Trump’s threat to media broadcast licenses, while silly and self-contradictory, shows the dangerous paradoxes of his populism

The media is indeed swooning at Trump’s latest supposed outrages, including his veiled threat to broadcast licenses after NBC supposedly reported his plans for increasing US nuclear supremacy.

Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter have a typical summary on CNN.

There’s a potpourri of obvious legal problems if Trump were to try to do this. The biggest is that it is owned stations that have licenses, not the networks.  I remember this from my own days working for NBC as a computer programmer in the 1970s. I was responsible for an accounting ledger for “owned and operated stations”.  I remember networks were allowed to own five. Often, individual stations are owned by one company and affiliated with a network, like WJLA is owned by Sinclair and affiliated with ABC.  Often the stations don’t follow the bidding of owners.  Sinclair is a “conservative” media company that has played up the power grid threats which I have reported here, but WJLA has toned down these reports, even though I’ve encouraged WJLA (which knows me) to take them seriously.

Another interesting point is that the president doesn’t have the full legal authority to order the FCC exactly what to do. Furthermore Trump’s appointment, Ajit Pai, has favored loosening and eliminating Obama’s network neutrality rules in a way that would benefit Comcast, which owns NBC.  Even so, loosening of network neutrality rules really hasn’t in big companies like Comcast trying to throttle smaller businesses and individual speakers from having fair treatment in access to self-broadcast on their telecom pipes (something that the “liberals” feared more than the gutting of Section 230 as a threat to user speech).

It’s ironic that, in his propagation of “the people” and populism, Trump really hasn’t gone after individual elites (like standalone bloggers) as much as he had certain big companies (mainstream liberal media) whom he can portray to the “people” as their enemies with fake news.  But, of course, it is the world of user-generated content that the Russians infected with their fake news barrage in order to divide the people further.  But Trump wants the people divided. He believes that it is the strongest tribes that survive, not the strongest individuals.  Yet, in Trump’s individual behavior, it’s obvious that Trump admires strong young adult individuals – look at who he hired on “The Apprentice”.  At a personal level, he probably does admire young scientists, young tech entreprenuers, and even young conservative journalists who would show him up.   More contradictions on the LGBT side: he seems to admire plenty of LGBT individuals, but attacks the intersectional politics of the LGBT activist establishment with all his appointments.

The mainstream media’s reaction to this latest flap over violating the first amendment (the freedom of the press standards apart from the more general freedom of speech in the First Amendment) has sometimes been a bit silly and hyperbolic.  Look at how the Washington Post (“Democracy dies in darkbess”) asks “can he really do that?” by dragging you into listening to an overlong podcast.  By now everybody has forgotten all about “opening up libel laws.” British style (as Kitty Kelly explains in 1997, truth doesn’t always defend against libel, especially if absolute truth no longer exists).

Trump’s latest action on health care (like with immigration) shows he is willing to let “ordinary people” become pawns as he makes his ideological points, which really do have some merit.  Yup, making health young people buy coverage they don’t need sets a bad example for other areas.  Yes, it may really be illegal for the Executive to continue premium and copay support for poor people until Congress does its job, does its math, and can explicitly authorize it (sounds like how he handles DACA).

And, yup, previous administrations may have appeased North Korea too much, and a “domino theory” that tends to enlist ordinary citizens as potential combatants may have some real merit (as I covered particularly in my first DADT book).  But all of this, right now, sets up a very dangerous situation, the most perilous for the safety of ordinary Americans since the Cuban Missile Crisis, even more so than 9/11.  If Trump really wants his zeal for populism to wind up with martial law (as one friend on FB suggests), or a “purification” (as another puts it), he might have his duel in the Sun.

I also wanted to point out Sean Illing’s compendium on Vox, “20 of America’s top political scientists gathered to discuss our democracy. They’re scared”.  One out of six Americans is OK with military rule (like in the Philippines — that’s like saying one out of six movies should be a horror movie).  Our society of individualism requires a talent for individualized abstraction.  That tends to leave out a lot of “average joes”.  But all of us find more meaning in power structures and “station in life” than is healthy for freedom.

(Posted: Friday, Oct. 13, 2017 at 11:30 PM EDT)

 

Petitions to elected officials on largely special interest bills

I just wanted to make a note about the effectiveness of online petitions to contact politicians in “emergency” situations to block all kinds of harmful bills.

A recent good example was a call in the New York Times for public “blowback” by David Leonhardt, “Citizen Action on Health Care”, which came out right before the Senate was voting on a Repeal-only bill.

I generally do post petitions on by blogs or social media feeds. Usually I don’t personally respond to them.

I feel that sending elected representatives form letters written by others (even if the non-profit has provided tools for personalizing the letter) wastes “speech capital”, and lessens the impact later when a more substantial and constructive approach on a bill of more relevance to e would really work.

Opposition to many “bad” bills is often well-founded on anticipated unintended consequences.  But frequently the likelihood that the harm will really happen is speculative, and predicated on associated failures of other layers of government or lack of trust in companies.

For example, much of the opposition to the various health care bills is predicated on the idea that down the road the states will refuse to do their jobs for less fortunate constituents.  In a federal system, it is always an issue how far the federal government should go to protect citizens within states.  But I know from gay issues, as with the history of sodomy laws (and a particularly disturbing close-call in the Texas legislature in the 1980s) that even I can be wanting that “federal” consideration. And we certainly know that with southern states and civil rights in the past.

So rather than opposing every bill that gets proposed because somebody gets hurt, I’d like to see us solve the problem.  How to we cover everybody, keep health care costs reasonable, avoid the waiting lists, handle the pre-existing conditions?  Subsidies, reinsurance, policies about end-of-life?  You have to do the math.

Opposition to other bills in my world is speculative.  On the network neutrality petitions, I’m asked to believe that telecom companies really do have an incentive to cut off smaller businesses from even being reachable through them.  This doesn’t make much business sense, and flies against what trade associations say.  Yet, still, I’m concerned.

On the recent Backpage-driven erosion of Section 230, I’d be more concerned about the hype (which the major media haven’t quite caught on to yet).  There’s an existential problem if indeed states (federalism again) could force every service provider or hosting company to prescreen every user poser for sex traffkcking, and I wonder how well the public understands this – it takes a certain level of cognition.  There’s also the idea of “subsumed risk” or shared responsibility, as I’ve hinted before.  The apt comparison would be to use measures that work for controlling child pornography now – it usually requires that a service producer have knowledge, when then creates a duty to report.  It isn’t perfect (and could lead to framing of people) but it seems like a balance.

Even so, an emergency call-in campaign at some point in the future to defeat SESTA sounds unlikely to work.  (I do remember SOPA in 2011-2012.)  We do have to figure out how to solve this problem.

I can imagine the petitions that will go around if we have a debt ceiling crisis at the end of September.  But, no, it’s not as likely seniors stop getting Social Security as the doomsday sayers claim.

I wanted to note also that I don’t usually have a direct relationship with most of my readers, so I don’t do mailing lists, subscriptions, tip jars, giveaway contests, fund raising for organizations (illustration),  or various specific marketing campaigns often (I have done some for the books through Facebook and through the publisher).  Part of the reason is that my content is about “connecting the dots” and covers very broad areas.  I’m not anybody’s life coach.  Yet, when you put yourself out there, people approach you as if they expected you to be.  In this FEE article by Richard Ebeling, point 3 seems applicable.  Real immediate needs of consumers ought to matter, too.

(Posted: Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT)

Who “gets to be recognized” as a legitimate “journalist”?

So, who gets to call the self a journalist?

The recent queasiness in Congress and the FCC about matters like Section 230 and network neutrality bring this question back.  Yes, I’ve talked about the controversies over “citizen journalism” before, like the day before the Election on November 8, 2016.  And recently (July 19) I encountered a little dispute about access requiring “press credentials”.

The nausea that President Donald Trump says the “media” gives him seems to be directed at mainstream, larger news organizations with center-liberal bias – that is, most big city newspapers, and most broadcast networks, and especially CNN – he calls them all purveyors of “fake news” as if that were smut.  More acceptable are the “conservative” Fox and OANN.  Breitbart and Milo Yiannopoulos (with his own new site) seem to be in the perpetual twilight of a tidally locked planet.  Perhaps I am in the same space;  Trump doesn’t seem to have the same antipathy (or hostility) to “independent” or “citizen” journalists (which I had feared he would when he said he didn’t trust computers), but a lot of other people do.

I digress for a moment. Coincidentally has set up his “Trump News Channel” on Facebook (Washington Post story) but the URL for it reverts to “Dropcatch”, with Twitter won’t even allow as a link as supposed spam.

The basic bone politicians and some business people pick with journalists is that “they” spectate, speculate and criticize, but don’t have to play, like right out of the script of the Netflix thriller “Rebirth”.  Politicians, hucksters, sales professionals, and perhaps many legitimate business professionals, and heads of families – all of them have accountabilities to real people, whether customers or family members.  They have to go to bat for others.  They have to manipulate others and concern themselves with the size of their “basis”.  Journalists can do this only through double lives.

I could make the analogy to kibitzing a chess game, rather than committing yourself to 5 hours of concentration in rated game.  (Yes, in the position below, Black’s sacrifice hasn’t worked.)

But, of course, we know that renowned journalists have paid their dues, most of all in conflict journalism. Sebastian Junger broke his leg working as an arborist before writing “The Perfect Storm”. Bob Woodruff has a plate in his skull but recovered completely after being wounded in Iraq. Military services actually have their own journalists and public affairs.  Young American University journalism graduate Trey Yingst helped found News2share before becoming a White House correspondent, but had done assignments in Ukraine, Gaza, Rwanda, Uganda, Ferguson, and was actually pinned down at night during the Baltimore riots in April 2015.

That brings us back to the work of small-fry, like me, where “blogger journalism” has become the second career, pretty much zoning out other possible opportunities which would have required direct salesmanship of “somebody else’s ideas” (“We give you the words”), or much more ability to provide for specific people (maybe students) in directly interpersonal ways.

Besides supporting my books, what I generally do with these blogs is re-report what seem like critical general-interest news stories in order to “connect the dots” among them.  Sometimes, I add my own footage and observations when possible, as with a recent visit to fire-damaged Gatlinburg.  With demonstrations (against Trump, about climate change, for LGBT) I tend to walk for a while with some of them but mainly film and report (especially when the issue is narrower, such as with Black Lives Matter).  I generally don’t venture into dangerous areas (I visited Baltimore Sandtown in 2015 in the day time).

I generally don’t respond to very narrow petitions for emergency opposition to bills that hurt some narrow interest group.  What I want to do is encourage real problem solving.  Rather than join in “solidarity” to keep Congress from “repealing” Obamacare by itself, I want to focus on the solutions (subsidies, reinsurance, the proper perspective on federalism, etc).  But I also want to focus attention on bigger problems, many of them having to do with “shared responsibility” or “herd immunity” concepts, that don’t get very consistent attention from mainstream media (although conservative sites do more on these matters).  These include filial responsibility, the tricky business of reducing downstream liability issue on the Web (the Section230 issue, on the previous post, where I said Backpage can make us all stay for detention), risks taken by those offering hosting to immigrants (refugees and asylum seekers), and particularly national security issues like the shifting of risk from asymmetric terror back to rogue states (North Korea), and most of all, infrastructure security, especially our three major electric power grids.

My interest in book self-publication and citizen journalism had started in the 1990s with “gays in the military”, linking back to my own narrative, and then expanded gradually to other issues about “shared risks” as well as more traditional ideas about discrimination.  I had come into this “second career” gradually from a more circumscribed world as an individual contributor in mainframe information technology. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had suddenly become a particularly rich issue in what it could lead to in other areas.  So, yes, I personally feel that, even as an older gay man, the LGBTQ world has more to worry about than bathroom bills (Pulse).  I think the world we have gotten used to could indeed be dialed back by indignation-born “purification” (as a friend calls it) if we don’t get our act together on some things (like the power grid issue).  But I don’t believe we should have to all become doomsday preppers either.  We should solve these problems.

A critical component of journalism is objectivity and presentation of Truth, as best Truth can be determined. Call it impartiality. You often hear Trump supporters say that, whatever Trump’s crudeness and ethical problems, what Trump promotes helps them and particularly family members who depend on them.  Of course many journalists have families without compromising their work. But this observation seems particularly relevant to me.  I don’t have my own children largely because I didn’t engage in the desires or the behaviors than result in having that responsibility.  I can “afford” to remain somewhat emotionally aloof from a lot of immediate needs.

In fact, I’ve sometimes had to field the retort from some people that, while some of the news out there may be dire, I don’t need to be the person they hear it from.  I could be putting a target on my own back and on others around me.  Indeed, some people act as if they believe that everything happens within a context of social hierarchy and coercion.

My own “model” for entering the news world has two aspects that seem to make it vulnerable to future policy choices (like those involving 230 or maybe net neutrality). One of them is that it doesn’t pay its own way.  I use money from other sources, both what I earned and invested and somewhat what I inherited (which arguably could be deployed as someone else’s safety net, or which could support dependents, maybe asylum seekers if we had a system more like Canada’s for dealing with that issue).  That means, it cannot be underwritten if it had to be insured, for example.  I can rebut this argument, or course, by saying, well, what did you want me to do, get paid to write fake news?  That could support a family.  (No, I really never believed the Comet Ping Pong stuff, but the gunman who did believe it an attack it claimed he was an “independent journalist.”  I do wonder how supermarket tabloids have avoided defamation claims even in all the years before the Internet – because nobody believed them?  Some people obviously do.)   No, they say. we want you to use the background that supported you as a computer programmer for decades and pimp our insurance products. (“We give you the words,” again.)  Indeed, my withdrawal from the traditional world where people do things through sales middlemen makes it harder for those who have to sell for a living.

The other aspect is that of subsumed risk.  I can take advantage of a permissive climate toward self-distribution of content, which many Internet speakers and small businesses take for granted, but which can be seriously and suddenly undermined by policy, for the “common good” under the ideology of “shared responsibility”.  I won’t reiterate here the way someone could try to bargain with me over this personally – that could make an interesting short film experiment. Yes, there can be court challenges, but the issues litigated with CDA and COPA don’t reliably predict how the First Amendment applies when talking about distribution of speech rather than its content, especially with a new literalist like Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.

A lot of “Trader Joe” type people would say, there should be some external validation of news before it is published.   Of course, that idea feeds the purposes of authoritarian rules, like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, or perhaps Donald Trump.  But we could see that kind of environment someday if we don’t watch out.

(Posted: Monday, August 7, 2017 at 4 PM EDT)

Will user-generated public content be around forever? The sex-trafficking issue and Section 230 are just the latest problem

It used to be very difficult to “get published”.  Generally, a third party would have to be convinced that consumers would really pay to buy the content you had produced.  For most people that usually consisted of periodical articles and sometimes books.  It was a long-shot to make a living as a best-selling author, as there was only “room at the top” for so many celebrities.  Subsidy “vanity” book publishing was possible, but usually ridiculously expensive with older technologies.

That started to change particularly in the mid 1990s as desktop publishing became cheaper, as did book manufacturing, to be followed soon by POD, print on demand, by about 2000.  I certainly took advantage of these developments with my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997.

Furthermore, by the late 1990s, it had become very cheap to have one’s own domain and put up writings for the rest of the world to find with web browsers.  And the way search engine technology worked by say 1998, amateur sites with detailed and original content had a good chance of being found passively and attracting a wide audience.  In addition to owned domains, some platforms, such as Hometown AOL at first, made it very easy to FTP content for unlimited distribution.  At the same time, Amazon and other online mass retail sites made it convenient for consumers to find self-published books, music, and other content.

Social media, first with Myspace and later with the much more successful Facebook, was at first predicated on the idea of sharing content with a known whitelisted audience of “friends” or “followers”.  In some cases (Snapchat), there was an implicit understanding that the content was not to be permanent. But over time, many social media platforms (most of all, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) were often used to publish brief commentaries and links to provocative news stories on the Web, as well as videos and images of personal experiences.  Sometimes they could be streamed Live.  Even though friends and followers were most likely to see it (curated by feed algorithms somewhat based on popularity in the case of Facebook) many of them were public for all to see,  Therefore, an introverted person like me who does not like “social combat” or hierarchy or does not like to be someone else’s voice (or to need someone else’s voice) could become effective in influencing debate.   It’s also important that modern social media were supplemented by blogging platforms, like Blogger, WordPress and Tumblr, which, although they did use the concept of “follower”,  were more obviously intended generally for public availability. The same was usually true of a lot of video content on YouTube and Vimeo.

The overall climate regarding self-distribution of one’s own speech to a possibly worldwide audience seemed permissive, in western countries and especially the U.S.   In authoritarian countries, political leaders would resist.  It might seem like an admission of weakness that an amateur journalist could threaten a regime, but we saw what happened, for example, with the Arab Spring.  A permissive environment regarding distribution of speech seemed to undercut the hierarchy and social command that some politicians claimed they needed to protect “their own people.”

Gradually, challenges to self-distribution evolved.   There was an obvious concern that children could find legitimate (often sexually oriented) content aimed for cognitive adults.  The first big problem was the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  The censorship portion of this would be overturned by the Supreme Court in 1997 (I had attended the oral arguments).  Censorship would be attempted again with the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, for which I was a sublitigant under the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  It would be overturned in 2007 after a complicated legal battle, in the Supreme Court twice.  But the 1996 Communications Decency Act, or more properly known as the Telecommunications Act, also contained a desirable provision, that service providers (ranging from Blogging or video-sharing platforms to telecommunications companies and shared hosting companies) would be shielded from downstream liability for user content for most legal problems (especially defamation). That is because it was not possible for a hosting company or service platform to prescreen every posting for possible legal problems (which is what book publishers do, and yet require author indemnification!)  Web hosting and service companies were required to report known (as reported by users) child pornography and sometimes terrorism promotion.

At the same time, in the copyright infringement area, a similar provision developed, the Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which shielded service providers from secondary liability for copyright infringement as long as they took down offending content from copyright owners when notified.  Various threats have developed to the mechanism, most of all SOPA, which got shot down by user protests in early 2012 (Aaron Swartz was a major and tragic figure).

The erosion of downstream liability protections would logically become the biggest threat to whether companies can continue to offer users the ability to put up free content without gatekeepers and participate in political and social discussions on their own, without proxies to speak for them, and without throwing money at lobbyists.  (Donald Trump told supporters in 2016, “I am your voice!”  Indeed.  Well, I don’t need one as long as I have Safe Harbor and Section 230.)

So recently we have seen bills introduced in the House (ASVFOSTA, “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Trafficking Act”) in April (my post), and SESTA, Stop Enabling of Sex Traffickers Act” on Aug. 1 in the Senate (my post). These bills, supporters say, are specifically aimed at sex advertising sites, most of all Backpage..  Under current law, plaintiffs (young women or their parents) have lost suits because Backpage can claim immunity under 230.  There have been other controversies over the way some platforms use 230, especially Airbnb.  The companies maintain that they are not liable for what their users do.

Taken rather literally, the bills (especially the House bill) might be construed as meaning that any blogging platform or hosting provider runs a liability risk if a user posts a sex trafficking ad or promotion on the user’s site.  There would be no reasonable way Google or Blue Host or Godaddy or any similar party could anticipate that a particular user will do this.  Maybe some automated tools could be developed, but generally most hosting companies depend on users to report illegal content.  (It’s possible to screen images for water marks for known child pornography, and it’s possible to screen some videos and music files for possible copyright, and Google and other companies do some of this.)

Bob Portman, a sponsor of the Senate bill, told CNN and other reporters that normal service and hosting companies are not affected, only sites knowing that they host sex ads.  So he thinks he can target sites like Backpage, as if they were different.  In a sense, they are:  Backpage is a personal commerce-facilitation site, not a hosting company or hosting service (which by definition has almost no predictive knowledge of what subject matter any particular user is likely to post, and whether that content may include advertising or may execute potential commercial transactions, although use of “https everywhere” could become relevant).  Maybe the language of the bills could be tweaked to make this clearer. It is true that some services, especially Facebook, have become pro-active in removing or hiding content that flagrantly violates community norms, like hate speech (and that itself gets controversial).

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara, offered analysis suggesting that states might be emboldened to try to pass laws requiring pre-screening of everything, for other problems like fake news.  The Senate bill particularly seems to encourage states to pass their own add-on laws. They could try to require pre-secreening.  It’s not possible for an ISP to know whether any one of the millions of postings made by customers could contain sex-trafficking before the fact, but a forum moderator or blogger monitoring comments probably could.  Off hand, it would seem that allowing a comment with unchecked links (which I often don’t navigate because of malware fears) could run legal risks (if the link was to a trafficking site under the table).  Again, a major issue should be whether the facilitator “knows”.  Backpage is much more likely to “know” than a hosting provider.  A smaller forum host might “know” (but Reddit would not).

From a moral perspective, we have something like the middle school problem of detention for everybody for the sins of a few.  I won’t elaborate here on the moral dimensions of the idea that some of us don’t have our own skin in the game in raising kids or in having dependents, as I’ve covered that elsewhere.  But you can see that people will perceive a moral tradeoff, that user-generated content on the web, the way the “average Joe” uses it, has more nuisance value (with risk of cyberbullying, revenge porn, etc) than genuine value in debate, which tends to come from people like me with fewer immediate personal responsibilities for others.

So, is the world of user-generated content “in trouble”?  Maybe.  It would sound like it could come down to a business model problem.  It’s true that shared hosting providers charge annual fees for hosting domains, but they are fairly low (except for some security services).  But free content service platforms (including Blogger, WordPress, YouTube, and Facebook and Twitter) do say “It’s free” now – they make their money on advertising connected to user content.   A world where people use ad blockers and “do not track” would seem grim for this business model in the future.  Furthermore, a  lot of people have “moral” objections to this model – saying that only authors should get the advertising revenue – but that would destroy the social media and UGC (user-generated content) world as we know it.  Consider the POD book publishing world. POD publishers actually do perform “content evaluation” for hate speech and legal problems, and do collect hefty fees for initial publication.  But lately they have become more aggressive with authors about books sales, a sign that they wonder about their own sustainability.

There are other challengers for those whose “second careers” like mine are based on permissive UGC.  One is the weakening of network neutrality rules, as I have covered here before.  The second comment period ends Aug. 17.  The telecom industry, through its association, has said there is no reason for ordinary web sites to be treated any differently than they have been, but some observers fear that some day new websites could have to pay to be connected to certain providers (beyond what you pay for a domain name and hosting now).

There have also been some fears in the past, which have vanished with time.  One flare-up started in 2004-2005 when some observers that political blogs could violate federal election laws by being construed as indirect “contributions”.   A more practically relevant problem is simply online reputation and the workplace, especially in a job where one has direct reports, underwriting authority, or the ability to affect a firm to get business with “partisanship”.  One point that gets forgotten often is that, indeed, social media sites can be set up with full privacy settings so that they’re not searchable.  Although that doesn’t prevent all mishaps (just as handwritten memos or telephone calls can get you in trouble at work in the physical world) it could prevent certain kinds of workplace conflicts.  Public access to amateur content could also be a security concern, in a situation where an otherwise obscure individual is able to become “famous” online, he could make others besides himself into targets.

Another personal flareup occurred in 2001 when I tried to buy media perils insurance and was turned down for renewal because of the lack of a third-party gatekeeper. This issue flared into debate in 2008 briefly but subsided.  But it’s conceivable that requirements could develop that sites (at least through associated businesses) pay for themselves and carry media liability insurance, as a way of helping account for the community hygiene issue of potential bad actors.

All of this said, the biggest threat to online free expression could still turn out to be national security, as in some of my recent posts.  While the mainstream media have talked about hackers and cybersecurity (most of all with elections), physical security for the power grid and for digital data could become a much bigger problem than we thought if we attract nuclear or EMP attacks, either from asymmetric terrorism or from rogue states like North Korea.  Have tech companies really provided for the physical security of their clouds and data given a threat like this?

Note the petition and suggested Congressional content format suggested by Electronic Frontier Foundation for bills like SESTA. It would be useful to know how British Commonwealth and European countries handle the downstream liability issues, as a comparison point. It’s also important to remember that a weakened statutory downstream liability protection for a service provider does not automatically create that liability.

(Posted: Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

Bloggers, press credentials, and “legitimacy”

Last week I went to a small demonstration about the lapsing of network neutrality on the Capitol grounds.  After all the speeches, Sen. Markin (D-MA) asked if there were questions, from the press (non-restrictive, I thought). But when I didn’t have a media company employing me (I said I was “independent”) I was “silenced”. Here is my legacy blog account of the incident.

Then, yesterday “it” happened again.  I got an email from a PR company about an opportunity to interview a particular transgender activist, who was going to speak in Washington at a meeting of the American Federation of Teachers.  I asked if I could just go to the meeting.  Apparently, only if I worked for a media company.  I got the impression the PR person wouldn’t have offered the interview had he realized I work solo.

In fact, I get a lot of emails asking if I would interview someone.  Some, but probably a minority, of them mention the possibility of articles on one of my legacy Blogger sites (like “Bill of GLBT Issues”) which obviously don’t come from a “professional news organization.” Most of these invitations are with persons with very narrowly focused niche issues (sometimes embedded in identity politics), or sometimes very specific products or services to sell (of the “self-help” variety), not of broadband interest, so I usually don’t try to follow up.  But what if I got an invitation to talk to someone involved in an issue I view as critical and underreported by the mainstream press, like power grid security?

One of the best links on this issue seems to come from NPPA, “The Voice of Visual Journalists”, which poses the blunt question “How do I obtain press credentials if I do not work for a newspaper or magazine or I am a freelancer?”

There is a US Press Association which appears to offer cards for a membership fee, and I’m not sure how well recognized it is by the industry.

Some videos suggest that “YouTubers” and Bloggers can get press passes for trade shows (like CES) if they are persistent enough.

But many other sources on the Web (for example, WikiHow) suggest that you need to work for someone, and get paid for what you do, at least with a contractual agreement if not an actual employee.   It would be a good question if you can work for your own company in this sense.  Maybe you would have to register your business with the state you live or work in, or show that it pays its own way with normal accounting.

Of course, it’s obvious that many events have to keep the audience small and limited because of space and security reasons (White House briefings).

On the other hand, many events (such as QA’s for newly released motion pictures at film festivals) are open to the public (buying tickets) and take questions from anyone.  Most of the video I present on my parallel “media reviews” blog (older than this one) come from this setup.

There’s a potential dark cloud down the road regarding the issue of press credentials or legitimacy (v. amateurism).  Imagine a world a few years from now where all network neutrality has been eliminated, and only the websites of “credentialed” organizations can be connected to ISP’s   Sounds like Russia or China, maybe.

On the other hand, Donald Trump has expressed a dislike of mainstream “liberal” media companies (CNN, most of the television broadcast networks, most of the big city newspapers), but respects only outlets like Fox, OANN, and maybe even Breitbart, maybe even Milo.  Maybe he actually respects me.

For the record, let me say that I am interested in working with news outlets on some critical issues.  I can’t give more details right now.

(Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2017 at 11 AM)

As “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality” approaches, the doomsday debate heats up

Just as “The Event” approaches July 12, I got into more debate over network neutrality expiration in the U.S. on Facebook yesterday, and here is a summary of the latest in my own following of the topic.

If you want to make a comment to the FCC (before July 17), go to the “browse-popular-proceedings” link, where you can search and look for comments people have already made. The proper from to submit an “express comment” seems to be this one.

The FCC has already been bombarded by spam comments, some of them hateful or even racist toward the FCC chairman, according to this story on the Verge (Vox Media).

The Internet and Television Association makes this comment, reaffirming its commitment to an “open Internet”, which it followed up with paid print newspaper ads.  The New York Times had thrown cold water on Pai’s promised of “voluntary compliance” with no-throttle ethics in this editorial late in April.

But back in April, Rand Fishkin, on a Marketing Industry WhiteBoard, wrote a particularly telling predictive analysis of what could happen over time. The comments (closed now) add a lot to the debate and are well worth reading.

The most likely adverse scenario (which would probably take two or three years to develop) sounds like it comes out of the T-Mobile’s “illegal” plan a few months back to offer a bare-bones service that didn’t offer full Internet. There would seem to be a possibility that the telecom industry could treat websites as cable channels. It sounds like cheap, basic plans could offer families (especially consumers not particularly interested in the Web, or those wanting to shield small children) only a few sites favored by the ISP. More expensive plans could offer everything, as we know it today, with the Cadillac plans offering super high speeds in some areas. A small business owner could have to consider whether to pay for hookup so that lower-income or less wired people could find the business online. It might not be worth it. This could be a serious hindrance for some kinds of small businesses, especially tech innovations. But I’ve seen elements of this debate before, as with COPA a few years ago (as to how to screen objectionable content from minors).

This kind of development might not affect a blogger (with my “do ask do tell” model) like me much, because, frankly, I probably interact mostly with the choir, with people who want to be wired all the time anyway. Not to be offensive, but I doubt very many “blue collar” families in “Trump country” find me anyway.

This sort of a development sounds like a bigger threat to artists and musicians who often sell directly through their own domains (which POD publishers today try to goad authors into doing with volume discounts, bypassing Amazon laziness).

That’s one reasons there are some “collective” sites like Bandcamp (musicians) and Hubspace (writers) which probably offer some supervision and could offer bargaining power in a no-net envurinment. Bandcamp is interesting, as I know a number of composers and performers (especially in the classical music area) in New York, Los Angeles, and overseas. The classical music industry has a commissioning business model for new works, which can create certain ethical tensions. Some artists are starting to rely on Bandcamp more, and even want to train consumers to learn to buy from it, and get used to PayPal, rather than the laziness of the rich-man’s Amazon. Bandcamp was also developed as a way to encourage consumers to pay reasonably for content rather than use illegal downloads or get lazy with Youtube; it tries to balance out the “Its free” problem (previous posting).

Until now, it’s been considered more “professional” for artists and writers to develop their own WordPress sites under their own domain names. “No-net-neutrality” could change this, encouraging collectives and also throwing people back to free platforms like Blogger and free WordPress – but can we count on the business models for these platforms to last forever, given the resistance of the public to (including me) to engage ads (partly out of valid security and privacy concerns)? In the past few years, I’ve generally come to agree with pundits (like Blogger’s Nitecruz) that you shouldn’t depend on someone else’s free service.

I’ve also noted that hosting companies like Blue Host could help assuage the problem with subdomain and add-on structures that they have already set up. I recently had an informal chat with Site Lock on how all this works.

I note the debate over whether bloggers need specific attention to SEO, and whether that would change as net neutrality in the U.S. dissolves. I think it’s particularly important for people who depend on selling to others from a small business and whose website really can bring in sales.  That’s not true of all small businesses, and it’s not true of “provocateur” (yes, Milo!!) blogs like mine.  For these, the content text itself seems to carry in visitors.  “Blogtyrant’s” idea of email subscription mailing lists (in these days when people fight off spam as a security threat) seems to make the most sense to narrow niche businesses with customers who have specific needs that the business owner serves, including with its online activity. Remember the listservers (pre-social media) of the 1990s.

Still, the long range fallout from a “no net neutrality” position in the US could be pressure on small, neighborhood businesses. I think about my favorite gay disco, Town DC, which will close because of pressure big corporate real estate in another year. My favorite Westover Market and Beer Garden in Arlington could face similar pressures eventually, after all it has put into the business. I think of the independent book stores (that used to include Lambda Rising) which my POD publisher pesters me to cater to. I think of independent authors who sell books in higher volumes from their own sites than I do. Some local businesses are truly “local” and may not be affected as much by national web policies as they already depend on foot traffic. But the overall trend from loss of net neutrality could even be more pressure on small businesses to disappear or be bought out by large corporations.

In a recent op-ed, David Brooks noted that conservative philosophy, properly applied, emphasizes local activity, people helping one another, and local ownership of enterprise, and initiative.  That accompanies personal freedom at individualized levels, as Andrew Sullivan argued so well in the 1990s. What worries me is that the Trump administration seems to view conservatism as Putin-style oligarchy, where everyone is “rightsized” into some role of national purpose.

I’m not much into joining collective demonstrations simply against the “rich” or those “better off” than I am, as I am likewise more privileged than some people. I like to target my activity where I can make a real difference in how a policy turns out (I did this pretty well with “gays in the military” some years ago) by encouraging critical thinking. As a general matter, telecom, like any industry (most of all, banking), needs some regulation in the public interest once there are too few companies for genuine competition. (That’s partly what anti-trust is all about.) But you could say an individual like me, who doesn’t have a stake in life with specific dependents, ought to be reined in when my operations don’t pay their own way. Fairness looks both ways. When seeking regulation (just as with health care) be careful what you ask for.

(Posted: Friday, June 30, 2017 at 1:45 PM EDT)

Update: July 12

Report on my visit to a demonstration at the Capitol, here.

Social media companies and economic value: what happens when everybody believes “It’s free, it’s free”, like at the public library

There’s a rather shocking and strident article in the Washington Post today, by Larry Downes. “Google and Facebook contribute zero economic value. And that’s a big problem for trade.”

The article specifically talks in terms of Gross Domestic Product, as economists define it. And online services contribute, well, zero, because all the content they deliver is free.

Well, not exactly.  Advertisers pay these services, especially for clicks or, even better, a little commission (that sometimes goes to writers) when consumers make real world purchases.  And Madison Avenue companies had, I thought, always counted in the GDP, at least in Big Apple speak.

On a bigger view, tech certainly contributes to GDP.  Telecom companies charge consumers more or less the way utility companies do.  It’s not free.  And there are even some glimmers, or rumors, that in a no-net-neutrality environment, big telecom may eventually charge websites (or hosting companies and service companies like Google and Facebook) to be hooked up more efficiently.   That idea may be contributing to the development of intermediary platforms for certain artists and writers, like Bandcamp and Hubspace.  By the way, Google is facing fines for the way it uses its “monopoly” for “promoting” its own stuff in Europe, an idea that parallels the net neutrality problem in the U.S. now.

It’s true, we’ve gotten used to the fact that a lot of good web content is free.  A lot of economists or other moralists think that’s not a good thing.  But we need to view these statements with some degree of balance.  Many newspapers and quality periodicals now have paywalls.  Many platforms charge for legal downloading, although often less than things cost in the physical world (like watching new movies on Amazon), and others have monthly subscriptions to bundle charges (Netflix) resulting in lower costs for consumers over time.

Furthermore, and this is important, some websites offering “free content” do support sales of real products (like books) or services (like insurance) in a tangible way   So in that sense, these kinds of sites pay their own way.  “Blogtyrant” (Ramsy Taplin) has explored his issue recently with postings and lively comments threads (June 12).

I agree, that a pundit like me poses certain “moral” questions.  Most of my content is viewed free, and I don’t actually personally need for my own web activity to be self-supporting, the way things are set up now (and have been so since the mid 1990s).  As I’ve noted before, it is very difficult for me to become somebody else’s mouthpiece, and it is very difficult to enter into a “real” relationship where others with “needs” depend on me and where I find that personally rewarding.   There’s a chicken and egg problem:  maybe you need to have (or at least adopt) kids first, or belong to some identity group and feel partial to that group, first.

It is true that people, especially teens and young adults, need to grow up in the real world.  No, I’m not ready to go off the grid to a cabin in the woods, because, given what I have done, I have to keep things going all the time.  And the idea of a teacher’s “bribing” students to give up screen time one day a week in the summer seems silly to me.

But I do think teens should take advantage of all real-world opportunities first (sports, drama, music, outdoors, travel [not to North Korea]) first.  I know of a teen who directed a church play a few years ago, “Wise Guys”, and as far as I know, it’s never become a film. My challenge to a recent college graduate might be, produce it!   I had my own opportunity with piano lessons and even composition contests n the 1950s through very early 1960s.   The manuscript shown here, handwritten from the 1959-1960 winter snow days, attests to my own grounding in the physical world.  But my activity was personally expressive and self-driven, not social or relational or needs-based.  The logical outcome is that not everyone wins, not everyone gets recognized as a star.  Some people lead, and the rest of us become the “meek little followers”, whether singing in a mixed chorus in high school (oh, those Spring concerts), or working as an activist, and even for people whose needs make them fall far short of examples of libertarian examples of “personal responsibility”.

I wish Reid Ewing would bring back his three short films “It’s Free” from 2012 (with Igigistudios).  They would make a real point now. Maybe to “be free” you have to help people enough that they want to pay for your stuff.

Mozilla has its own podcast page about the future of free stuff,

(Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at 5 PM EDT)

How an article on the workplace and automation leads us back to network neutrality and other potential issues for Internet user-generated content

A guest post by 30-year-old Australian blogging (and physical fitness) guru Ramsay Taplin (aka “Blogtyrant“), in “Goins, Writer” about how to deal with the invasion of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace (when these innovations threaten to replace you) rather accidentally re-ignites the debate over the future of the Internet and ordinary speech on it in the United States.  (Before I go further, I’ve love to meet the huge cat on Ramsay’s Twitter page.)

Ramsay’s post seems to be a bit in the tradition of libertarian George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowen’s book “Average Is Over,” outlining how middling people need to deal with the changing modern workplace.  At a crucial point in his essay, Ramsay, after suggesting that employed people consider starting small businesses on their own time, recommends most business owners (as well as professionals like lawyers, financial planners, agents, and even book authors) stake out their property in “modern real estate” with a professionally hosted blog site.  But then he dismissively adds the caveat, “unless the Internet changes dramatically through removing net neutrality…”

Later, he writes “make sure everything you do on the Internet helps someone,” a very important base concept that I’ll come back to. He gives a link to a compelling essay on personal and workplace ethics in a site called “Dear Design Student”, about how you can’t lead a double life and be believed forever.  You can see my conversation with him in the comments.

Whoa, there.  OK, Ramsay works (“from his couch”) in Australia, part of the British Commonwealth, and, like most western-style democratic countries, the Aussie World maintains statutory network neutrality regulations on its own turf (I presume).  But, as we know, under the new Trump administration and new FCC chair Ajit Pai, the Obama era’s network neutrality protections, largely set in place (in 2015) by maintaining that self-declared “neutral conduit” telecommunications companies are common carriers, will almost certainly be disbanded late this summer in the U.S. after the formal comment period is over.  Pro-neutrality advocates (including most tech companies) plan a “Day of Action” July 12, which Breitbart characterized in rather hyperbolic farce.

That situation puts American companies at odds with the rest of the capitalist democratic world (definitely not including Russia and China).  There are plenty of political advocacy pressure groups with “Chicken Little” “Sky Is Falling” warnings (along with aggressive popups for donations) about how exposed small companies and individual speakers online may be intentionally silenced (as I had outlined here on May 11).  Right away, I rebut by noting that not only is there to be (according to Pai) “voluntary compliance”, but also every major general-purpose telecom company in the US seems to say it has no intention to throttle ordinary sites.  In fact, most consumers, when they sign up for Internet, want full access to everything out there on the indexed web, so doing so would make no business sense.

Even so, some comparison of the world now to what it was a few decades ago, when I came of age, is in order.  Telephone companies were monopolistic but were regulated, so they couldn’t refuse service to consumers they didn’t like.  None of this changed as ATT break-up into the Bell’s happened (something I watched in the 80s-job market for I.T.)  But until the WWW came along in the mid-90s, the regulations only protected consumers getting content (phone calls), not wanting to upload it with no gatekeepers for pre-approval.  Back then, in a somewhat regulated environment, companies did make technological innovations for big paying customers (like DOD).  Pai would seem to be wrong in asserting that all regulation will stop innovation.

It’s also noteworthy that the FCC regulated broadcast networks, especially the number of television stations they could own (I remember this while working for NBC in the 1970s).  Likewise, movie studios were not allowed to own theater chains (that has somewhat changed more recently).

But by analogy, it doesn’t seem logical that reasonable rules preventing ordinary content throttling would stymie innovation where there are real benefits to consumers (like higher speeds for high definition movies, or for emergency medical services, and the like), or, for that matter, better service in rural areas.

There are also claims that new telecom technologies could enter the market, and that Obama-like net neutrality rules would stifle newcomer telecom companies.  Maybe this could bear on super-high-speed FIOS, for example, that Google has tried in a few cities.

Then, some of the punditry get speculative.  For example, a faith-based ISP might want to set up a very restricted service for religious families. It sounds rather improbable, but maybe that needs to be OK.  Or maybe a Comcast or Verizon wants to offer a low-end Internet service that doesn’t offer all websites, just an approved whitelist.  Maybe that appeals to locally socialized families with little interest in “globalism”.  That sounds a little more serious in its possible impact on other small businesses trying to reach them.

Another idea that cannot be dismissed out of hand, is that telecom companies could be prodded to deny connection access to illegal content, such as terror promotion or child pornography, or even sex trafficking (as with the Backpage controversy).

If we did have an environment where websites had to pay every telecom company to be hooked up to them, it’s likely that hosting companies like Bluehost would have to build this into their fees to take care of it.  I actually have four separate hosted WordPress blog domains.  It’s significant that Bluehost (and probably other companies) allow a user just one hosting account with a primary domain name.  Add-on domains are internally made subdomains of the primary and converted internally.  So, the user would probably only he “charged” for one hookup, regardless of the number of blogs.  (It’s also possible to put separate blogs in separate installations of WordPress in separate directories, I believe, but I see no reason now to try it.)   But one mystery to me is, that if Bluehost does have a “primary domain” concept with subdomains, why can’t it make the entire network https (SSL) instead of just one “real” domain?  I expect this will change.  SSL is still pretty expensive for small businesses to offer (they can generally outsource their credit card operations and consumer security, but there is more pressure, from groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation, to implement “https everywhere” for all content).

It’s also worthy of note that “free blogs” on services like Blogger and WordPress use a subdomain concept, so there is only one domain name hookup per user to any ISP.  That’s why Blogger can offer https to its own hosted blogs but not to blogs that default to user-owned domain names.

We can note that search engines like Google and Bing aren’t held to a “neutrality” policy and in fact often change their algorithms to prevent unfair (“link farming”) practices by some sites.

So, here we are, having examined net neutrality and its supposed importance to small site owners (nobody really worried about this until around 2008 it seems).  But there are a lot of other issues that could threaten the Internet as we know it.  Many of the proposals revolve around the issue of “downstream liability”:  web hosting companies and social media companies don’t have to review user posts before self-publication for legal problems;  if they had to, users simply could not be allowed to self-publish.  (That’s how things were until the mid 1990s.)  But, as I’ve noted, there are proposals to water down “Section 230” provisions in the US because of issues like terrorism recruiting (especially by ISIS), cyberbulling, revenge porn, and especially sex trafficking (the Backpage scandal).  Hosts and social media companies do have to remove (and report) child pornography now when they find it or when it is flagged by users, but even that content cannot be screened before the fact.  And Facebook and Twitter are getting better at detecting terror recruiting, gratuitous violence, fake news, and trafficking.  But widescale abuse by combative and relatively less educated users starts to raise the ethical question about whether user-generated content needs to pay its own way, rather than become a gratuitous privilege for those who really don’t like to interact with others whom they want to criticize.

In Europe and British Commonwealth countries there is apparently less protection from downstream liability allowed service providers than in the U.S., which would be the reverse of the legal climate when compared to the network neutrality issue.  And Europe has a “right to be forgotten” concept. Yet, user-generated content still seems to flourish in western countries besides the U.S.

I mentioned earlier the idea that a small business or even personal website should help the reader in a real-world sense.  Now Ramsay’s ideas on Blogtyrant seem most applicable to niche marketing.  That is, a business meeting a narrow and specific consumer need will tend to attract followers (hence Blogtyrant’s recommendations for e-mail lists that go beyond the fear of spam and malware).  It’s noteworthy that most niche markets probably would require only one blog site (despite my discussion above of how hosting and service providers handle multiple blogs from one user.) It’s pretty easy to imagine what niche blogs would be like:  those of lawyers (advising clients), financial planners, real estate agents, insurance agents, tax preparers, beauty products, fashion, and games and sports (especially chess).  It would seem that gaming would create its own niche areas.  And there are the famous mommy blogs (“dooce” by Heather Armstrong, who added a new verb to English – note her site has https –, although many later “mommy” imitations have not done nearly so well).  I can imagine how a well-selling fiction author could set up a niche blog, to discuss fiction writing (but not give away her own novels).

Another area would be political activism, where my own sense of ethics makes some of this problematical, although Ii won’t get into that here.

In fact, my whole history has been the opposite, to play “Devil’s advocate” and provide “objective commentary” and “connect the dots” among almost everything, although how I got into this is a topic for another day (it had started with gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell” in the US in the 1990s, and everything else grew around it).   One could say that my entering the debate this way meant I could never become anyone else’s mouth piece for “professional activism” or conventional salesmanship (“Always Be Closing”).  I guess that at age 54 I traded queens into my own (chess) endgame early, and am getting to the king-and-pawn stage, looking for “the opposition”.

There’s a good question about what “helps people”.  “The Asylumist” is a good example; it is written by an immigration lawyer Jason Dzubow specifically to help asylum seekers.  Jason doesn’t debate the wisdom of immigration policy as an intellectual exercise, although he has a practical problem of communicating what asylum seekers can expect during the age of Trump – and some of it is unpredictable. On this (my) blog, I’ve tried to explore what other civilians who consider helping asylum seekers (especially housing them personally) could expect.  Is that “helping people” when what I publish is so analytical, tracing the paths of speculation?  I certainly have warned a lot of people about things that could get people into trouble, for example, allowing someone else (even an Airbnb renter!) to use your home Internet router connection, for which you could be personally liable (sorry, no personalized Section 230).  Is the end result (of my own blog postings) to make people hesitant to offer a helping hand to immigrants out of social capital (and play into Donald Trump’s hands)?  I think I’m making certain problems a matter of record so policy makers consider them, and I have some ample evidence that they do.  But does that “help people” the way a normal small business does?

Getting back to how a blog helps a small business, the underlying concept (which does not work with my operation) is that the business pays for itself, by meeting real needs that consumers pay for (let’s hope they’re legitimate, not porn).  Legitimate business use of the Internet should come from “liking people.”  If blogging were undermined by a combination of policy changes in the US under Trump, it might not affect people everywhere else (although Theresa May wants it to), and it would be especially bad for me with my free-content model based on wealth accumulated elsewhere (some of it inherited but by no means all of it); but legitimate for-profit businesses will always have some basic way to reach their customers.

There has been talk of threats to blogging before.  One of the most serious perils occurred around 2005, in connection with campaign finance reform in the U.S., which I had explained here.

(Posted: Monday, June 12, 2017 at 12 noon EDT USA)

Could undoing Network Neutrality rules really mean smallfry sites would have to pay off telecomm providers to be connected? Really?

Let’s imagine an entrepreneur invents some new superfast FIOS or cable technology that would be very effective for long high-definition videos, perhaps 3-D, perhaps even holographic or virtual reality.

A telecommunications company like Verizon, ATT or Comcast wants to offer it to some residential customers. It invites high profile, high-volume content distributors like some major movie studios, some (perhaps selected) cable channels, Amazon, and social media giants like Facebook to sign on and pay extra for the more efficient streaming of their content to largely more affluent consumers in some urban communities. Furthermore, these companies give price breaks for connecting to content that they own (for example Comcast has direct ties to NBC and Universal Pictures and Focus Features).

This sounds like it would not be allowed now under Obama’s network neutrality (after the FCC ruled that telecommunications companies were the legal equivalent of telephone companies of the monopolistic past, even after the breakup of “Ma Bell”, which, by the way, gave me more than a few job interviews when my own adult career started around 1970). It sounds as though the new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, appointed by Donald Trump, wants this to be allowed.

Is this really a problem? If the service were available to home consumers (even only in certain locations) as an add-on to normal service, I don’t see a problem. Ordinary internet sites, including those owned by small businesses and free commentary blogs like mine, would work for consumers the same way they always had. However, a consumer who wanted to watch a 3-D comics-based movie on her home entertainment center when it first came out and wanted to pay for it this way with extra service would be able to.

Where I would be more concerned is if the hypothetical new service replaced the old one, and because of the physics of how it is offered, ordinary sites were no longer available. Only high-volume sites from large companies (especially those owned by one of the telecoms) that had paid to be connected to this service would be available on this hookup to some consumers. Such a consumer might believe that her smart phone with ordinary 4G LTE wireless provides adequate access to “ordinary” sites, which need to be mobile friendly anyway. That’s not so much of a problem for bloggers any more, because WordPress and Blogger make sites mobile-easy automatically anyway.

How probable this scenario really is, would depend on looking at how the hardware works.   I remember community college courses on the OSI model back in the 1990s. It’s that kind of stuff.

The reason I paint this scenario is largely that a number of advocacy organizations have been publishing veiled warnings that ISP’s might actually charge individual sites to be connected to their networks. This would obviously be devastating to small businesses, especially those that depend on niche blogs (the way Ramsay Taplan, the Australian “Blog Tyrant”) says the way they should be marketed. That lays aside rogue independent journalists like me who offer our blogs “free” in order to be noticed, and more about that later. In fact, the “DearFCC” petition letter promoted recently by the Electronic Frontier Foundation seems to pander to this idea (legacy post). Even “mainstream” news sites like the Washington Post have dropped these hints. Sometimes I wonder if this does border on “fake news” and if Donald Trump could actually be right.

An environment where every domain had to pay every company to be connected could favor “free service” publishing services: that is, Blogger, WordPress, Tumbler, etc., which are predicated on there being just one domain to connect. There’s the interesting side observation that it is already much easier to make “free service” blogs encrypted under SSL and “https everywhere”, because that works by domain name.  That goes against conventional wisdom that a blog is much viewed as much more “professional” when it is tied to a domain named and paid-for domain name. BlueHost and other vendors have developed ways to equate these to “add on” subdomains, so the SSL issue may change in the relatively near future. That would imply, to me at least, that in a non-net-neutral world of the future, hosting companies (like BlueHost) would take care of the connection fees.  It’s also important to note that “free service” platforms don’t offer direct support and can terminate users wrongfully and capriciously (the “spam blog” problem).  And will the business model for free services hold up forever?  It’s always “risky” to put all your marbles on someone else’s free service, so conventional wisdom goes.  You have to add that people use Facebook (especially fan pages as opposed to “friends”, along with controversial news aggregation), Myspace (in the more distant past — the way Ashton Kutcher used it), Instagram and Twitter to supplement self-publishing, and these mega-rich services would always be able to pay for special treatment in a non-neutral environment.

Other sites have noted that Ajit Pai claims he will secure pseudo-voluntary compliance promises from big telecoms that they will not interfere with ordinary operation of the Internet for ordinary content providers and consumers. There is some question as to how “voluntary” these promises would remain and whether the FTC (not FCC) could enforce them with fines. If Pai is credible, then the net neutrality scare talk (not all of it from the Left) is indeed “hot air”, about a problem that doesn’t exist.

Another observation is that we have had years of Internet service, from the late 1990s until 2015, when net neutrality became formal under Obama, without any of these rumored consequences. Frankly, the world in which I started writing online, around 1997, with 56K modems through AOL, wasn’t all that bad. I actually stood out more then than I do now! But, as Timothy B. Lee recently wrote in Vox, ISP’s have tended to “voluntarily” stay on good behavior since about 2008 because they expected Net Neutrality to come about, even before Obama was elected.

It’s a fair question, too, to wonder what happens in other western countries – Europe, UK, Australia, and Canada especially. My impression is that they have some strong neutrality rules.

Furthermore, it seems relevant that some companies have already tried super-fast Internet in some local areas, like Google FIOS, which I thought had been set up around Kansas City, Chattanooga, Austin, Atlanta, and a few other places, but has a clouded future. Could the specifics of hookup to these networks affect the way any new innovative services want to charge for providing fast lanes for their content?

Finally, I’ll add a remark that some pundits seem to think that people shouldn’t give away content “for free” on the Internet at all, that everything published online should carry its own weight, as I noted on a legacy blog post yesterday. I would like to see Reid Ewing’s little film “It’s Free” become available again. But the details of that are for another day.

(Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)