on Twitter:

Hong Kong protests tweet

I quickly got some Twitter replies from people who were enraged that I was — if I correctly understood their “logic” — taking the side of hoodlums against always-right law enforcement. I ignored them.

Then, however, I got some pushback from people who said I was completely wrong — in one person’s words, I was an “idiot” — in what I was suggesting.

Looking back, there was indeed a problem with what I posted: the word “emulating” in my original tweet. It was a careless word, and didn’t exactly reflect what I was thinking: a deep admiration for what the Hong Kong protesters were doing, and how the “hands up” gesture was the same as demonstrators in Ferguson (whom I also admire) had used. But even though I wasn’t certain it was a conscious channeling of the Ferguson protests, my tweet did connect the two situations, and it did strongly suggest the Hong Kong demonstrators had chosen to use common body language.

How could I possibly know that? A journalist at the Guardian asked, and I couldn’t disagree when he said I was creating an unproved connection.

I retweeted several news articles that asked this question and came up with inconclusive answers — and no compelling evidence that the Ferguson protests had been a major spark in Hong Kong.

So I considered removing the original tweet and replacing it with something much less declarative — something along the lines of “Amazing image, and wondering if there’s a connection to the Ferguson protests” or words to that effect — or posting a new tweet retroactively modifying the first one.

Too late. Hundreds of people had retweeted my tweet within hours.

twhk2

Meanwhile, U.S. news organizations started using this notion as a mini-meme. Some of the coverage strongly suggested there was a connection; other coverage made it clear that this wasn’t known for sure.

I got in touch with a friend in Hong Kong and asked him. His reply:

I’d argue that the similarity in gesture with Ferguson is entirely coincidental.

Ferguson was simply not covered much here in Hong Kong, not in msm [mainstream media] and not in social media.

I don’t take it for granted that my Hong Kong friend was right. But I did trust his judgment. Which is the reason for this post: to express regret at my careless language — an unconscious reflection of my inevitably western view of the world — and hope the probably incorrect meme, which I helped push along, won’t be the one that survives.

I say this especially because of my admiration for the people of Hong Kong, where I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years. They are trying to save a (somewhat) democratic system of government, and preserve the relative freedom Hong Kong has enjoyed for many years. They know it is part of China now, but they also hoped the Beijing government would honor its “one country, two systems” pledge longer than it seems to be doing. What they are doing in the streets of their amazing city is profoundly important. It is history in the making, and they are making it for themselves.

I showed a draft of this post to my ASU Online digital media literacy students this week before putting it up here. I’ve spent a lot of time in the course telling them about the dangers of high-velocity information, and here I’d gone and done what I told them they should avoid. Their comments were useful, and I wanted to quote one in particular. In a media environment like the one we have now, the student advised us all, as media creators, to ask before we post:

Will someone who just glances at this understand my intent?

Not always, of course, no matter how hard we try. But I plan to keep this question in the back of my mind from now on.

In the Atlantic, I look at Twitter’s entirely reasonable decision to remove the James Foley snuff videos — a decision not to allow murderers to use the service for their PR. But, like others who’ve sounded off on this in recent days, I have major misgivings.

My deepest misgivings are less about Twitter’s (and Google’s and Facebook’s, etc.) right to be editing what’s posted. They’re about the power these services are accruing over online content.

Excerpt from the Atlantic piece:

Who gave them this power? We did. And if we don’t take back what we’ve given away—and what’s being taken away—we’ll deserve what we get: a concentration of media power that will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of free expression.

Let’s wake up, and re-decentralize the Internet, before it’s too late.

For more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks and America’s sometimes criminal response — torture, perpetual imprisonment, kidnapping, pervasive surveillance and more — the New York Times and almost all other American news organizations demonstrated journalistic cowardice on an epic level. Most served as cheerleaders for a war that was launched under false pretenses. Some withheld news of surpassing importance.

And, almost universally, they refused to call torture what it is, substituting language like “harsh interrogation methods” for this evil and flatly illegal practice.

The New York Times has decided, at long last, to tell the truth about torture, at least in future news columns. (Its editorial page has, for some time now, been calling torture what it is, for which it deserves kudos.)

But in explaining this move, the Times’ editor, Dean Baquet, only compounds the damage, by holding to the fiction that there was any remote justification for the paper’s years of craven kowtowing to White House and other (mostly) right-wing bullying. Baquet wrote:

While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.

The “dispute” was a concoction. It was a deliberate propaganda ploy by a government that relentlessly lied about its methods and motives.

Our news media bowed to the Bush administration’s Orwellian insistence that the United States wasn’t torturing people, even though this was one of the most wanton lies. America had even convicted others of war crimes for some of these same acts, but that went down the memory hole.

Cowardice alone doesn’t explain the news media’s continuing failure on torture. Washington journalists’ penchant for stenography over actual journalism — and the lazy, pernicious “report both sides of the issue” (even when one is lying) methodology of modern political and business reporting — has been part of the problem. What Jay Rosen and others have called the “view from nowhere” has given us “journalism” instead of the real thing, and I’m sad to say it’s still the rule rather than the exception among people who continue to choose access over honor.

The New York Times is doing the right thing by deciding to tell the truth in the future. But, sadly, Baquet’s explanation is no less craven than what his colleagues have been doing for years.

He, and the Times, would earn a lot more respect if they did something simple, right now: Apologize.