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News Archive: May 2010

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5/31/10 - The Yes Men's Building A Posse [link to this story]

With all of the somewhat-depressing news coming out of the circles of media reform these days, I was heartened to see the announcement that the Yes Men are hard at work to spread their extra-special brand of media pranksterism; the work of identity-correction.

Announcing the Yes Lab for Creative Activism: "a series of brainstorms and trainings to help activist groups carry out Yes-Men-style projects on their own."

According to the site:

In a typical Yes Lab project, an activist organization will come to the Yes Lab with a target—e.g. Monsanto, or war profiteers, or one of those "too big to fail" banks, or greedy health insurance companies, or a bad government policy—as well as a goal: to affect public debate, push for legislation, embarrass an evildoer, etc. Depending on ability, they will pay a fee to help the Yes Lab keep going. We'll work with the group to develop the smartest, most effective plan to accomplish it. We'll help assemble the team from within the group as well as our mailing list, we'll train folks as necessary, and we'll check in on the project until it's successful.

So, if you've ever thought, "damn, wouldn't it be cool to be a Yes Man," put yr money where yr mouth is, and they'll help you. The Lab is just in its pilot stages now - The Yes Men would like to raise $50,000 in seed money to help expand its activist meme, and are giving away some pretty enticing goodies to get to that goal. So far, they're one-fifth of the way there.

It's a target-rich environment these days for media activism, and the Yes Men have proven tactics. It'll be interesting to see if this catches on; I sure hope it does.

5/24/10 - Enforcement Action Update: East Coast Booming [link to this story]

The Enforcement Action Database is up-to-date again; so far for the year the FCC is running at blatant record pace with regard to enforcement actions - 235 as of mid-May, while 2009 saw a cumulative enforcement action total of 445. If this pace continues, 2010 may be the first year in which the FCC cracks 500 enforcement actions.

Taking a closer look at the data, the methodology of field enforcement remains the same - lots and lots of station-visits and threatening letters, but nothing in the way of raids and seizures, and very little in the way of monetary penalties. The practice of stats-enforcement is also still in full effect; for example, a whopping four warning letters were sent to different individuals in two states for the same unlicensed FM station in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Yet, there is a vibrant and growing microradio scene along the east coast of the United States, especially in the northeast. At right is a snapshot of enforcement actions over the last four and a half years involving the four "busiest" (as determined by FCC activity) states on the eastern seaboard.

Florida and New York are well-known for being hotbeds of pirate broadcasting (the FCC has about as much chance of "cleaning up" the airwaves as it does of stopping the Earth's rotation); New Jersey has always been simmering in the shadow of New York; but Massachusetts is showing a real spike in broadcast action.

Part of this increase in activity in Massachusetts can be explained by the FCC's practice of enforcement statistics-inflation (as noted above) - but not all of it. There's simply too many individual stations being dinged, and - like in Florida and New York - the tactic of "pass it along" (i.e., give your broadcast gear over to someone else to continue the station after you've been outed) appears to have gained traction.

Also of interest is an uptick in the number of unlicensed, low-power AM stations being noticed by the FCC (still puny relative to the aggregate number of FM stations, but growing), as well as what may be the FCC's first official enforcement action against a shortwave pirate in nearly a dozen years. In addition, Nebraska got on the board for the first time in Enforcement Action Database history this April, with an LPAM station in Omaha receiving an official tap on the shoulder.

As always, the trends demonstrate not so much the quality of FCC enforcement against pirates as it does raw unlicensed activity across the radio broadcast spectrum. It makes for a lot of work for me, but it's worth it to see that not only do field agents remain under siege in the traditionally heavy geographies of pirate radio, but new geographies are appearing on the FCC's radar, both in space and spectrum.

5/18/10 - Pirate Radio: DVD Beats Feature [link to this story]

I just got around to watching my Netflix-delivered DVD of Pirate Radio. If you saw it in the theater, you missed out on some of the best parts.

The movie, at best (in the feature-cut), is a fast-paced cluster of vignettes loosely tied around a family/love story, lavish with music from the offshore pirate era and an ending that even teared me up a bit. The ensemble works brilliantly. The fact the movie revolves around the concept of pirate radio, and the ship itself, acted more as a set-piece than a central plot device. Which is why many reviews praised it, mostly, for its music.

The DVD, however, contains nearly an hour of deleted scenes, most of them introduced and explained by Pirate Radio's director, Richard Curtis. He's surprisingly frank about the pain he experienced in the editing process, and wonders aloud more than once whether the version with the deleted scenes and less music might have been a better film; the entirety of the compilation Curtis describes as "the remains of my broken heart."

I'm not about to doubt him. The deleted scenes add amazing depth to several characters, and actually fill in some loose ends in the feature-plot.

Three of the best are a Philip Seymour Hoffman-led prank/raid on a competing station, Radio Sunshine; a game among the on-air staff where they must slip a chosen word into every broadcast (which gets harder every day of the week, kind of like the New York Times crossword puzzle); and an extension of a scene featuring the aftermath of "Simple Simon" Swafford's 17-hour marriage, in which a non-DJ member of Radio Rock's crew gets an impromptu taste of what it's like behind the mic, and Swafford later pours out his pain.

In those few minutes that never made it into the cinema, the rookie and the veteran are captured by the emotion of broadcasting; for anyone who's ever used radio as a cathartic medium, that scene is pretty f*cking powerful.

So, even if you've already seen the feature-cut of Pirate Radio, definitely peep the DVD, because the extras offer significant substance to the film as a work of art.

5/7/10 - Net Neutrality: Thanks For The Memories? [link to this story]

The heads of policy peeps just about exploded last month after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's authority to stop internet service providers from conducting data discrimination (violating the informal principle popularly known as "network neutrality"). A couple of weeks of hand-wringing later, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski releases a statement outlining his plans to re-empower the agency to regulate the way by which ISPs manage their network traffic.

It's a somewhat arcane policy principle, but in plain English it breaks down like this: the FCC classifies network service providers in one of two ways - telecommunications providers and information service providers. Telecommunications providers (like old-skool telephony) are subject to "common carriage" rules - this means the networks must not refuse interconnection, cannot discriminate against other carriers and customers, and cannot refuse the use of non-destructive applications on their networks. Information service providers, on the other hand, do not fall under the common carriage paradigm.

The entire net neutrality debate flared up in 2005, when the Supreme Court torturously ruled that cable-based ISPs were "information service providers" and therefore did not have to open up their networks to competition. Telephone companies immediately complained to the (Bush II-era) FCC, who promptly re-classified telephony as an information service provider, thereby leveling the playing field - so that no meaningful competition occurred in the broadband-provision sector of our information economy.

Since then, as one administration left office and another took over, the FCC's been tip-toeing around the idea of "re-regulating" broadband Internet access. Some just say classify everyone as a telecommunications service provider, and the FCC is back in business. Chairman Genachowski's "third way" statement seems to suggest a partial move in this direction. Commissioner Michael Copps would have preferred a more direct, authoritative stance on the issue, but he's not running the show; the other three Commissioners seem to be sitting on the fence.

Now we'll have rounds and rounds of debate at the FCC about just whether or not the agency has the power to stop data discrimination, and just how far that power extends. The FCC needs to tread carefully, otherwise it'll open itself to an avalanche of lawsuits from the telecommunications and cable industries.

I am disappointed with the lack of commitment to principle shown by President Obama's telecommunications advisory folks. That being said, there's always a way to trump a circuit court of appeals - get Congress to enable an agency with the appropriate powers, and things will change dramatically. The Internet Freedom Preservation Act, by the way - which would do just this - is in an apparent holding pattern on Capitol Hill.

Thus, proponents of network neutrality have a couple of options through which they can conduct their crusade - engage in a rough-and-tumble war of words at the FCC level, or go over the agency's head and get Congress to re-empower the FCC. Neither is an especially easy task - but with the limited resources available to the media reform movement, it will have to make some important strategic decisions soon.

The sad thing about this is that "net neutrality" doesn't really do justice to the issue of information freedom online; there are lots of ways that people who control what you see, hear and do online do it. Managing network traffic and degrading applications as a result is just one route; lopsided terms of service agreements, data aggregation (to "personalize" your online experience) and search customization are other ways by which "traffic" gets subtly "shaped," and information you may want to know about becomes more difficult to find as a result.

I forget who said it, but the axiom in this case is dead-on: the pace of technology development always outruns attempts to regulate it. This has never been more true in the case of network neutrality. But it's not a one-dimensional issue - us versus ISPs, even as they roll out ever-more sophisticated "network management" tools while the law remains grey. Some of this we bring upon ourselves, by sacrificing digital literacy and autonomy for use of the latest widget or fascination with the notion of "cloud computing". If you look at it from that perspective, one can make the argument that the 'net actually lost its "neutrality" a long time ago.