Archive for media

Hardwiring Assumptions

If you haven’t watched the “HP computers are racist” video on YouTube yet, go ahead and do it now.

The video is funny, but it’s not an isolated incident. Maybe you saw this, too: “Racist Camera! No, I did not blink… I’m just Asian!

At People’s Production House, one of the things we talk about when teaching media literacy – and why we’re working to include lessons on hardware and infrastructure – is that telecommunications and digital media companies make assumptions about their customers when developing their technology. Our devices and networks are no more value neutral than any of our content.  The video and photo above are good lessons in what kinds of assumptions companies sometimes make and what the results can be.

For PPH, we’re looking specifically at the bundles of cell phone devices, software & applications, service, and plans (minute/texting/data packages). In that instance, the assumptions don’t determine minor features on your camera. They can shape how you communicate with your family and friends, even if sometimes it’s hard to see exactly how.

There’s another place we can look where this same phenomenon is also at play, even if it’s less apparent: search. If you base your search algorithm (or however it works) on existing links on the Internet, you are designing your search engine to work for the people who were early to the Internet. The same image comes to mind in this instance as for the HP webcam: a bunch of white guys in a lab saying, “It works for me.”

I remember women of color bloggers discussing the number of men who found their blogs through pornographic search queries and wound up leaving hateful comments. That should cause the same kind of “there’s something wrong here” moment that Wanda and Dezzie (sp?) had with the HP laptop and Joz had with her Nikon S630.

What’s really interesting is that the inclination is often to blame the technology. “Hewlet-Packard computers are racist” or “racist camera.” Yet I assume that in each of these instances, you could just as easily design the technology to bias in another direction – if you wanted to.

Ultimately, this explains why issues like handset exclusivity and other methods of unbundling are a civil rights issue. If you have to take the bundle as the company has made it and you can’t modify it, then you’re stuck with technology developed by a company for the company’s idea of who it wants its customers to be and what it wants them to do. If you have open standards, you can mix, match, and develop your own technology using the bits and pieces that work for you.

Certainly, not everyone has the necessary set of skills to do this, but at least the potential is there and the pool of people who can is much larger than in a walled garden or with closed, proprietary standards. Still, developers of open source technology are plenty capable of incorporating racist bias into the technology, too, so to get the best outcomes, we want more people to have these skills. True openness requires both transparency and participation.

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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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People’s Production House at the National Conference for Media Reform

People’s Production House is participating in several workshops at the National Conference for Media Reform, taking place in Minneapolis this week.   Our workshops include Shaping the Internet the Fun and Easy Way, Media Reform and Social Change, and When Media Is the Second Issue: Connecting with Social Justice Organizations. Thanks to Free Press for all its work on this important gathering.

The highlight for me is the premier of our Digital Expansion workshop, Shaping the Internet the Fun and Easy Way,” which will be held Friday, June 6th, at 3:30pm in room 208 A.  Have you always wanted to take on the Internet policy wonks, the  geeks, the paid consultants, the corporate lobbyists, and the  politicians, but felt like you lacked the know-how? This highly  interactive workshop is for you. As part of this workshop, we’ll be sharing clips from our new youth-produced video, “Inside the Internet.” I’m helping with this workshop, along with Donald Anthonyson, Alexis Walker, Brian Garrido, and Abdulai Bah, who coordinates the Community News Production Institute.

Check the People’s Production House website for more details on where to find PPH staff and volunteers at NCMR.

On  Saturday, June 7th, at 9:30am in Auditorium Spin 2, PPH
Co-Director Deepa Fernandes will be part of a panel discussion, Media Reform and Social Change with Amalia Anderson, Mark Lloyd, and Medea Benjamin. They will be discussing how critical media reform is for other social change movements.

Later that afternoon, Abdulai will join PPH Co-Director Kat Aaron to delve deeper into this topic with When Media Is the Second Issue: Connecting with Social Justice Organizations. They are joining Nick Szuberla from Appalshop, Karlos Gauna Schmieder from the Center for Media Justice, and Alondra Espejel from the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network to discuss strategies for connecting media reform with immigrant rights and other grassroots campaigns for social justice. Come with your own ideas to share in smaller breakout groups. That’s on Saturday, June 7th, at 4:30pm in room 205 C D.

Deepa and Abdulai will also be presenting at the Media Justice Fund breakfast at 9 am on Friday, June 6th, along with the Center for Rural Strategies and the Center for Media Justice. We’ll be talking about the full spectrum of our work to incorporate media  policy into our education and organizing with students and immigrants  in New York, Washington DC, and the Gulf Coast.

Recently, People’s Production House and the Center for Rural Strategies have begun discussing a shared rural-urban Internet policy agenda. This is crucial as we head into 2009, where Republicans and Democrats will try to divide us along these lines as they launch discussion on the Universal Service Fund, the spectrum dividend from
the digital transition, and the need for open handsets and open attachment standards on cellular phone networks. If you are interested in joining us as we continue this discussion at the NCMR, please send me an email.

In addition to these presenters, PPH Operations Manager Jacqueline Kook and DEI Video Team members Darnell Lubin, Kristian Roberts, and Helki Frantzen will also be there. You’ll find us all at the above sessions and at many of the other great workshops, panels, and social events. Please send us your recommendations. We look forward to
seeing you soon!

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FCRC rubber stamps Verizon franchise

The Franchise and Concession Review Commission voted unanimously today to approve the Verizon franchise agreement. In response, Common Cause/New York and People’s Production House released this statement.

People’s Production House will continue to educate the public and organize towards community control of communications technology. Common Cause/New York will continue promoting open government in New York.

Check out these past blog posts on the railroading of this deal:

And background on what fiber optics will mean for New Yorkers here:

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City Council members, PPH, and Common Cause call for delay in FCRC vote

As reported in Crain’s NY Business, consumer groups want franchise delay. After taking our concerns to the public hearing yesterday, we will join City Council members on the steps of City Hall today at 11:00am.

At the press conference, Councilmember Gale Brewer (chair of the Technology in Government Committee), Councilmember Tony Avella (chair of the Zoning and Franchise Committee), Susan Lerner from Common Cause/NY, Russ Haven from NYPIRG, Chuck Bell from Consumers Union, and I will call for a delay in the Franchise and Concession Review Committee vote on the proposed cable franchise for Verizon to permit greater public scrutiny.

A deal of this magnitude deserves more than a passing glance from the public and our elected officials. It will largely determine how we watch TV, make phone calls, and use the Internet in New York City for the next 20 years. The fine print tells you that this franchise is not designed to serve all New Yorkers equally. Verizon wants it rubber stamped before enough of us notice.

For my specific concerns with the deal, read my testimony here. The response from DoITT to these concerns were insufficient. For example, when Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer asked why the penalty for a missed appointment dropped from a month of free service to $25, the answer was that “competition” will ensure good customer service.

Even if that were true, the new, lesser consumer protections will soon be written into the new Time Warner and Cabelvision franchises and go into effect immediately citywide. Meanwhile, the “competition” from Verizon that is supposed to provide a new and improved protection will go into effect slowly and unevenly. Huge portions of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens will have no competition and weaker protections for the next 4-9 years. That’s just bad policy.

For other criticism of the hearing schedule, see Bruce Kushnick, “Is New York City and Verizon trying to slip one by you?” and Broadbandreports.com, “Interested In Pretending You Have Influence On Verizon/NYC Deal?

Although this might be getting ahead of myself, this whole situation shows that we need procedural reforms in the franchising process:

  • The public notice of hearings needs to be more extensive.
  • The proposed franchise agreement needs to be made available for public review.
  • There needs to be more time for public review.
  • We need a Cable Franchise Oversight Committee with direct community participation.

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Public Hearing on proposed Verizon cable TV franchise tomorrow

The City and Verizon have negotiated a deal that will have a greater impact on our television watching and Internet usage than any other action the City or a company will take in the next 20 years – and you have been shut out of the discussion. The 6-billion-dollar deal (see my earlier post for background) to build a fiber optic network throughout the entire city was negotiated behind closed doors.

As part of the franchise approval process, the Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) is required to hold a public hearing. That meeting will be held tomorrow, Tuesday, May 20, from 3-6pm at the New York City College of Technology, 285 Jay Street.

As far as I can tell, this is the first place this information has been posted online. This is another instance of a supposedly “public” meeting falling in the city where no one can hear it. Just because you don’t lock the doors doesn’t make the meeting public.

Section 371 of the City Charter prescribes for the publication of notice for a public hearing on a proposed franchise agreement, but the requirements are weak: publish in the City Record and a daily newspaper – nothing about the DoITT website, even though that’s where the City proudly proclaimed that it had reached a deal with Verizon. I don’t expect that many people can make it to downtown Brooklyn at 3pm on a workday regardless of how much notice they have, but by not properly publicizing the hearing the FCRC has cast the legitimacy of the entire process into doubt.

The FCRC has also scheduled a special public meeting for 11am next Tuesday, May 27 at 22 Reade Street, presumably to rubber stamp the franchise.

Section 371 also requires that notice of the public hearing indicate the place where copies of the proposed agreement may be obtained by all those interested. I don’t know how the public can be expected to comment on a document they cannot review. (Leaking to the press doesn’t count.) Since the proper city agencies have not done so, I am posting the proposed franchise to the Web for download here:

I’ll have my own summary and analysis of the franchise in the near term, but there’s very little to be happy about unless you live in Staten Island or want to wait 10-16 years for choice in cable TV or faster Internet speeds. I will also try to record tomorrow’s hearing.

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McKibbin Street and Wireless Philadelphia – breaking news from the distant and not so distant past

It’s only 1:00am, but so far “Young Artists Find Private Space, Without Privacy” is outpacing “Citywide Wi-Fi could be shut down” by 3 to 2 in terms of how often the article has been emailed to me. Suffice it to say, there are no surprises in either one.

The Metro article tries to be coy about One Community’s attempt to deal with EarthLink and Wireless Philadelphia and that the sticking point is the money EarthLink owes as part of the Street Light Use Agreement (as I detailed on March 25). I’ll write more about this soon. Feel free to email me or comment below with specific questions.

One more thing about the Metro article: It’s not accurate to call Wireless Philadelphia “the nonprofit set up to help low-income residents connect to the system,” since it was actually set up to own the system, then it found a new purpose in managing the system, then it abandoned that to help low-income residents connect to the system. So that’s why it’s there now, but that’s not why it was set up. Erasing that history obscures the organization’s responsibilities.

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A Public Forum on The Future of Philadelphia’s Wireless Internet Initiative

Media Mobilizing Project has just announced that they are holding a public forum on June 3 on the future of Wireless Philadelphia. The announcement is below.

This couldn’t come at a better time. Everyone is hungry to chart a new course, including EarthLink, as I laid out earlier this week. And MMP, which has been offering media trainings to many community and labor organizations in Philadelphia, is the right group to convene this discussion. See the list of sponsors at the bottom.

I’m particularly heartened to see Wireless Philadelphia listed. It’s a sign that Greg Goldman understands the need for public re-engagement and that he cannot make that happen on his own.

I encourage everyone in Philadelphia to attend this event. I expect it will be closely watched by everyone in the field of municipal broadband

The Future of Philadelphia’s Wireless Internet Initiative: A Public Forum

When: Tuesday, June 3, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Tuttleman Learning Center, Room 105,
Corner of 13th St. and Montgomery Ave. Temple University

Get connected!  Learn about the latest issues surrounding Philadelphia’s wireless Internet initiative during a June 3 public forum.

The Media Mobilizing Project and Temple University’s School of Communications and Theater are co-hosting a public forum, which will be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue about the future of Philly WiFi and the city’s promise to provide affordable broadband access to all residents.

Under Earthlink’s management, Philadelphia’s wireless network has faced both technical and customer service challenges, weakening public engagement. Now is a vital time to reignite the discussion about the wireless network as Earthlink officials have announced their intention to sell or transfer the 135-square mile network. With new ownership on the horizon, a renewed opportunity exists for Philadelphia’s WiFi initiative to serve as a national model for community media. The promise of a city where everyone has the potential to be connected, opens new doors for economic, social and political participation.

The forum will host a diverse panel of speakers, while including an open space for participants to speak about the future of the wireless Internet initiative. It will be held in 105 Tuttleman Learning Center, Temple University, at 6:30 p.m.

The time is now. While so much opportunity exists with the WiFi network, it is essential for Philadelphians to have a space to share their ideas about making digital inclusion a reality across the city. By participating in this forum, local residents can help shape the future of the network and ensure that all Philadelphians, regardless of their income or education levels, have access to affordable, high-speed Internet.

The event is co-sponsored by: Wireless Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Student Union, Casino Free Philadelphia, Juntos, Philadelphia FIGHT/Critical Path Project, Geoclan,  Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Unemployment Project, Prometheus Radio Project and Media and Democracy Coalition.

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EarthLink, enemy of broadband, seeks Philadelphia deal this quarter

EarthLink’s dump of its municipal wireless business is almost complete. It walked away from Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia, in April; handed its Milipitas and Corpus Christi systems over to the municipalities; and is set to shut down wireless service to New Orleans on May 18. That leaves just Anaheim and Philadelphia.

Tourist-rich Anaheim is an anomaly. EarthLink’s one-page contract with the city can’t be much of a burden. But there is most certainly a resolution in the works for Philadelphia.

As I argued in a previous post, I believe the best option for Philadelphia is for EarthLink to pass the system to a nonprofit organization with network management experience. EarthLink was not able to find an interested buyer for its New Orleans system, so there’s still no reason to think that is an option for Philly. But I don’t think anyone in Philadelphia, even in the Nutter administration, wants to see the system simply dismantled. So I believe nonprofit intervention is also the most likely scenario. I believe it will happen this quarter, in time for the MuniWireless conference in Philadelphia.

EarthLink is highly motivated. The walk-aways, shut-offs, and give-backs with the cities listed above all happened in this quarter. EarthLink wants to close out Philadelphia this quarter, too. Losses from these soured deals will be offset by $50.8 million of incomeEarthLink received in April from the sale of its share of Covad to Platinum Equity.

As it dumps its municipal wireless business, EarthLink has found that its strongest profits are to be found not in broadband service but in dial-up. The dial-up customers, while declining, are relatively stable and highly profitable, while new customers are expensive to acquire and quick to exit. This strategy has allowed the company to cut the cost of marketing for new customers. EarthLink has also laid off more than half its work force, outsourcing all of its tech support, which probably has helped it get rid of costly customers.

This streamlining yielded first quarter profits of $57.8 million, a huge turnaround from the $30 million it lost in the last quarter of 2008.

EarthLink now sees potential profits in our stagnant digital divide. CEO Rolla Huff has his eye on the remaining 8.5 million subscribers to AOL dial-up service, which Time Warner has said it wants to slough off, as well as United Online, which owns Juno and NetZero, and Microsoft’s MSN subscribers. EarthLink is the second largest dial-up service provider with 2.6 million customers. Huff estimates the total number of commercial dial-up subscribers to be 15 million to 18 million. Consolidating all of those customers would generate a lot of cash.

EarthLink still has the same problem that motivated it to dive headlong into wireless deployments, as I explained in The Philadelphia Story: without its own infrastructure, its DSL days are numbered. But now, instead of pushing forward to build new infrastructure, it is retreating to the old phone lines that are still protected by common carriage.

In other words, EarthLink, once the harbinger of digital inclusion, is becoming the enemy of broadband.

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Verizon FiOS proposes citywide buildout

Yesterday, Verizon proposed to build a fiber optic network covering all of New York City. The proposal comes just one day after the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) published notification of the RFP for cable television providers, which is how you know DoITT’s RFP (request for proposals) and Verizon’s proposal were worked out in tandem over months of closed-door negotiations.

Verizon is offering to finish the installation by midyear 2014, provide a public safety INET (institutional network), pay franchise fees equivalent to five percent of gross revenues on cable TV service, channels for public access. As the precise details emerge and once I’ve had a chance to read the RFP, I’ll give you my assessment on the fine points, but that doesn’t sound like enough off the bat given the scope of the deal.

A hearing from the Franchise and Concession Review Committee is forthcoming. I will keep you posted on that. You should plan to attend.

For background and a discussion of the issues at stake, see the article I just published with Gotham Gazette: Fiber Optics: Bringing the Next Big Thing to New York

This is another example of a phenomenon you may have heard or read me describe before: The general policy and market rules of media simply do not apply to New York City. Other cities are having trouble attracting or holding onto a $20 million investment for a wireless network while New York has a company proposing to invest $5 billion over 6 years to build a fiber optic network and become the second (third or fourth if you count satellite) entrant to the video service. Keep in mind that the incumbents are not citywide: Time Warner and Cablevision currently divide the city between them:

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(Click the image to see the map of current franchise areas.)

The scale is hard to fathom. It’s like $100 per person per year or $300 per household, of which there are about $3.1 million – though that’s not counting businesses. It’s around $3 million per year for each of the city’s 322 square miles – as if all those square miles cost the same or were worth the same.

But the rate the money goes into the city is not the most important number. The important number is how fast it goes out. How much will Verizon make off each person, business, or square mile, and over what time frame? Once they put this infrastructure in place, they are going to hold on tight and make as much money as they can off of it. And anyone who wants to compete at the speed levels Verizon will be offering will have to match their massive investment.

We might only get one shot at building a fully fiber optic network for our city. We should try to get it right.

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