Archive for activism

Want to read my writing? Check People’s Production House

In order to simplify my life and give the company that pays me the full value of my work and energy, I will now be posting to my blog on the People’s Production House website. RSS feed coming soon.

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Two Steps Forward to an Open Internet

Note: This is my contribution to “Open Internet Week” on the Free Press Action Network. Anyone can join in and start posting on the site, so please do.

This is an auspicious week for champions of an open Internet in the United States. On Tuesday, Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chip Pickering (R-MS) introduced the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008” (HR 5353). And on Friday, Media Alliance and a strong cohort of Bay Area organizations are hosting the Oakland Digital Inclusion Summit (ODIS).

If you’re in the Bay Area and you care about the open Internet, you should absolutely come to Laney College on Friday for this summit. The event starts at 10:00am, goes to 6:00, and is free.

Sadly, for these steps forward, the Senate has taken a step back this week by passing a version of the federal eavesdropping bill that grants immunity to the telcos that broke the law to participate in the Bush administration’s illegal domestic spying. The House can still stand tall in conference committee, but time is running out.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act would require the FCC to ensure net neutrality on the Internet. If I could take a pen to it, I would revise section 3(4) of the bill, which proscribes favoritism “based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet” to include type of content. But I think that’s covered in other sections and overall it’s a wonderful and principled piece of legislation.

The bill mandates that the FCC hold at least 8 summits across the country over the course of the year to gather public input on Internet policy. The measure even specifies a 30-day advance notice for the summits so the commission can’t cheat its way around the public engagement.

As I said, the people of Oakland are not waiting for the FCC to come to them. And in contrast to an FCC hearing where the public submits testimony before the dais, tomorrow’s Oakland Summit includes a variety of formats to strengthen horizontal networks among the many local community-based digital inclusion efforts.

There are many measures that I hope will have their day in Congress in 2008. The Community Broadband Act would preempt state bans on government-funded, publicly-accessible broadband infrastructure. The Broadband Census Act, also from Rep. Markey, would greatly improve the federal government’s collection of data on Internet access (though Markey traded a specific 2 Mbps measure of broadband that was in the original draft in exchange for industry and bipartisan support, giving basic DSL service a reprieve).

I’m looking forward to 2009, when we might see the return of vital federal programs like the funding for Community Technology Centers (which Bush cut in 2002) and the Technology Opportunity Program (which Bush ended in 2004).

The potential downside to federal funding is that it could all wind up in the coffers of a single, dubious nonprofit like One Economy or Connect Kentucky that work in tandem with telco incumbents. To counter that, we need to educate lawmakers about the healthy variety of existing solutions, make the government grant process more accessible, and increase the capacity of community-based organizations to respond to requests for proposals (RFPs).

In using the “digital inclusion” framework, we are saying that we need to address the digital divide at the levels of Internet access or deployment, hardware provision, training and education, content production, and advocacy and organizing. And we are quick to demand that municipal broadband efforts facilitate or fund all of these areas. But our smaller organizations are only capable of one or two pieces of this work. And when we do collaborate, the tendency is to work within our specific discipline where we share a constituency, a culture, and funders.

We should be collaborating and interconnecting across disciplines, combining the best our community has to offer so we can offer a coherent, full-spectrum solution built on principles of efficiency, localism, and openness. We need to make the case that our locally-specific, community-based approaches are more effective than a top-down, industry-driven, cookie cutter solution.

Gatherings like the Oakland Summit are an important step towards making this happen. Such collaborations are the key to fulfilling the promises spelled out in the Internet Freedom Preservation Act and to laying the groundwork for more positive Internet policies in the coming years.

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Informational Self-Determination and my article on One Web Day

I’ve just published an article on One Web Day on GothamGazette.com.

One thing I learned in reporting the article was that there is a growing movement for informational self-determination in Germany:

Probably the largest 2007 One Web Day event was in Berlin, where a reported 15,000 people marched to protest proposed government data retention policies. The new measures would shift Germany from being country with a constitutional right to “informational self-determination” to one with extremely aggressive surveillance measures, giving the government access to all communication and travel records, people’s biometric data and personal computers, even in the absence of a crime.

The policies are very broad, endangering doctors and journalists specifically, as well as the average German citizen. According to one of the few English language reports on the event, protesters chanted, “We are all 129a,” referring to the expansive “Anti-Terror Paragraph” of the German Criminal Code. People held banners saying “Freiheit statt Angst” (“liberty instead of fear”) and wore t-shirts with the face of Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister pushing the measures, over the phrase “Stasi 2.0,” a reference to the old East German secret police.

One American observer described the German reaction to this kind of government overreaching as visceral. The protests against the measures, organized by the Working Group on Data Retention, have grown from just a couple of hundred at the first rallies a year and a half ago.

The proposed German laws, while atrocious, would only approach the measures the FBI and phone companies have taken in the US in contravention of the law.

As reported on the Wired “Threat Level” Blog and the New York Times, the phone companies receive funding from the federal government to collect, store, and analyze data on their customers, even sorting them into “communities of interest” profiles. It would be illegal for the government to collect this information in the absence of a subpoena, but the FBI argues that it is fine for private companies to do it in anticipation of a subpoena.

Think about that slippery slope for a second.

The companies can then feed data on who the government wants information on back into the system, pro-actively mapping the social networks of anyone the government has put under suspicion.

Worse, those companies have been providing all of this data not just in response to legitimate subpoenas, but even to letters falsely claiming that subpoenas are on the way. So the FBI tags people as guilty – or even guilty by association – in the phone companies’ government-funded databases without any oversight, with minimal discretion, and no process for appeal.

The article on One Web Day concludes:

So, can we expect to see a 15,000-person protest march in New York City next year like the one in Berlin? [One Web Day founder Susan] Crawford says maybe: “We’ll see things like that in the U.S. when we wake up.”

More on the EU data retention regulations from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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People’s Production House in New Orleans

This is an opportunity for you to support some very important work.

People’s Production House spent much of the last two weeks in Biloxi and New Orleans, working with grantees of the Ms. Foundation in the Gulf Coast. My colleagues (I was holding down the fort in NYC) worked with local residents to produce radio segments about their lives and the ongoing process of recovery, leaving them with production equipment, new skill-sets, and customized how-to materials.

It looked a little something like this…


… but I assume it sounded a bit different in the doing. That video was shot and edited by renown movement videographer Jacquie Soohen, over the course of a single day at Renaissance Village. Thanks, Jacquie!

Renaissance Village is the largest FEMA trailer park in the country with over 500 families (built by The Shaw Group, a large Louisiana firm cozy with Bush, on a no-bid contract after Katrina). The residents are understandably distrustful of outsiders, especially journalists. But there is an amazing youth center there and Abdulai Bah and Deepa Fernandes from People’s Production House have, over time, been welcomed into the park’s community as allies.

We have the ability to expand on this partnership and make some more great radio, but we need to raise a bit of money to make it happen.

The next step would be to build a direct relationship between the peer trainers of Radio Rootz (People’s Production House’s youth program) with the youth of the Teen Learning Center. Learning from people their own age is the best way to cement the Renaissance Village youth’s skills and desire for media making. And it would certainly expand the Rootz trainers’ abilities. (Rootz peer trainers are New York City high school students or recent graduates who have spent at least a year in the Rootz program.)

If you would like to support this effort, please consider making a donation of $50 or $100 through our secure online donation page.

Thank you!

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Media reform movement goes on the offensive

With a series of bills recently introduced in Congress, the media reform movement’s DC wing has finally gone on the offensive. The Community Broadband Act, the Broadband Data Improvement Act, and the Local Community Radio Act would break down significant barriers to expanding community media throughout the country.

“Up to this point with a GOP Congress, it’s been all about blocking the bad stuff,” Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott said.

A list of their campaigns bears that out, imploring people to Save The Internet, Stop Postal Rate Hikes, Rescue Internet Radio and Protect Public Media. Now, after four years of damage control, Free Press and its allies are starting to push for an expansion of local media and for new tools to hold media corporations accountable.

The Community Broadband Act, sponsored by Representatives Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Fred Upton (R-MI), would authorize municipalities to build their own broadband networks. It would override bans of such projects on the books in 14 states. The League of Cities and other local advocates have pushed for the federal law to return their authority and flexibility to address local gaps in broadband deployment.

Pushing for proactive changes opens the way for a fundamentally different relationship between lobbyists in DC and community activists. The process of blocking bad legislation in Congress or flawed FCC regulations has put the DC groups at the helm with grassroots organizations helping with education and mobilization. We are beginning to see a more balanced partnership, with the legislative wonks responding to needs that communities have defined for themselves – removing legislative barriers and increasing access to helpful information.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act, sponsored by Daniel Inouye (D-HI) in the Senate and Ed Markey (D-MA) in the House, would correct serious flaws in the way the federal government measures broadband Internet availability and usage, making it easier for consumers to hold providers accountable. The FCC currently counts as broadband any connection of 200 kbps, which is closer to dial-up speeds than today’s standard connections over DSL or cable. It also counts an entire zip code as having broadband access as long as a single individual in that zip code has it.

The Digital Expansion Initiative, my program at People’s Production House, is partnering with the NYU Department of Environmental Medicine to conduct a citywide phone survey to get decent data on of Internet usage in New York City. These statistics will not give a perfect picture, which is why we are also partnering with community organizations to interview people who have limited access to the Internet. But the survey is a critical piece of the project, since we cannot interview everyone and we need to have a sense of how our interviewees’ experiences are. The Broadband Data Improvement Act would give everyone access to meaningful data on Internet usage, making it easier to identify which communities should be engaged in processes to expand participation in the online world.

If the improved data collection reveals inequities in Internet access, the Community Broadband Act will be key to addressing them. Action by municipal governments has become a key tactic for promoting high speed Internet usage where private companies do not offer the service or offer it at a prohibitively high price.

This trend of proactive legislation will continue into the fall. The bipartisan Local Community Radio Act of 2007 could double or even triple the number of low power FM stations on the dial, according to Prometheus Radio Project, which helps build LPFM stations and is advocating for the legislation. It would also permit new stations in major urban areas – everywhere except New York, LA, and Chicago.

“Those who believe that policy change starts from the grassroots believe that a victory of this magnitude is more than just a media reform milestone, but a chance to build real, lasting institutions that will help people,” Prometheus’s Hannah Sassaman said. “Those people will lead the media policy fights of the future.”

The bill corrects a shortcoming in the law from 2000 that originally created the LPFM license category. In response to pressure from National Public Radio and industry lobbyists, who claimed the new stations would cause interference, Congress limited the new licenses to sparsely populated areas with equally sparse radio dials. Congress initiated a study that disproved the industry claims, but never followed up – until Prometheus and its allies in DC began a push to change the law.

New community media outlets, in turn, will make it easier to hold the line if the tide turns back in favor of incumbent corporations. The people who benefit from these new laws will be able to come to DC in the future to push for further positive reforms.

“Damn straight,” says Sassaman. “Community activists have proven that they are hotshot lobbyists.”

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These are difficult conversations.

The conversations about broadband access are difficult conversations. They can bring up strong responses once you get to the questions about why there is such a disparity. The thread leads so immediately into discussions of race and education and health and “economic well-being.”

Those conversations can overwhelm people for that reason. On the other hand, you can tug on the thread gently.

I don’t think I’ve done anything more than allude to this in earlier posts: we’re doing a survey. The NYU Department of Environmental Medicine, Einstein Medical College, and People’s Production House are conducting a citywide phone survey. The survey is part of the New York City Neighborhood Health Study, which is a study of trauma and general health as characterized by the built environment, social support networks, and access to care and information. The survey includes a series of questions about Internet and computer usage.

We will be able to merge that data with census tract information and with answers to our own questions about personal and community health. It will yield the most detailed data of Internet usage among the current published research.

That ultimately means it’s going to shine a harsh light on the economic disparities in our city. What kind of variation will we see across racial lines and also within racial groups? How big is the disparity between intensive users and people who do not use the Internet directly at all?

Through the Digital Expansion Initiative, a research project at People’s Production House, we’ll be asking these questions and others. Along with a number of researchers from local organizations, we will be conducting follow-up work to test our analysis of the data.

According to the current research, broadband access often helps and never hurts. No matter who you are, you have a hard time dismissing the apparently uneven distribution of those benefits.

If you’re on the low side of those benefits, you’re not surprised because you’ve seen it before. Others will be shocked like they were shocked after Katrina because they saw those divisions so clearly, so compressed and undeniable. The same divisions we saw then define our Internet landscape.

It’s not water. You can’t drink Internet and of course there’s a difference there. But increasingly, if you want to drink, the Internet is the source of information about where you can do that. Most of the New York City Office of Emergency Management’s public outreach is in the form of advertisements for their website.

They even had one ad that said something like, “In case of blackout, check oem.nyc… just not in that order.” Yeah, because you wouldn’t want to have to survive a catastrophe without having surfed your laptop over to the government’s website giving you everything you need to know about it. Just as in New Orleans, the plan is to leave some people behind.

Here’s a critical point about the statistical data, though: information is not enough. There’s already plenty of it out there. No one should expect one more indicator of poverty is going to tip the scales. For this, it is so important to engage people in conversation. That is where the transformation happens.

We should discuss inequities in broadband access as you might discuss a recent trauma. You start from Internet access and work delicately and directly outward to all of the contributing and determining factors. If done right, that’s basically the way the Digital Expansion Initiative should work.

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NYC Broadband Advisory Committee Brooklyn public hearing

NEW YORK CITY BROADBAND ADVISORY COMMITTEE
PUBLIC HEARING

The New York City Broadband* Advisory Committee is gathering public testimony on the state of Internet access in New York City and is seeking suggestions for improvements.

Broadband Advisory Public Hearing
Tuesday, May 22nd
Noon to 3 pm
in the Courtroom hearing room in the Brooklyn Borough Hall
209 Joralemon Street in downtown Brooklyn

(*Broadband means fast Internet, though how fast is up for debate.)

For updates from People’s Production House and recordings of previous hearings, visit www.digitalexpansion.net.

It is especially important for people and organizations that aren’t connected to the Internet to attend this hearing. The Committee will be recommending solutions for extending Internet access throughout the five boroughs. If they only hear from business leaders or laptop-toting hipsters, then that is who their solution will serve. But if you engage this process now, you have an opportunity to shape how we will communicate across our city for the next 100 years. The Committee and the city need to know that you are paying attention to this process and care about its outcome.

People’s Production House is working to ensure that all New Yorkers get heard as these critical decisions are being made. We encourage you to attend this hearing and to share what you know about how the Internet works or doesn’t work for you and your community.

Please contact us if you have any questions or if we can help in any way. We’d be happy to talk to you or your members in person, over the phone, or through email to explain more about the process, and help you envision New York’s Internet future.

More details…

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