Freedom of speech, freedom of press. Yes, they’re related.

Freedom of speech is often used (and misused) as an umbrella term for many different types of “rights”. Freedom of the press is however legitimately and closely linked to the principle of Free Speech, as it protects the right to obtain and publish information or opinions in the form of news, books, publications, magazines, films, television, radio etc. without the risk of censorship or punishment.

We deem freedom of the press to be important because it is the ultimate source of information for citizens, and ideally it would remain independent from the government to maintain its value as a public service. While freedom of press is often abused (tabloids for example), it is key to the preservation of a functioning democracy. One would hope that, as a democratic society, the United States would have a fairly open marketplace of ideas. However it is seems clear that this is not a fully democratic society and it’s marketplace of ideas is not a fully open and accessible one.

The intermixing of corporate power and politics makes it difficult for the ordinary citizen to have a say in the degree to which our speech is protected, and if you think that you have nothing to do with the press, you might want to think again. An individual’s freedom of expression is closely linked to the freedom of the press because the extent to which one can obtain ideology and thus impart it “freely” is dependent on what information is actually available and how easily it is made so.

It would be wrong to think of the two freedoms as separate things because they are in fact inseparable. There is obviously an entire different argument to be made out of all the shady free press claims used to publish libel, slander, obscene and indecent information. However, if we agree that one of the best ways to progress a society’s collective ideological will is through a marketplace of ideas willing to accept dissent, and if we care about our right to free speech, then we should have deep consideration for the future of our freedom of press.

Find out more

Net neutrality, conglomerate, mergers, FCC, consolidation, ownership, freedom of speech. These are just a few of the terms that I have thrown out here and there in my past posts, and I understand that it is easy to get confused. Therefore I have decided to redirect you to a few websites that have multiple sections that can clear your doubts on any of the components of this topic.

Time magazine, Washington Post and The Guardian have all three written articles about media consolidation and in particular the Comcast – Time Warner merger. Mainly though the websites that are most actively concentrated on this issue are watchdog groups, consumer unions and other types of grassroots organizations.

Commoncause.org for example states Fighting Media Monopolies as one of their four priorities for 2014. As outlined on their website, Common Cause is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. After waves of mergers and consolidation have left a handful of corporate conglomerates in control of 90 percent of the American media. New, dangerous rules are currently pending at the FCC that would allow further consolidation. Common Cause is working with a diverse coalition to stop this misguided policy.”

Another site worth noting is Freepress.net, which in describing itself said “For far too long, government officials and corporations have made corrupt media policy behind closed doors. These policies have led to runaway media consolidation, which in turn has led to corporate control over our print media, our broadcasting stations, our radio dial and the Internet. If we want to change this dynamic, we must ensure the public has a seat at the table when media policies are made.” Not only is this a very large and active group, but they also keep a blog updated with articles and research that are always revealing. I suggest this website to anyone to read up and possibly get involved as well.

Lastly, for high-quality reporting on these issues, you will want to visit Billmoyers.com. This site collects insightful articles as well as TV episodes presented by Bill Moyers himself. Differently than other websites that pertain to activist groups, this site is exclusively a journalism outlet, offering refreshing stories that analyze these situations in a larger socio political context. As one journalist on the site so lucidly points out, “While our First Amendment forbids government censorship, free speech may be under more threat in 2014 than in the 70 years. The threat comes as much from powerful media corporations as it does from our government.” If you are interested in joining coalitions to stop these mega mergers from going through, this site will provide tons of extra information for you to be adequately prepared.

And then there were Five

If you’ve read my last post, you know that Comcast is currently attempting to engage in a $45 billion merger with Time Warner with the “intent” to increase competition and consumer satisfaction. As I’ve already outlined this seems paradoxical as both companies have some of the worst ratings in the country for service quality – two lousy providers join forces to become suddenly “the best”? Sure.

What’s more is that the new company would have control of both television and internet in more than 30% of American homes, as well as holding monopolies in various mega-cities including New York, Chicago and LA. For those who do not fully understand what this translates to in realistic terms, I will explain. Televised content will be under scrutiny now by one single corporation that can decide what to air and what not, effectively limiting minority groups, political opposition groups and others alike to disseminate culture and information through TV. If you want to produce a TV show, they will decide whether it can or cannot be aired, and if it is controversial, goes against their political view, hurts subsidiaries, or harms big advertisers, it is at their discretion to allow it or not. So you might say now, there is still the internet where anyone can do whatever they please. In fact though, it turns out that one cannot really do how they please on the internet. Because Comcast’s net neutrality agreement lasts only until 2018, they will soon be able to selectively manipulate visibility and speed of any type of content, and services that stream content over their cable network will either have to pay for premium access or be forced out of the game. Similarly, any type of unwanted information or content such as political dissent, could be censored from their network.

This situation however is not only relevant to Comcast and Time Warner customers, it should be relevant to everyone since it is a menace to our Democracy much more than it is a menace to our entertainment. As Katrina vanden Heuvel writes in the Washington Post, “the merger doesn’t just affect the marketplace of cable; it threatens the marketplace of ideas. The protection of free speech under our Constitution depends on citizens having access to many ideas, many sources, many ways of getting ideas and information. Letting mega-corporations consolidate control of key parts of the media infrastructure directly threatens that access.” It thus seems clear that this merger should never be allowed from the moment that it does not benefit anyone apart from a few corporate interests.

In fact it all seems absurd, yet, if it is allowed, it will be because of Comcasts heavy effort in lining the pockets of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. Last year, the company spent over $18 billion in lobbying efforts, and numerous of its board members have been or currently are involved in politics. With its long history of deregulation followed by crises, America is notorious for being corrupted at core by corporate interests. It is time to realize that the increased consolidation of media will eventually lead to oligarchy if not total monopoly, and that corporate financial aims should never be met at the expense of a free marketplace of ideas, democracy is at stake and the citizens interest should be served first.

Walking in corporate shoes

Those in favour of supporting media consolidation have provided many arguments to back up their positions. As I will be writing about the impending mega-merger between Comcast and Time Warner I think it can be interesting to consider their “alleged” opinion on the situation

Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable announced on February 14th that they would merge together in what they called a ”friendly, stock-for-stock transaction”.  This transaction, they say, is expected to open the field for “ground-breaking products on a superior network”.

Acoording to the CEO of Comcast Corporation, the two companies want to ”deliver the most innovative products and services and a superior customer experience within the highly competitive and dynamic marketplace in which [they] operate.”

Strangely, because the marketplace in which they operate is not all that competitive after all, particularly if we think of the fact that the media industry is dominated by the Big Six. Furthermore, it seems strange that they plan to offer “superior customer experience”, as both companies service is ranked extremely low in consumer reports.

In their opinion though, the merger will allow more Americans to benefit from technological advances and higher broadband speeds, as well as allowing advertisers access to more viewers. Yielding almost 11 million subscribers on top of those that already consume Comcast products, this merger should collect approximately 30% of all American cable subscribers under one single provider.

When looked at through the corporate eyes of Comcast and Time Warner, the merger seems to be a triple win for the companies, their customers, and their advertisers. Certainly it is not a win for local cable providers, and it is certainly not a win for content creators. As I will discuss in another post though, it might not be so much of a win for customers either.

Questions and Controversies

When we talk about media consolidation, monopolies, takeovers, mergers, ownership etc. many questions arise among scholars, politicians, artists and regular citizens. Most of these questions arise because the effects of all these processes tend to be very unclear. Obviously media giants claim to have legitimate aims, yet, as we have grown accustomed to being suspicious of corporate and governmental motives, we inevitably wonder what the future implications might be. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, for example, said :

“There has already been a tremendous amount of consolidation and that has had some severe consequences.  These are changes of terrible importance to the future of the country, and it is hard to see how further deregulation promotes diversity, competition and localism.”

In fact, for a very long time, media consolidation has flown under the radar without attracting much attention – (ironically) from the media that is. While we cannot go back on policies that have already been implemented, we can maintain a strong position against further deregulation of the telecommunications and media industries.  In fact, as sen. Bernard Sanders points out:

“Something is definitely shifting in the country and in Washington. Where just a few years ago most people did not think about media as an issue, and most members of Congress shied away from talking about how our media is failing to serve the public interest in even the most basic sense, now there is a real dialogue going on. And that dialogue is critical because it is forcing the FCC commissioners to listen to people other than industry lobbyists.”

That critical dialogue however must be kept alive by ordinary people, because there is very little that mainstream news is willing to provide us with. This is in itself a demonstration of the controversy represented by media consolidation. Not only do certain corporations want to endlessly pursue their financial well being at the expense of democracy, but they are the very same corporations that we supposedly “trust” to be circulating this kind of information.

Increased media consolidation, says Capitol Broadcasting President James F. Goodmon,

“will change what citizens in every community in America receive on their local news, sports, weather and public affairs programs, as well as how they receive it, and it will determine the kind of national network programming that ultimately is available in their homes. This debate should not take place with deal making and concessions between a few major media companies and a government agency with appointed, not elected, officials.”

The consequences of these processes are complex, and essentially, we should not allow big corporate money to decide for us.

The Illusion of Choice

Nowadays it seems like we have a huge variety of media products to choose from, and in fact we do. Yet, we might not have all that much variety in terms of, say, ideology, as media ownership is increasingly held by few individuals/corporations. In a country like the U.S., where freedom of speech is invoked left and right, it is very worrying that this topic has not received much attention. It is not surprising though, since the only outlets for this topic to receive attention are controlled by the very organizations implicated in the issue. 

These are also known as the Big Six, a group of media giants that, together, control 90% of what the U.S. watches, reads and listens to. These six companies are Comcast, NewsCorp, Viacom, Disney, Time Warner and CBS. This means that for every 850.000 citizens there is only 1 media executive, a clear indication of the gravity of this issue.

The Comcast-NBC merger for example guarantees the conglomerate a monopoly of over 10 U.S. markets, including all of New York and Chicago. 

Time Warner instead provides the same news to more than 170 million unique users, under the guise of different outlets such as CNN, Time and Huff Post.

News Corp owns the top three newspapers in America, Europe and Oceania. In 2010 they received tax breaks for 875 million dollars, enough to fund 40 years of National Public Radio (NPR).

The radio however is dominated by companies such as Clear Channel that own over 800 radio stations.

While the increased consolidation of media might not directly restrict most people’s freedom of speech, it does restrict other aspects that can be considered extensions of the freedom of expression principle. According to John Milton, in fact, freedom of speech goes beyond the right to disseminate information and ideas, it also includes the right to seek information and ideas; the right to receive information and ideas and the right to impart information and ideas.

As deregulation stands to epitomize this era’s marketplaces of goods and ideas, it seems imperative that we take a closer look at these issues, particularly as the Big Six threaten to become the Big Five with the upcoming merger of Comcast and Time Warner. 

MEDIA OLIGOPOLY?

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” Thomas Jefferson

In the next two weeks I will be publishing a series of posts regarding the ever-pressing issue of media consolidation in the United States.

Media consolidation refers to the process by which fewer large organizations gain increasing amounts of share control over the national mass media, and is thus also referred to as concentration of media ownership. Practically this involves mergers, acquisitions and takeovers of media companies by other media companies, resulting in the media industry being increasingly dominated by large national firms, effectively eliminating thousands of local and smaller media outlets.

Why is this relevant to the principle of free speech though?

While media mergers are undergone by firms to increase profits and viewership, democracy remains at a loss as these limit the diversity of opinions that can actually penetrate the marketplace of ideas. As a consequence the general population is exposed to a very selective array of opinions and information while huge media corporations effectively drive underground any possibility of local and/or minority outlets to survive.

Most importantly, the information that is circulated has an extremely high potential for being politically biased. Media companies are in fact renowned for lobbying congress on a massive scale, building strong mutually beneficial relationships with policy makers so to attain legal loopholes to engage in the above mentioned mergers while allowing them (the politicians) to manipulate and control the production of media.

As fewer and fewer individuals have the means to produce media without restraints, the variety of the marketplace of ideas diminishes. I believe this is a very current phenomenon and that the first amendment right to freedom of expression is deeply limited as a result. A right that was instituted in the first place, as Thomas Jefferson so lucidly explains, to protect free press.

 

Google (and The Tyranny of the Majority)

In the context of the World Wide Web, we might think of the software giant Microsoft as Alexander The Great. A ruler whose empire stretched across the globe for decades. Then there’s Google, the Genghis Kahn of the internet, thy who conquered more than 4 times the lands of Alexander the Great. 

Despite the obvious disparity in territorial power, Alexander and Kahn are both timelessly kept in high regard. It is also important to point out that, just as they used weapons and troops that were best suited for the terrain that they fought in, both Microsoft and Google provide very different services and generate their revenue in very different ways.

Are Alexander and Kahn the best leaders to have walked this planet? I mean, they were good, and certainly they were the best by certain aspects. But from an all-inclusive perspective, I would dare to say they were far from the best, they were just the grandest.

The acclaimed prominence that they held allowed them to lack in certain other aspects, much like Google can use its prominence in people’s lives and its surplus revenues to support its other ventures, the not-so-innovative ones perhaps.

This had already happened in the 1990’s with Microsoft and it’s browser Internet Explorer, but the detrimental effect of such actions could end up being terribly magnified by Google’s actions. After all, the company is the Genghis Kahn of the situation, and in internet terms controls probably even more than four times the land that Microsoft does.

If Google uses its profitable enterprises to bankroll those ventures destined to lose money  (the cloud-based word processor for example, that is said to “quite simplistic” compare to other less known websites), it poses a concrete menace to the small and creative start ups that offer the same products often tailored to perfection at a much higher degree.

Not only does this hinder competition, it ultimately ends up killing off innovative companies that have higher potential but haven’t even a fraction of Google’s enormous reach power. This cross subsidization however is key for Google to maintain it’s users attention and loyalty which is ultimately what it aims at banking on.

Firms that provide content to the web make less and less money, Google makes more and more. Thus, the tyranny of the majority prevails.

However, neither Alexander’s empire nor Genghis Khan’s lasted infinitely. Microsoft seems to be already in rearview mirror. Google’s time as a giant will fade as well. Until the internet remains so unregulated though, Google isn’t going anywhere.

Filter Bubbles: The Web User’s Guilty Pleasure

In this TED talk Eli Pariser gives great insight into what filter bubbles actually are and why we should be aware of the implications that they carry.

Filter bubbles are like Nutella–or any other guilty pleasure for that matter. The taste is great, the effect on your weight, not so much. They are wonderful for us in terms of combating information overload and allowing us to optimize our searches, fine tuning the results to get exactly what we want. They are terrible for democracy instead, failing to present us with dissonant information that is key for the shaping of an unbiased reality.

However, I think it is important to recognize that these are benefits and drawbacks of the current functioning of filter bubbles. The problem lies within the way filter bubbles are designed, not in filter bubbles themselves.

Practically speaking we are faced with a problem, but theoretically we have something wonderful in our hands. The goal of filters is to understand the users needs and accordingly surface the content from the vast ocean of data that makes up the internet. Modern filters excel in surfacing content, but lack in ability to recognize the users needs. This lacking has always been an underlying problem when it comes to artificial intelligence. But there is hope as Pariser believes, because what is not artificial is the human cohort behind the design of the algorithms that generate the filters. They have the power to really bring out the full beneficial potential of filtering.

Selling secrets for the price of a sunday paper

After the initial agreement between The Guardian and Wikileaks in June 2010, the media partners involved hit many roadblocks. Complications regarding Assange, legal issues, trouble in coordinating publications. All of this secret and fast paced activity created a dichotomous atmosphere of stress contrasted by adrenaline, and caught up in this atmosphere were a couple dozen journalists working very hard to expose logs and cables that would result in major political inconveniences and embarrassments. The biggest dilemma I think arose only toward the end of the process though. The teams had made painstaking efforts to guarantee their secrecy. They had to protect at all costs the information that they had, it was too raw to be placed in the public sphere, and it was absolutely integral that governments and institutions not know about it, so to minimize the risk of injunctions or other bureaucratic actions. They were so caught up “playing god” about what to publish and who would be affected by it that when they stepped back for a reality check they realized they might have been doing things completely wrong. Were they getting carried along by it? Were they caught up in a little bubble perhaps? They didn’t know what repercussions their actions would have, but they couldn’t ask other parties without breaking their secrecy. Then The Guardian‘s Rusbridger received a very insightful email from a colleague. Probably the main take-away lies in one of the last sentences.

“We are a newspaper not a propaganda unit”

While the sender probably meant to encourage The Guardian not to fall into the pit of propagandizing, I find this quote particularly useful for the sake of praising the newspapers for not having done so, for working collectively without external influences, and for collaborating with Wikileaks to ensure as much transparency as possible. It is in fact this very candor that ultimately distinguishes a news outlet from a propaganda unit.