News Archive: August 2010
8/30/10 - Burning Man Radio Now Live and Global [link to this story]
The 2010 Burning Man Project is now underway, and for the past 10 years the impromptu desert-community tunes to their FM dial for the Project's unique brand of infotainment.
Interesting note: while the station does not have a formal license from the FCC (no proper call letters; the FCC's station databases have no record of it; and the NYT article says it "covers a five-mile radius," which most assuredly puts its power above Part 15 limits), it was founded to satisfy the federal Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) permit requirement that the festival-cum-performance-space "have a communications system to alert participants about critical health and safety issues."
Aside from the fact that it would be just plain mean for the FCC to wade into the middle of 50,000-person, week-long art project to deliver a warning letter, and given that the radio station is integral to Burning Man's BLM permit to exist, it would seem that Burning Man Information Radio is the one guaranteed place in the United States where you're formally allowed to get away with a week of license-free broadcasting. Contributing to that autonomous creative space tugs at the heart-strings.
However, for those of us who cannot be there in person, BMIR is webcasting (apparently, for the first time in the Project's history).
"The dust is hard on the electronics," remarked BMIR station manager Bob Sommer. "We’re constantly having to patch things together." I've never tried to broadcast from a desert, but I feel ya.
8/26/10 - About Time [link to this story]
A week ago I got a small jolt when I opened my mailbox to find a letter with a return address titled "ABOUT.COM LAWSUIT." After opening it, though, it tripped me down memory lane.
DIYmedia.net is a direct outgrowth of a project I began, literally, as a second-income (for pocket change). That was my stint as Pirate/Free Radio "Guide" for a firm called the Mining Company. This was 1996: the Interwebs was just catching fire, and search engines generally sucked.
The Mining Company's business model was to hire "Guides" to oversee websites on specific topics. Guide duties included writing one feature story a week on their assigned subject and maintaining a well-organized links library (to outdo the search engine), for which we were paid a modest monthly stipend.
When miningco.com went live in March of 1997, I was one of ~60 "live at launch" Guides. The service caught on; traffic increased and, as knowledge is relatively infinite, so did the number of Guides. This all happened during the 80's-like years of the late 1990s - fast money from nowhere, and scruples to boot.
To make a long story short, The Mining Company changed its name to About.com in 1999, and went public on NASDAQ. It's founders and staff made a killing, and us Guides got some scratch too (I paid off my undergrad student loans and car). I even got featured in a radio commercial pimping the goodness of pirate radio that played in the top 10 U.S. markets (sublime!).
After that, the party started winding down.
Now responsive to investors, who demanded that dot-coms show profit, About.com began a series of contortions to maintain solulbility. This involved some downsizing, a revolving-door staff, and (at first) subtle changes to Guide contracts which began to squeeze our monthly income.
As entrepreneurs tend to be, the Mining Company's founders saw the writing on the wall first, and sold out to a company called Primedia in 2000. Primedia is the media division of a vulture-capitalist firm called Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) - a firm who specializes in acquiring distressed companies, gutting them, and then selling the carcasses for a profit.
One of Primedia's first moves was to obfuscate the data on which site traffic (and income) was calculated, and pile more work on the Guides. As time went on, we were treated more like employees than independent contractors. Add in a massive slash to Guides' pay and the (seemingly) arbitrary "classification" of GuideSites into a variety of categories (killing off our communal spirit), and the stage for a revolt was set. I parted ways with the company in 2002, taking my content with me (as I had the legal right to do).
In March of 2002, 34 Guides filed a class-action notice against About.com. This was amended in November to include some 85 current and former Guides, and sued Primedia and About.com's progenitors under a variety of allegations, including disingenuous accounting, arbitrary contractual changes without consent, and labor law violations. 41 of us gave notarized depositions in the case.
The wheels of justice grind slowly: About.com was sold from Primedia to the New York Times Company in 2005 for $410 million, of which Guides did not see a dime.
The pundits were dubious: how does the law classify virtual labor? Quite rightly, it turns out.
Fast-forward to 2007: after years of discovery, motions, and countermotions, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York found summary judgment in favor of some of our claims, clearing the way for a trial.
Given that About.com's run through thousands of Guides in its 13-year history, there's bound to be other parties who were harmed post-hoc. In the intervening two years the subject was debated, and last year, it turned out, the court certified our case as a class-action.
That set the stage for settlement negotiations, the terms of which were apparently just recently agreed upon. In a nutshell, Primedia/About.com et. al. will pay out north of $5.575 million to settle all claims without admitting guilt. The settlement will go before the courts for final disposition on October 7.
It sounds like a lot of money, but when you subtract attorney's fees, claim administration, and myriad other costs you're not left with much. It's not like I'm reliving the days of 10 years ago, but now I can afford some dire repairs to the car I bought (in part, with About.com boodle, and still drive).
8/15/10 - Snookered [link to this story]
A week ago, media reformistas were supposedly "celebrating" the near-avoidance of the death of network neutrality when the FCC declared discussions between it, Google, and Verizon had fallen through.
The plan would place the FCC in an "oversight" role to make sure content is not discriminated against online simply for the sake of what it is. Notable, however, is the FCC's secondary position in the regulation of network neutrality; companies will work out their own deals, and then hand them over to the FCC for rubber-stampage.
Given the trustworthiness of the FCC, this is a dubious plan at best. It has generated a lot of reaction, including a tepid protest at Google HQ and op-eds from former Obama administration telecom policy officials practically begging the FCC to grow a pair.
Problem is, the FCC's already been emasculated, which is why content-service providers (like Google) and broadband network service providers (like Verizon) feel like they can strike their own deals now without FCC interference. Here's why:
1. The FCC's inherent authority to regulate network neutrality was eviscerated in the Comcast v. FCC federal court decision. Even if the FCC decides to reclassify broadband and hopes to regain some regulatory power through alternate means, you can bet Big Telecom (and Big Content) will line up to shoot the FCC's proposal down in court.
2. Without explicit Congressional authority to back up whatever the FCC comes up with, the plan remains wide-open to legal challenge. Congress is gridlocked; don't expect their assistance anytime soon, regardless of whatever any individual Representative or Senator says.
3. The very fact that Google and Verizon have conceived this "deal" - despite its supposed nixing - says all you need to know about what Big Telecom and Content think of the FCC's incipient authority in this area. It is no surprise that other broadband ISPs are lining up in support of the Google/Verizon "framework" - they know the FCC can't do jack sh*t to them.
All of this didn't have to happen: had the Democratic majority of FCC Commissioners been more organized on this important issue, this might have been pre-empted (at best). The only one with stones appears to be Commissioner Michael Copps, the only Commissioner to to note the deal (in a whopping four-line statement), who describes the Google/Verizon "framework" as a clarion call "to put the interests of consumers in front of the interests of giant corporations."
Good luck with that: regardless of what the FCC does next, this saga will be decided in the Congress or courts, neither of which I have much faith in. On this particular issue, the FCC's just about made itself irrelevant now and, for that matter, so have the reformistas.
8/7/10 - The Slow Death of Network Neutrality [link to this story]
Many people soiled their suits this week when it was revealed that Google and Verizon - with the apparent oversight of the Federal Communications Commission - began negotiations about how to implement a tiered Internet. If solidified, and officially endorsed, it would have marked the beginning of the end of the principle of network neutrality on the Internet.
The parties involved have denied this activity, to their chagrin.
Predictably, reformistas cried foul as loud as they could. And when it was finally announced (by the FCC, of all constituents) that such talks were "off," unrealistic paeans to the power of grassroots democracy were spread far and wide.
This is by no means a "victory." It's like celebrating the avoidance of a potentially-fatal car accident.
The primary reason for such skepticism is the policy momentum behind network neutrality. Both President Obama, and his FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, have proclaimed themselves strong supporters of regulation against data discrimination in the past. Once both got in office, however, the tide inexplicably turned, and quickly.
So, having headed off the largest practical threat to network neutrality to-date, where do we go from here? This where you can't avoid the realpolitik. Just because the "backroom" deals have been officially called off doesn't mean they won't happen - just in different places, through different communicative modes, and in a more circuitous fashion. Anyone who believes this is the "end of the era of backroom deals at the FCC" is simply on drugs, and should really know better.
For the FCC's part, it's proclaiming that it's going back to "square one" in the effort to justify its ability to regulate against online data discrimination. Seeing as how telecom network service providers are salivating at challenging that effort in court (again), just how the FCC has any agency in this process anymore (politically or otherwise) is murky at best.
As for Congress: don't look for any help there. Senator John Kerry - a staunch supporter of network neutrality back when he ran for the White House - says "Congressional stalemate" will most likely keep a legislative solution to this issue off the table for the foreseeable future, thus dumping this mess back into the hands of an untrustworthy FCC. As previously reported, this applies to a lot of progressive telecom legislation right now.
Only two commentators, so far, have had the stones to personally call out FCC Chairman Genachowski for allowing this clusterf*ck to progress to the point that it has. More of this is called for, and here is why:
Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense. Regardless of the relative power-politics in D.C. right now, the issue of Internet freedom is being backed into a dangerous corner, and if there was ever a time to actively engage in the knife-fight, it is now, regardless of what your angel-funders think. What have we got to lose, except freedom of speech online?