Earlier this year, we noted how traditional utilities were playing extremely dirty in Florida to try and derail efforts to ramp up solar competition and adoption in the state most likely to benefit from it. After all, the vision of a future where competition is rampant, customers pay less money, and solar users actually get paid for driving power back to the grid gives most of these executives heartburn. As a result, utilities have gotten creative in the state, launching fake solar advocacy groups that actually function to pollute public discourse and derail any amendments intended to help solar grab a larger foothold in the state.
The key group in question is "Consumers For Smart Solar," which is funded by traditional utilities, but has actually been fighting tooth and nail against solar-friendly legislative efforts in the state that would lift the ban on the sale of solar panels by third parties. The group's website describes the organization this way:
"Consumers for Smart Solar is a diverse, bipartisan coalition of business, civic, and faith-based organizations working to promote solar energy without sacrificing commonsense consumer protections. We believe Florida needs more solar and that we have to do it the right way. That means protecting consumers from scam artists, rip-offs and long-term contract traps while ensuring that those who do not choose solar electricity are treated fairly, too."
The bogus pro-solar competition group hasn't just been fighting new legislation that would expand solar adoption in Florida (where thanks to AC the average household spends $1,900 a year on power, 40% higher than the national average), it has actively been pushing Amendment 1, regulation crafted by the utility industry the group claims "guarantees your right to place solar panels on your home." Except it does nothing of the sort, and was crafted specifically to protect incumbent utilities from competition once they eventually get around to embracing the future in 2050 or so.
That Amendment 1 is a ruse being pushed by incumbent utilities and a bogus solar advocacy group has generally been common knowledge in the state for much of the year. But in an amusing twist the last few weeks, a leaked audiotape exposed one local utility-tied Florida think tanker admitting that Consumers for Smart Solar Choice and Amendment 1 was a giant ruse to keep actual pro-solar competition supporters on their heels:
"(James Madison Institute in Tallahassee's Sal) Nuzzo called the amendment, which has received more than $21 million in utility industry financing, “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road,” according to an audio recording of the event supplied to the Herald/Times.
...“To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums — if that’s the direction you want to take — use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop."
The tactic of using think tanks and fake consumer groups working in concert to derail threatening legislation (or pass awful, protectionist legislation of their own) is something the telecom and other industries have engaged in for years, but it's just complicated enough to confuse the lion's share of voters. In this instance, Florida's utility think tank pals apparently decided to make things easier on consumers by admitting on tape the entire thing was a sham. Unsurprisingly, the "free market" think tank in question was forced to issue a statement claiming Nuzzo "misspoke":
“At an event with an unfamiliar, national audience, Mr. Nuzzo generalized his commentary and misspoke in reference to JMI partnering with Consumers for Smart Solar in any capacity,” McClure said in a statement.
from the repeat-after-me-if-you'd-like-to-keep-your-funding dept
I've already talked a little bit about the media sound wall Comcast will construct to try and convince the press, public and regulators that their planned $42 billion merger with Time Warner Cable is a wonderful idea for everyone involved. Like any company with a healthy lobbyist budget, Comcast pays think tanks, consultants, PR reps, editorial writers, various front groups and a myriad of other policy tendrils to all repeat the same mantra: whatever it is we want will be great and you have nothing to worry about. As we saw with AT&T's attempted takeover of T-Mobile, anybody and everybody who wants their Comcast money to keep flowing will come out in support of the deal, whether it's rural Texas school associations, the U.S. Cattlemen's Associations or even "balloonists."
One specifically important cornerstone of these lobbying efforts involves paying minority advocacy groups to parrot your positions, given lobbyists appear to believe that these groups in particular provide an important additional layer of artificial, grass roots legitimacy to your entirely-artificial support base. AT&T's T-Mobile deal, for example, received ample praise from groups like the The Hispanic Institute, the Latino Coalition, and the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, all of which took funding from AT&T while insisting that less competition would bring great things to American consumers.
"...what the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce did not mention in its statement praising the transaction was that it had collected at least $320,000 over the last five years from Comcast's charitable foundation, which is run in part by David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive who oversees the corporation's government affairs operations...And (top Comcast lobbyist David) Cohen adamantly rejected any suggestion that the corporation's history of supporting nonprofit groups and charities, particularly groups that serve African-Americans, Latinos and Asians, was motivated by a desire to build political allies."
The usual defense from companies is that this is just us being altruistic, even though the company involved usually sends these organizations an e-mail with a list of talking points they'd like to see parroted. Losing funding if you don't play along is usually strongly implied:
"But even one of Comcast's own lobbyists said in an interview that the relationship with some groups had a transactional flavor. "If you have a company like Comcast that has been with them for a long time and continues to support them, they will go to bat for them," the contract lobbyist for Comcast said, asking that he not be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, "even if it means they have become pawns."
The sad part is that these organizations obviously wind up rooting against their constituents' own best self-interests in the quest for continued funding. An AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile, for example, would have killed off T-Mobile and driven prices up, neither of which would have helped minorities (or anybody else). While the Comcast deal is different because Time Warner Cable and Comcast don't compete, the deal could still result in greater vertical integration, a tougher time for small and minority-owned media businesses, and the imposition of data caps and broadband overages across a broader overall market area (aka: higher prices).
Combine this sound wall of artificial support with the oodles of money Comcast is throwing at Congress, The President, and the FCC, and it starts to get easier and easier to buy approval for bad ideas. That's before you even point out that former FCC boss Michael Powell now runs the NCTA, the cable industry's biggest lobbying organization, Former FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker now lobbies for Comcast, or DOJ Antitrust Division director William J. Baer represented NBCUniversal during Comcast's acquisition. Did I mention Comcast's David Cohen is a big Obama fundraiser?
While this greasy wheeling might make the deal get approved, it doesn't change the truth that your argument or idea isn't very good if you have to pay people to support it.
It's been nearly a year since the Sandy Hook tragedy and if we've learned anything at all in the aftermath it's that we've learned nothing at all in the aftermath. Whether you're an advocate of gun control, an advocate for the link between violence and video games, or an advocate of the NRA, it really doesn't matter. The only thing to come out of the tragedy was a ton of talk, a boon for our stupid cable news networks' ratings, and the exceptional vacuum in which absolutely no conclusions were drawn and nothing was done. Twenty-six people were murdered, most of them children, and the needle hasn't moved in either direction one iota. Well done, everyone.
Wait, I forgot one other lesson we should all have learned from the tragedy: major media and a large swath of our fellow citizens somehow combine being reactionary and willfully ignorant in a way that would be cartoonishly hilarious if it weren't so damned maddening. And now we have the opportunity to re-learn that lesson as we watch the reaction to a "video game" inspired by Sandy Hook in which everyone gets everything wrong from every side possible. Here's how the game is described in the media:
"The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary" directs gamers to storm virtual classrooms with an AR-15 assault rifle in the same vein as Lanza and displays a kill ratio at the end. The game's release comes less than a month before the first anniversary of the Dec. 14 massacre.
This is, at best, only half the story. What most reports omit or bury is that the second part of the game has you attempt the same assault, but you're forced to use a sword because theoretical gun-control laws have kept you from being able to use a gun. Under the limitations of a countdown, the entire point of the game is that with a sword you can't rack up the body-count you can with a gun. It's an artistic statement on gun-control.
Now, I can already hear my friends in the comments section gearing up for a conversation about freedom, the 2nd amendment, and the uselessness of gun control. Don't. Not because I disagree with you or think your arguments are invalid (I don't), but because that isn't what this post is about. This is about freedom of speech and the importance of artistic expression on the issues of our day, as well as how completely incapable our media and some citizens are at having even a semblance of an intelligent conversation about this. And this comes from all sides, gun-rights folks and gun-control folks, conservative or liberal, it doesn't matter. Everyone comes out of this sounding stupid, because nobody seems to bother actually learning what this game is and is all about. Take a family member of one victim, for instance:
"I'm just horrified," Llodra said. "I just don't understand, frankly, why anyone would think that the horrible tragedy that took place here in Sandy Hook would have any entertainment value. It just breaks my heart."
Great, except the game isn't designed for entertainment purposes, it has a message about the useless reaction to the tragedy. In other words, you don't know what you're talking about. Because you didn't actually see the game or the site, where you would have heard:
In an audio recording on the site, Lambourn describes himself as a U.S. expatriate from Houston who resides in Australia. There, he said, gun laws enacted after the fatal shooting of 35 people at a popular tourist destination in 1996 have stemmed the tide of violence.
Llodra missed the message. As did the NRA:
The NRA called the simulation "reprehensible," but was reluctant to comment further, saying it didn't want to give more ink to "this despicable excuse for a human being."
It's not a simulation, it's artistic commentary, and it's especially funny for an organization that puts out its own "games" about shooting all kinds of things. And those games are targeted to elementary-aged school children. Note: I don't have a problem with the games themselves, only the hypocritical commentary from the NRA. This hatred of hypocrisy isn't reserved for conservative groups like the NRA, either. Here's champion hypocrite Richard Blumenthal, Democrat Senator from Connecticut.
"I find the exploitation of this unspeakable tragedy is just shocking," Blumenthal told Hearst. "From what I've heard and what's been shown to me, it's absolutely abhorrent. My hope is that it will be voluntarily taken down because it's offensive and hurtful."
Got it? It's shocking for anyone to exploit the Sandy Hook tragedy for their own aims. I wonder how shocking Blumenthal found, you know, himself back in March, when he said:
A "sensible compromise" can still be reached on gun-control legislation in the Senate, Sen. Richard Blumenthal said on Sunday, saying the "shock and terror of Newtown" was still a major motivating factor for lawmakers.
So it's cool to exploit the tragedy to pass the laws you want, but not cool to exploit it to advocate for passing...the same damn laws you want? Which you didn't know was the message of the game, because some reporter called you up, told you someone made Doom but set it in Sandy Hook, and your head exploded into a shower of dumbass responses. What the hell?
So, please, please, please learn this lesson: thou shalt know what thou art talking about before talking about it. I know, it's really hard, especially for ratings-driven controversy whores like the media or grandstanding politicians, but just try it out. In other words, it's entirely possible to hate what happened at Sandy Hook while still leaving room for artistic, even controversial, speech on the matter. Cowboy-up, Americans, this really shouldn't be too hard.
It's been quite incredible to see defenders of the surveillance state attack not just Edward Snowden for leaking information about the NSA's surveillance efforts, but also go after the reporters who broke the various stories concerning what he leaked. While many of the attacks have been focused on Glenn Greenwald, the other journalist who has access to Snowden is the Washington Post's Bart Gellman, and apparently it's his turn to be attacked for doing a good job in reporting. The attacker, in this case, is Stewart Baker, the former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security and former General Counsel for the NSA. He wrote an incredible attack on Gellman, arguing that he has somehow crossed the despicable line from "journalist" to "advocate" in his reporting on Snowden's leaks.
Baker and Gellman had a conversation via email concerning why Gellman chose to publish which information when, and as part of his response, Gellman pointed out -- quite rightly -- that in one of the recent leaks, concerning how the NSA goes about "minimizing" the likelihood that Americans are profiled, it needs to be acknowledged that the NSA is collecting tons of data on Americans and that can have a real impact -- an impact that the NSA refuses to acknowledge. Gellman writes convincingly on this topic, and Baker's response is to ignore the entire substance of Gellman's argument, to condescendingly claim that this is no longer journalism:
Maybe it's just me, but I don't think anyone can read that without wondering whether Bart Gellman has slipped from journalist to advocate. And from there it's a short step to wondering whether he suppressed the guidelines in his earlier story because they didn't fit his preferred narrative. Somehow they were not worth disclosing when they might have blunted privacy concerns but they had to be disclosed once "they seem[ed] to demonstrate that the president’s words are untrue." Put another way, it seemed better to hold the truth back until it could be used to sandbag the adversary.
Gellman shot back, via Twitter a key point that is all too often ignored:
What @stewartbaker overlooks is that my advocacy is for open debate of secret powers. That's what journalists do
Journalists have always been advocates. They're supposed to be advocates for openness and transparency, explaining to the public what others are up to which they should know about. To argue that Gellman's reporting is somehow less than worthy because he's advocating for open debate on secret programs of government surveillance is really quite pitiful on Baker's part. Once again, it suggests that the defenders of this kind of surveillance cannot and will not debate the merits of the program in public, instead resorting to what appears to be petty name calling, rather than substantive discussion about this program they love so much.
Late on Friday (the time when people try to break bad news to avoid a big news cycle) the IRS admitted that the office that scrutinizes non-profit/tax exempt status of organizations had acted politically in targeting groups that had "tea party" or "patriot" in their names. Over the weekend, more details have been revealed showing that they further targeted groups that criticized how the government is being run including so-called "social welfare" groups. In other words: if you want to improve our government, the IRS might target you for a burdensome audit. As someone who regularly criticizes our government because I want it to act better, this is absolutely horrifying. I know that this issue has already descended for some into a "left" vs. "right" political battle, but this is an issue that everyone should be aghast about. While the full report hasn't been released yet (and, in fact, there are already accusations that the IRS has leaked parts to try to contain the fallout), some of the details are astounding:
The documents, obtained by The Washington Post from a congressional aide with knowledge of the findings, show that the IRS field office in charge of evaluating applications for tax-exempt status decided to focus on groups making statements that “criticize how the country is being run” and those that were involved in educating Americans “on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
Educating people about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights gets extra scrutiny by the IRS? Isn't that the kind of thing that we should be encouraging?
Are there groups that abuse the non-profit status? Probably. But targeting them based on their viewpoints goes way beyond what's allowed or should be seen as even remotely reasonable. As some have pointed out, politicizing the IRS was part of the impeachment articles against Nixon.
Is it so much to ask for a government that actually respects the Constitution? Or does simply asking for that make you a target?
Updated: At 5pm ET, the USPTO called Jamie to say that a contractor had set this up, and after reviewing their policies, they had stopped blocking such sites...
Well this is bizarre. Jamie Love from KEI was over at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a meeting about "global negotiations on intellectual property and access to medicine." The meeting itself was held in a room that it uses for the USPTO's Global Intellectual Property Academy (GIPA), and there is free WiFi for people to use. Love tried to log onto his own website... and found that it was being blocked as a "political/activist group."
Access Denied (content_filter_denied)
Your request was denied because this URL contains content that is categorized as: "Political/Activist Groups" which is blocked by USPTO policy. If you believe the categorization is inaccurate, please contact the USPTO Service Desk and request a manual review of the URL.
For assistance, contact USPTO OCIO IT Service Desk. (io-proxy4)
Love then checked a bunch of other sites... and noticed a rather distressing pattern. For public interest groups who advocate that the existing copyright/patent system is broken, the websites were all blocked. ACLU, EFF, Public Knowledge, Public Citizen, CDT... all blocked. However, if you're a lobbyist for maximalism? No problem! MPAA, RIAA, IIPA, IPI, PHRMA, BSA... come on through. They do allow Creative Commons. Thankfully (for us, at least), they don't seem to block blogs that talk about this stuff. Techdirt is allowed, as are things like BoingBoing, Groklaw and Larry Lessig and Michael Geist's blogs. Though, oddly, a bunch of political sites (DailyKos, TPM, RedState, Rush Limgaugh's site) are blocked.
It may be an "over active" filter -- but it does seem particularly disturbing that all those groups who fight for the public's rights on the very issues the USPTO is dealing with on a regular basis have their sites completely blocked.
Two quick announcements. First, this is the latest in our "case study" series, of content creators doing interesting things online, and seeing what we can learn from them. The case studies now have their own tab if you want to check out previous case studies. Second, this profile is about Dan Bull, but stay tuned, because tomorrow, he'll be coming out with a new song, commenting on ACTA and the Gallo Report. We'll post it here, but trust me, you don't want to miss it.
You may recall, about a year ago, there was a bit of a kerfuffle involving singer Lily Allen -- who had built her (major label) career, in part off of releasing a bunch of clearly infringing mixtapes of other artists, mixed with some of her own music on her MySpace page and her official website (controlled by EMI). And yet... she suddenly posted a rant against file sharing, talking about how it was destroying the industry. She even started a blog about how evil copying was, but amusingly plagiarized an entire Techdirt post. We were fine with it (our material is free to use however you'd like), but thought it was an interesting teaching moment about the value of copying, and how even those who claim they're against it implicitly seem to recognize that copying is "natural." While Lily apologized to me, as we noted there was no need to apologize -- the content was free for using. We were hoping that she would understand how her actions went against her own words. Instead, she blamed everyone else, claimed she was "attacked" and shut down her blog.
However, soon after all of this, a musician in the UK, named Dan Bull, wrote and recorded a musical "open letter" to Ms. Allen, for which he created a video, and posted the whole thing to YouTube, generating a ton of attention. If you haven't seen it (or even if you have...), check it out:
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm name checked in the song, which actually caused me to go out and buy Dan's album, even though he makes it available for free as well, uploaded to various file sharing systems that are regularly decried for "destroying" the industry. With the Dear Lily song getting so much attention, Dan has continued to write new songs along these lines, starting with an open letter to Peter Mandelson, the UK politician who was the main driving force behind the Digital Economy Act, which brought three strikes to the UK:
Earlier this year, as the debate heated up over kicking people offline via the Digital Economy Act, UK ISP TalkTalk had Dan Bull create a new song, reminding us how familiar the recording industry's complaints sound to their complaints from years back about how home taping was killing music:
Tomorrow he's coming out with his latest track related to copyright issues, specifically commenting on ACTA and the Gallo report. I've heard it already, and you don't want to miss it. We'll post it as soon as it's ready to go tomorrow. However, as we gear up for that, I spoke to Dan about his experience creating music that has championed the idea that copyright is a much bigger problem than a solution to the music industry, and what lessons he's learned.
The first thing, of course, is that his music career was completely transformed by the original Dear Lily video. Even though he'd already released an album, this one song, changed things. As Dan told me:
I've been putting my songs on YouTube for years without anyone really noticing, so I didn't expect anything different with Dear Lily. I uploaded the video, e-mailed the link to the P2P blog TorrentFreak, and went to bed. The next morning I woke up to find my inbox was broken due to responses arriving every couple of seconds. The video seemed to have struck the right chord at the right time, and I was summarising what was on everybody's mind. Except Lily Allen's.
He pointed out that the video got 80,000 views that first night, and the MP3 (made freely available, of course) was downloaded over 20,000 times. And, despite all the claims that folks who support file sharing or think that copyright has problems are just a bunch of freeloaders who want stuff for free, this song made Dan money:
I made more money from music that week than I had in my entire musical career previously. I'd say it was split 50/50 between sales of my album, and donations from people who just wanted to show their appreciation. It goes to show that filesharers aren't cheapskates; they're happy to hand over a bit of cash if they know who it's going to.
He also pointed out that, if all of the interest in his songs had been monitored by the folks who create the charts, the song actually would have ended up on the UK singles charts.
But, of course, was this just a flash in the pan, one-hit-wonder sort of thing? Not according to Dan. He notes that he had a decent group of supporters before:
But this was when I first started to feel like I had a real fanbase, and that there are lots of other people out there who feel the way I do. Plenty of the people who saw the video have stuck around to check out my new stuff too. It's also made it easier to get my other songs noticed, and I've been on television and radio a few times as a result.
And, in talking about attention from elsewhere, it's not just limited to music about copyright. He's becoming a go-to guy for music about all sorts of political issues, including a successful (and brilliant) UK Election Debate Rap Battle. The tech/copyright songs are still the songs that get the most people excited, but all of his new works are getting more and more attention. As Dan notes, the way you build a career is to continue to keep building, rather than relying on old works and copyright complaints:
I enjoyed the wave of publicity I had from the novelty of the Dear Lily video, but instead of trying to milk it I decided to carry on and write more songs. Each one I do gets a little more attention and it's very satisfying when new fans get in touch with me. It's good to discuss the issues with people who disagree as well - it makes me think hard about whether my beliefs are right.
Oh, and finally, I did wonder if he ever heard from either Lily Allen or Peter Mandelson in response to his open letters. No such luck, apparently, but he's heard from a reliable source that Allen has at least seen the video, and he got to perform Dear Mandy right outside the houses of Parliament in front of a bunch of TV cameras, so he's hoping that maybe, just maybe, Mandelson got to hear it "drifting through his window..."
Once again, this is another case of an artist really finding a way to connect with fans in a fun way, encouraging the free sharing of his music, but recognizing that fans are more than willing to pay, if given a reason to buy. And, of course, I do wonder how folks who insist that no "real" musician would ever speak out against copyright respond to folks like Dan Bull.
Anyway, thanks to Dan for taking the time to answer my questions, and stay tuned for his latest song and video...