Patrick Frey, aka Patterico, and I appear to agree on several things when it comes to government’s role, if any, in assuring freedom of speech by promoting an open Internet. This is progress.

(If you’re spending your valuable time following any of this, here’s his first attack post; then my reply; and now his further response.)

We agree there is currently no genuinely free market in providing Internet access. We agree that it would be great if a free market did exist, and support various measures that would help get us there. And we agree that government, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission, has behaved badly in the past. There’s more, but those are the highlights.

We continue to disagree, firmly, on whether government can play a positive role in helping to ensure free speech on the Internet. Frey is convinced that the FCC’s recent net-neutrality decision is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, and that’s that, it seems. In his view, I’m naive to believe it could possibly be different.

Read the hard-core libertarian language in his post to understand where he’s coming from. He loathes government in just about every way. Consent of the governed, he says, is meaningless in modern America (bold lettering in the original):

Fuck this notion that we are the government and the government is us. That is total bullshit. We are the ruled. Period. End of story.

So what is the way forward for Frey? Naturally, the free market, full stop[1. I like a lot of what libertarians say, but their  free-market philosophy seems to go something like this: There’s really no such thing as a monopoly. Even if there is, the market will cure it. Even if the monopoly is so entrenched that the market takes decades to respond, that’s not our problem. Even if the market never responds, we’re all dead in the long run.] Not that we have one or, given the political system he believes we have, any possibility of one. And I’m naive.

Frey would have you believe that our conversation boils down to this basic–though profound–disagreement:

[Gillmor] trusts government. I (Frey) don’t. He thinks government will “forbear” from exercising powers that it can get away with exercising. I don’t. He thinks government getting its mitts on a part of the Internet will improve our lives. I don’t.

Anyone who’s read even a tiny amount of what I’ve written for, oh, the past 20 years or so is surely aware that I do not trust government as a general rule. I don’t trust Big Government, Big Business, Big Anything. I do leave open the possibility that they can (and sometimes do) get it right. This isn’t because they tend to do things based on good will, though sometimes they do. It’s more often because countervailing forces, such as voters, courts, customers, etc., can apply enough pressure to get a better outcome.

We may well need those countervailing forces–checks and balances–in a Title II future, because no one in this debate, least of all me, thinks the FCC’s action was the perfect solution. Its net neutrality ruling was distinctly less bad than the alternative it was floating earlier: handing control over the Internet’s key on-ramps to the rapacious telecommunications cartel that has demonstrated its unfitness to have such control.

We were heading toward control of speech by a cartel of rapacious companies that had zero First Amendment obligations. Frey says we’re heading toward control of speech by a cartel of bureaucrats. Because, you see, since the FCC did it with broadcast, they’ll do it with the Internet.

Government, unlike business, actually does have some First Amendment obligations. And the Internet could hardly be more different than the broadcast system that the FCC did regulate poorly in the bad old days. 

The Supreme Court has weighed in, firmly, on the issue of whether the Internet is like broadcast, which was heavily regulated on the (increasingly specious) principle that the airwaves were scarce. Not even close, the court said in a key 1990s ruling about the “Communications Decency Act, which the court mostly tossed out as violating the First Amendment. (I appreciate the reminder of the CDA ruling from Seth Finkelstein, a longtime correspondent, and critic, who has persuaded me I was mistaken on more than one issue over the years.) Key language:

[U]nlike the conditions that prevailed when Congress first authorized regulation of the broadcast spectrum, the Internet can hardly be considered a “scarce” expressive commodity. It provides relatively unlimited, low cost capacity for communication of all kinds. The Government estimates that “[a]s many as 40 million people use the Internet today, and that figure is expected to grow to 200 million by 1999.” This dynamic, multifaceted category of communication includes not only traditional print and news services, but also audio, video, and still images, as well as interactive, real time dialogue. Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. As the District Court found, “the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” 929 F. Supp., at 842 (finding 74). We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.

Maybe some future Supreme Court will totally abandon us, and decide that tight regulation of Internet speech is constitutional. If so, the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights, will have long since become just meaningless ideas. For now, I’ll give some trust to a system where we still have some checks and balances–and work hard to hold Big Government and Big Business accountable. If that makes me terminally naive, so be it.


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.

ubuntu imageAfter using Ubuntu 14.10 for several months, I’ve reverted to 14.04. On my ThinkPad T440s, I was having frequent system and/or application freezes, and some programs I regularly use were having other odd glitches.

The main reason I’d upgraded was to get support for the wifi card in the ThinkPad, for which there were no drivers in the kernel used by 14.04. So I’m back to using an external USB wifi radio for now. I gather that the updated kernel, with support for my wifi, will be included in the 14.04.2 update coming later this month.

Reverting cost me an afternoon of work, mainly tweaking, but was well worth the trouble in this case. Sometimes the latest isn’t the greatest.

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.


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.

(Note: This is adapted from a Thanksgiving Day editorial I wrote many years ago in the Detroit Free Press, and then adapted in my blog starting in the early part of the last decade. It changes each time I write it, to reflect current realities)

Today, we Americans celebrate our finest holiday, Thanksgiving. I’m overseas, in Hong Kong. I expect to join a couple of expatriates this evening. I will miss my family and friends at home.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time at the “Occupy Central” locations since I’ve been here, with growing admiration for the young people who have created and persisted with their Umbrella Movement. They want a Hong Kong that respects personal liberty and offers a genuinely representative government. The authorities are starting to evict them from their street encampments here on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon across the harbor.  It’s both an inspiring and sad sight.

Across the ocean people are in the streets to protest a corrupt system of justice that has produced the Ferguson case and so many others like it. A student at the University of Hong Kong, where I’ve been teaching for a few weeks, asked me to explain Ferguson after the grand jury reached its obviously pre-ordained decision and anger spilled over. I couldn’t. I still want to believe the best about my country.

The young people who’ve camped in the streets of Hong Kong’s Admiralty, Monkok and Causeway Bay, and the angry but overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson and other American cities, remind me of what a friend once said, many years ago:

We need more pilgrims, and fewer turkeys.

There are still plenty of pilgrims around. They refuse to accept the way things are. They reject pure grasping for money and control and status. They are outnumbered and outspent in the halls of power, but their day may return if the people ever recognize what is happening.

My material table overflows with bounty this Thanksgiving. Tonight I will raise a glass to family and far-away friends. I’ll salute the brave people worldwide who champion and fight for justice. I’m grateful beyond words for my life of comfort and relative safety in a deeply troubled world.

I’m grateful, too, for my opportunity to constantly explore and learn. I hope to sustain, as long as I live, a spiritual pilgrimage — for life, for justice.

And on Thanksgiving Day 2014, I wish the same for you.

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.

Occupy, but study

I’m visiting Hong Kong for a month (with a side trip to Shanghai toward the end of the trip). I find myself agog, again, at the pure energy of the place.

Over the weekend I got guided tours of the student protest encampments widely known as Occupy Central (it really should be called Occupy Admiralty and Mon Kok and Causeway Bay) with local journalists who’ve been covering the students since before this started. I find myself totally admiring these kids — but I wish they had a better sense of security in their communications. They’re using Facebook for the most part, which is basically an invitation to be surveilled.

Transcript of a voicemail message left for me today at Google Voice:

And I don’t know if you’re gonna get this message but both teams, and I feel more dot com address is, R pouncing, the bye for maybe a problem with a hold of me and just when I send you an email. I’ll try that. Now to you later that pounces as well.

Glad they keep the actual audio for playback…