Every couple of years, like clockwork, the RIAA gets its friends in Congress to introduce some form of a performance rights bill, that would require radio stations to pay compulsory licenses to performers of the music they play on the radio. Every year it goes nowhere because the radio owners' big lobbying group, the NAB, is about equal in power to the RIAA. So the two sides fight it out, donate a lot of money to Congress, and nothing changes. There's generally a lot of FUD thrown up in the process, along with some crap about "fairness" when that's not what they're really pushing for at all. It's all about more revenue for the record labels and that's it. If you're unaware, playing music on the radio already requires payments to songwriters/publishers, but not to performers. The reason being that being on the radio acts as promotion, allowing the musicians to make it up elsewhere. We know that this happens because of the widespread practice of payola, in which the labels pay the radio stations to play their music. If it wasn't worth it to get on the radio, the labels wouldn't regularly get involved in payola scandals. And yet, they do, because radio play (even today) remains great advertising for music.
We thought things had reached a new low four years ago when Rep. John Conyers sponsored one of these bills and insisted that radio stations playing musicians' music was the equivalent of slavery. Apparently, the RIAA liked that line so much it fed it to a different Congressional Rep. this year. RIAA darlings Jerry Nadler, Marsha Blackburn and Ted Deutch have joined Conyers in releasing the latest version of a performance rights act, this time called the "Fair Play, Fair Pay Act of 2015" and the RIAA's spin doctors somehow decided that having Rep. Nadler use the slavery line was a good idea:
Previously, radio complained about the economy, asserting that they simply couldn’t afford to pay performers. But as far as the radio industry is concerned, “it's never the right time,” Nadler said. “What other industry says, ' We can’t afford to pay our workers; We want them to work for free,'” he cracked. “We got rid of that argument here in the U.S. in 1865," referencing the abolition of slavery legislated by the 13th Amendment.
I'm sorry, but in no possible way is promoting someone's music on the radio the equivalent of slavery. To say so is not just insulting and offensive, but it's ridiculous. You can argue about the appropriateness of royalties, compulsory rates or anything else -- but to argue that getting played on the radio without direct compensation (despite all the indirect compensation) to slavery is just flat out ridiculous. Nadler doesn't get paid each time he goes on TV to talk about whatever bill he's supporting, does he? Is that slavery? No, it's promotional, just like music being played on the radio.
Just the fact that Nadler has to resort to this silly and tired argument again, despite it flopping five years ago, should tell you all you need to know about this weak attempt by the RIAA to squeeze out more money without doing anything different.
In the nearly two years since the first of the Ed Snowden revelations, Congress has proceeded to carefully avoid fixing anything. There have been some votes that have come close, and some attempts to reform the program, but, in part because nothing gets through Congress, nothing has really happened. This is even though the author of the PATRIOT Act, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, has said that the Act is being misinterpreted to allow mass surveillance and while President Obama himself has called for the program to be changed (though he has failed to step up and stop it himself, even though he has the power to do so).
As we've mentioned a few times, however, much of this comes to a head in the next month and a half -- because Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act officially sunsets as of June 1st -- so if Congress doesn't pass legislation renewing it, the program dies. Admittedly, this is just one program -- and there are many other problematic programs that are covered by other parts of the law... but one thing at a time. A bunch of activist groups have gotten together to now launch a campaign looking to convince Congress to not renew Section 215 and you can (and should) use it to contact your elected officials.
While the government claims that its other uses of Section 215 are “critical” to national security, it’s extremely hard to take their word for it. After all, the government lied about collecting information on millions of Americans under Section 215 to begin with. Then they claimed the phone surveillance program was “critical” to national security after it was exposed. That wasn’t true either: they later had to admit it has never stopped a single terrorist attack.
Similarly, at the end of 2012, when the FISA Amendments Act was up for renewal, surveillance state defenders waited until the very end, and then insisted there was no need for debate. Senator Ron Wyden finally forced some debate by threatening to put a hold on the bill. And so, with just days to spare, the Senate held a very weak last minute debate in which a bunch of our elected officials made blatantly false or misleading statements -- peppered with the usual FUD about "terrorism! national security!" -- until the extension passed.
Things are at least a little different this time around, as the Snowden revelations have made this issue a bigger deal. But, history has shown that Congress will do almost anything to avoid debating the issue, and then at the last minute will scream about how we're all going to die if the program isn't renewed. Just watch: it's what's going to happen this time again. That is, unless enough people reach out to their Congressional Representatives and Senators to let them know this is unacceptable. The surveillance state hawks will always defend the program. And the civil liberties supporters will always fight against it. But there's a huge group in the middle that really hasn't taken a stand on this issue -- and it's imperative that they know that their constituents don't want them to continue supporting the NSA's mass surveillance programs.
During the first round of the FCC's net neutrality comment period, the agency was absolutely swamped by public input (including ours), the vast majority of it supporting net neutrality. After the agency released a database of the comments, analysis of the comments showed that while around half were generated via "outrage-o-matic" forms from various consumer advocacy groups, once you got into the other half of the comments -- almost all were in support of net neutrality. After the volume of pro-neutrality comments received ample media coverage, anti-neutrality organizations -- like the Phil Kerpen's Koch-Funded "American Commitment" -- dramatically ramped up their automated form comment efforts to try and balance the comment scales.
That brings us to this week, when American Commitment proudly crowed it had managed to urge 540,538 citizens to send 1,621,614 letters to Congress opposing net neutrality and basically asking for the FCC to be defunded. Except some new analysis of the latest wave of comments suggests there was some serious skulduggery afoot. As in, some of the constituent names used to sign these letters -- either don't exist or never sent letters opposing net neutrality:
"The flood of traffic seemed to raise some lawmakers’ eyebrows, including Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, whose office soon determined some of the messages had come from constituents who didn’t recall sending them. Her aides pointed to a memo sent to members’ staff last week by Lockheed Martin, which manages the technology behind some lawmakers’ “contact me” Web pages. Lockheed initially said it had “some concerns regarding the messages,” including the fact that “a vast majority of the emails do not appear to have a valid in-district address.” In some cases, Lockheed also questioned the “legitimacy of the email address contact associated with the incoming message[s]."
When asked about this, Kerpen suggested that the actions are that of unspecified third party rogue agents, and that his organization knew nothing about the ploy:
"Asked about the matter, Kerpen told POLITICO that American Commitment hadn’t impersonated members’ constituents. But he said that other groups had mounted similar campaigns, and borrowed the pre-written text available on his website. "We’re aware that other groups used identical language in their campaigns and we cannot speak to those efforts,” Kerpen said. “We verified our data through postal address verification and follow up phone calls. We stand by our campaign and Congress should work to stop President [Barack] Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet at the request of these constituents."
Whoever is to blame (and I'd imagine this entire affair is quickly forgotten in the annals of muddy neutrality lore), it certainly speaks to the quality of your argument when you need to either buy -- or just outright fabricate -- your support.
As part of a last ditch effort to derail the FCC's net neutrality rules, you might recall that Senator John Thune and Representative Fred Upton earlier this year pushed an amendment to the Communications Act that they professed would codify net neutrality into law as part of a "bipartisan" proposal crafted after a painstaking public conversation. What the ISP-dictated amendment actually did was effectively gut FCC authority, pushing forth net neutrality rules significantly weaker than the already-flimsy 2010 rules Verizon sued to overturn.
Thune, Upton and the mega ISPs hoped their effort would go something like this: table some incredibly weak net neutrality rules under the pretense of consumer welfare, make a few minor concessions, then pass a still-flimsy amendment that would have killed the Title II push in the cradle. The problem is that most neutrality supporters in Congress saw this fairly-shallow ploy for what it was (or at the very least feared the wrath of a SOPA-fueled internet grassroots community). As such, Thune and Upton have had trouble getting neutrality supporters to sign off on the idea -- especially without the help of fellow Senate Commerce Committee member Bill Nelson:
"On Wednesday, (Nelson) reiterated what he's been saying for weeks: That he's open to working with Republicans on a "truly bipartisan" bill aimed at preventing Internet providers from speeding up, slowing down or blocking Web sites. But he'll only cooperate, he said, "provided such action fully protects consumers, does not undercut the FCC's role and leaves the agency with flexible, forward-looking authority to respond to the changes in this dynamic broadband marketplace."
Except that's not happening, because a flexible, empowered FCC is precisely what Thune and friends don't want.
Enter Verizon, who like AT&T and Comcast, has been desperately trying to gut FCC authority for years (and had been succeeding until recently). While Verizon did sue to overturn the 2010 rules, it wasn't the rules themselves the telco was taking aim at (after all, it co-wrote them, and the rules had the full support of companies like AT&T and Comcast). Verizon hoped a legal win would not only gut the rules, but also FCC authority moving forward. That backfired spectacularly, given the FCC only shifted to Title II after Verizon's lawsuits repeatedly showed you can't regulate ISPs like common carriers -- without first declaring they're common carriers. The entire shift to title II is, quite literally, thanks to Verizon.
Fast forward to this week, and Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam fired off a letter to Thune, Upton and the other leaders of the House and Senate Commerce committees (pdf), urging Congress to take the reins and punish the FCC for standing up to wealthy broadband companies begin updating "outdated and broken" telecom law. To hear Verizon's version of history, everything was going great until the FCC came along and decided to destroy the Internet:
"The broadband and mobile markets are America's greatest ongoing success stories: 20 years of bipartisan light-touch policy consensus has led to more than $1.2 trillion in private investment, resulting in a transition from 128 kilobit dial-up connections and analog wireless voice networks in the late 1990's to today's near-ubiquitous 4G mobile data coverage and fixed broadband networks capable of streaming simultaneous HD movies. The FCC claimed it was addressing concerns about an open Internet, something that Congress could and can - address with clarity and finality in a two-page bipartisan bill. Instead, the FCC went far beyond open Internet rules, engaging in a radical and risky experiment to change the very policy that resulted in the United States leading the world in the Internet economy."
Like Thune and Upton, McAdam continues to bandy around the word "bipartisan" when what they're actually pushing is anything but. In short, Verizon wants the FCC's authority gutted and all policy making moving forward under the authority of a Congress slathered in telco lobbying cash. Not only does McAdam want Congress to push flimsy net neutrality rules, Verizon is pushing hard for a total rewrite of the 1996 Telecom Act -- because the Title II rules Verizon's successfully used to build a massive wireless empire are "outdated and broken":
"At its root, these are all symptoms of a problem: the existing legal regime and its accompanying regulatory processes are outdated and broken. Congress last established a clear policy framework almost 20 years ago, well before most of today's technology was even developed. As a result, regulators are applying early 20th century tools to highly dynamic 21st century markets and technologies. Inefficiencies and collateral damage are inevitable. It is time for Congress to re-take responsibility for policymaking in the Internet ecosystem."
And by "take responsibility," Verizon actually means it's time for Congress to take Verizon campaign contribution cash and write new laws ensuring that broadband industry regulators have the strength of babies, the freedom and authority of an asylum inmate, and the budget of a high-school prom committee.
The real irony of course is that regulators wouldn't keep intervening in Verizon's market if the telco didn't consistently engage in behavior that made it necessary. Again, the FCC only shifted to Title II after Verizon sued to overturn its 2010, industry-friendly net neutrality rules. Similarly, the entire net neutrality conversation wouldn't be happening if Verizon didn't have a long, proud history of trying to block every technological innovation it deemed a threat. If Verizon's honestly looking to affix blame for the regulatory policy chaos of the last few years, it doesn't have to look very far.
Since the Snowden leaks began, there have been several efforts made -- legislative and administrative -- in response to the exposure of the NSA's domestic surveillance programs. Some have been real fixes. Some have been fake fixes. Others have targeted the thing the NSA desires even more than seemingly limitless access to data from all over the world: funding.
The bill would completely repeal the Patriot Act, the sweeping national security law passed in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, as well as the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, another spying law that the NSA has used to justify collecting vast swaths of people's communications through the Internet.
If anything's due for a complete revamp, if not a complete repeal, it's the Patriot Act. It wasn't even good legislation back when it was passed. At best, it was "timely," which is a term that gives the rushed, secretive, knee-jerk legislation far more credit than it deserves. Pocan and Massie's (the latter of which has just introduced a new phone-unlocking bill with Rep. Zoe Lofgren to replace the bad one passed by the House in 2014) "Surveillance State Repeal Act" doesn't waste any time "tinkering around the edges."
Not only would the bill repeal the law, it would reset anything (amendments/additional government powers) brought into force by the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. On top of that, it would demand the immediate deletion of tons of data from the NSA's collections.
DESTRUCTION OF CERTAIN INFORMATION.—The Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General shall destroy any information collected under the USA PATRIOT Act (Public Law 107-56) and the amendments made by such Act, as in effect the day before the date of the enactment of this Act, concerning a United States person that is not related to an investigation that is actively ongoing on such date.
The bill, oddly, also describes a path towards FISA Judge For Life positions.
TERMS; REAPPOINTMENT.—Section 103(d) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1803(d)) is amended— (1) by striking ‘‘maximum of seven’’ and inserting ‘‘maximum of ten’’; and (2) by striking ‘‘and shall not be eligible for re-designation’’.
Which is fine (not really) if you like the judges already appointed. But this is the sort of thing that leads to the permanent appointment of judges favored by either side of the surveillance question. And so far, presidential administrations have come down in favor of domestic surveillance. Removing the term limits just encourages the appointment of permanent NSA rubber stamps.
The bill creates a warrant requirement for the acquisition of US persons' data under the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333. It also expressly forbids a government mandate for encryption backdoors, although the first sentence of this section seems to be a rather large loophole.
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal Government shall not mandate that the manufacturer of an electronic device or software for an electronic device build into such device or software a mechanism that allows the Federal Government to bypass the encryption or privacy technology of such device or software.
If this bill somehow manages to pass a round or two of scrutiny, language tweaks will certainly be requested -- possibly leading to a complete subversion of the bill's intent. But that's a huge "if." Very few legislators have the stomach to gut the Patriot Act or the FISA Amendments Act. Many will be happy to entertain smaller fixes, but most won't be willing to essentially strip the NSA of its domestic surveillance powers. No one wants to be the "yea" vote that's pointed to in the wake of a terrorist attack and only a few more are actually willing to go head-to-head with the intelligence agency.
Despite the fact that no federal license plate legislation has been proposed, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has sent a pre-emptive letter to top Congressional lawmakers, warning them against any future restrictions of automated license plate readers. The IACP claims to be the "world's oldest and largest association of law enforcement executives."
The letter is stained with the tears of law enforcement entities whose thirst for bulk collections is only rivaled by national security agencies.
We are deeply concerned about efforts to portray automated license plate recognition (ALPR) technology as a national real-time tracking capability for law enforcement. The fact is that this technology and the data it generates is not used to track people in real time. ALPR is used every day to generate investigative leads that help law enforcement solve murders, rapes, and serial property crimes, recover abducted children, detect drug and human trafficking rings, find stolen vehicles, apprehend violent criminal alien fugitives, and support terrorism investigations.
The "efforts to portray" ALPRs as ad hoc tracking devices aren't limited to imaginative conspiracy theorists. Millions of plate scans are added to private companies' databases every day. The total number of records retained by Vigilant, the most prominent manufacturer of ALPRs, totals in the billions. That amount of data can easily be used to track nearly anyone's day-to-day movements. And the database is accessible by law enforcement agencies around the nation. There's no geofencing keeping the data compartmentalized to what's "relevant" to local agencies.
As for the rest of the paragraph, those claims have yet to be backed up by arrest statistics. The amount of plate data collected far outweighs the results.
There is a misconception of continuous government tracking of individuals using ALPR information. This has led to attempts to curtail law enforcement’s use of the technology without a proper and fair effort to truly understand the anonymous nature of the data, how it is used, and how it is protected.
Note how the "misconception" is nothing privacy advocates are actually saying. No one's mistaking plate scans for a GPS tracking device. They've just noted that the end result is nearly identical. Gather enough data and you don't need a more "intrusive" method.
We are seeing harmful proposals – appropriations amendments and legislation – to restrict or completely ban law enforcement’s use of ALPR technology and data without any effort to truly understand the issue. Yet, any review would make clear that the value of this technology is beyond question, and that protections against mis-use of the data by law enforcement are already in place. That is one of the reasons why critics are hard-pressed to identify any actual instances of mis-use.
Translation: no one understands this high-tech device but us cops.
Also: "value" is "beyond question?" If so, why is it so hard to get any law enforcement agency to produce some evidence to back up this claim? It's high tech, but it's also fallible tech. And it's tech that is being deployed with little to nothing in the way of privacy protections or oversight.
Virginia has become the first state in America to impose a very short data retention limit on the use of automated license plate readers (LPRs, or ALPRs). VA cops will now only be able to keep such data for seven days unless there is an active, ongoing criminal investigation.
Only a few states have imposed any legislative limits on the technology. For most US law enforcement agencies, the data is gathered en masse (and sometimes in inappropriate places) and held forever. The LAPD argued that every one of the thousands of plate scans it had gathered is somehow "relevant" to ongoing investigations. When you're faced with claims like that, it's hard to argue with legislative limits being introduced. The police won't police themselves. Someone usually has to force them into applying even the most minimal of restrictions on ALPR use.
We call on Congress to foster a reasonable and transparent discussion about ALPR.
That's rich. "Transparent discussion." The hell does that even mean in a law enforcement context? Agencies don't want to talk about ALPRs, drones, Stingray devices, their officers' misconduct, etc. The prevailing law enforcement mentality is almost completely opposed to transparency. These police associations aren't interested in Congress or anyone else having a "transparent discussion." What they want is a guided discussion that results in more data-hauling business as usual for the agencies these associations represent.
But this sentence is the best thing about this overwrought letter:
If legislative efforts to curtail ALPR use are successful, federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes will be significantly impacted given the extensive use of the technology today.
Shorter police: "We like our shiny tech tools so much, we've forgotten how to perform police work." If they can't get as much as they can, as often as they can and access it at their leisure, the streets will run red with the blood of the innocent. This sort of thinking goes all the way to the top, where the FBI's James Comey has promised death, molestation and Colombia 2.0 if the government isn't allowed to build itself backdoors in cellphone encryption.
How a device that delivers a 0.2% hit rate has become something the cops lean on so heavily they simply can't go on without it is a question that deserves a "transparent" answer, rather than the hitch-in-the-throat talking points delivered here. All anyone wants is something telling cops they can't keep everything for as long as they want. They want privacy impact assessments and honest answers to worrying questions. All we've received so far is unproven claims of the tech's "effectiveness" and the constant pimping of dead children and human trafficking victims, with the existential threat of suppliers delivering product to a receptive market thrown in for good measure.
Poor Comcast. Despite throwing millions of dollars at think tanks, consultants, PR reps, editorial writers, various front groups and a myriad of other policy tendrils, genuine, meaningful support for the company's $45 billion Time Warner Cable acquisition is still apparently hard to come by. You might recall that last year top Comcast lobbyist "Chief Diversity Officer" David Cohen proudly crowed that support for the company's merger was "pouring in" -- though he failed to mention that Comcast was paying people for that support, and that said support largely consisted of regurgitated form letters.
Despite the money spent however, it appears that actual support in Congress for the deal is tepid to non-existent. Comcast's hometown paper the Philadelphia Inquirer points out that whereas the NBC deal saw major support efforts by members of Congress, politicians appear to want nothing to do with this latest merger attempt:
"When Comcast made its move to buy NBCUniversal, more than two dozen letters from Congress - including one from 22 Republicans - landed at the Federal Communication Commission early in its review. Dozens more, from key chairmen and rank-and-file members of both parties, arrived before that deal was approved in 2011. The vast majority supported the merger, including one signed by 97 House members and several from minority lawmakers who hailed Comcast's commitment to diversity.
But as the Philadelphia giant now pushes a merger with Time Warner Cable, Comcast has had little congressional support, and almost none outside its home state."
"Meanwhile, more than 50 black, Hispanic, and Asian members of Congress have expressed concerns about the impact of this deal and others, warning in a letter to the FCC that recent media "mega-mergers" show that "even the most reasonable conditions and diversity pledges" have proved difficult to enforce."
Most analysts meanwhile see the chance of the DOJ and FCC merger getting approval dropping by the week. The FCC has been on an uncharacteristic consumer-friendly tear of late, whether that's raising the definition of broadband to 25 Mbps, crafting new net neutrality rules or fighting for municipal broadband. As such, approving the Comcast deal without some tougher-than-usual conditions just doesn't seem likely. I personally think the deal will be approved, it will just be saddled with conditions heavily focused on keeping Comcast's bad ideas far away from internet video. Whether those conditions actually work or are enforced will be another issue entirely.
Meanwhile, it's kind of amusing to see telecom companies failing to recognize their own hubris isn't helping their case. As we saw when the DOJ rejected AT&T's attempted acquisition of T-Mobile, there really is a limit to the amount of bullshit you can push before you reach the point of diminishing returns. Using astroturf, claiming that killing competitors creates competition and lowers prices -- or that everyone who opposes your deal is ignorant or irrational -- clearly crosses that particular Rubicon. If you're already one of the most hated companies in the country, that only adds insult to injury.
It remains frequently uttered because it's true: money just can't buy you love.
Now that our shiny new net neutrality rules are on the sixty-day march toward formal approval, there's of course only two real ways neutrality opponents can overturn them: either a lawsuit or a 2016 party change. Since they're legislatively impotent on the matter for the time being, net neutrality opponents in Congress have decided the next best thing is to publicly shame FCC boss Tom Wheeler -- for literally weeks on end. As such, Wheeler faces at least five hearings over the next two weeks all with one goal: publicly punishing him for standing up to giant ISPs and supporting net neutrality.
The primary talking point being used against Wheeler is that he was "improperly" influenced by the White House. Because Wheeler came out in support of Title II after the White House's November support for the idea, the narrative goes, somehow there's dangerous chicanery afoot. Except as we've noted previously, the White House voicing desired policy trajectory doesn't violate any rules, and is standard operating procedure -- like when former President George W. Bush urged FCC boss Michael Powell to ease off media consolidation rules, or when Clinton urged former FCC chief Reed Hundt to ban hard liquor sales on television.
Still, this week's hearing and "fact finding mission" before the House Oversight Committee (again, the first of five over the next few weeks) focused almost entirely on transparency, and how the White House somehow bullied an independent agency into approving tougher net neutrality rules. In Wheeler's testimony (pdf), he again denies he was pressured, stating that he only came to embrace Title II after countless legal experts made it clear it was the most legally defensible platform for the rules to stand on:
"We heard from over 140 Members of Congress. We heard from the Administration, both in the form of President Obama’s very public statement of November 10 and in the form of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s formal submission. Here I would like to be clear. There were no secret instructions from the White House. I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the President’s recommendation. But I did feel obligated to treat it with respect just as I have with the input I received – both pro and con - from 140 Senators and Representatives."
Of course, this doesn't help propagate the narrative that Obama is forcing the FCC to destroy the Internet because he's the devil and hates jobs. As such, Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz handed out a packet of e-mails (pdf) to hearing attendees he claimed indisputably prove undue White House influence on the FCC. Except if you bother to actually read them, they don't actually show anything of the sort. For example, one e-mail only shows a top AT&T lobbyist (who other included e-mails suggest to be Jim Cicconi, no stranger to undue influence of his own) vaguely claiming improper behavior just, well, because:
Another e-mail provided by House leaders features former Harry Reid staffer David Krone (formerly a Comcast lobbyist) urging the White House to back away from their Title II support:
In a third e-mail, Wheeler amusingly seems to suggest The White House coordinated with protesters to annoy the FCC boss in his driveway last November:
None of the e-mails come remotely close to showing Wheeler buckled to heavy White House pressure. In fact, the third e-mail actually appears to show Wheeler being resistant to White House influence (it's worth noting said protestors say they also protested at the White House and weren't "directed" by anyone). Few people expected much from Wheeler given his cable and wireless lobbying past, but if you read any of the better profiles of the FCC boss, you come away with the impression of an older man, no longer beholden to partisan whims or bullies, who actually makes decisions based on the evidence at hand. That's an increasingly rare trait anywhere, much less in Washington. As such, it's probably best to punish him for it.
Again, none of this means much of anything since the rules have been passed. Still, the idea that Obama "forced" Wheeler to embrace Title II helps frame the ongoing narrative that this is an "Obamacare style takeover of the Internet", and not an unprecedented and incredibly rare capitulation to genuine, bipartisan public interest. Meanwhile, while a breathless love of transparency is the cornerstone of these hearings -- that adoration only apparently extends up to the point where it begins to show broadband industry influence over net neutrality opposition.
If you've got the stomach for it, you can watch the entire hearing below:
For years now, we've been trying to understand why the US Trade Rep (USTR) is so anti-transparency with its trade negotiations. It insists that everything it's negotiating be kept in near total secrecy until everything is settled, and the public can no longer give input to fix the problems in the agreement. It's a highly questionable stance. Whenever this criticism is put to the USTR directly, it responds by saying that it will listen to anyone who wants to come and talk to the USTR. But, as we've explained multiple times, "listening" is about information going into the USTR. "Transparency" is about information coming out of the USTR. They're not the same thing by any stretch of the imagination.
As the fight over new trade agreements gets louder and louder, a key stumbling block is having Congress approve so-called "fast track authority" or "Trade Promotion Authority," which basically means that Congress can't even jump in to try to fix the problems in whatever the USTR negotiates -- it can only give a straight "yes" or "no" vote on the entire package. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Congressional Republicans are all for this, even though it means directly giving up Congress's Constitutional authority to a President that the Republicans appear to hate. Meanwhile, Democrats seem reasonably skeptical of these new trade deals.
As the Obama administration gives House Democrats a hard sell on a major controversial trade pact this week, it will be doing so under severe conditions: Any member of Congress who shares information with the public from a Wednesday briefing could be prosecuted for a crime.
Yes, the USTR has declared that the briefing is entirely classified. Why? Mainly to keep the details secret from the American public. As Rep. Alan Grayson notes:
"It is part of a multi-year campaign of deception and destruction. Why do we classify information? It's to keep sensitive information out of the hands of foreign governments. In this case, foreign governments already have this information. They're the people the administration is negotiating with. The only purpose of classifying this information is to keep it from the American people."
The USTR's lame response to all of this is that any member of Congerss is allowed to come to its office and see the text of the negotiating documents. But that's misleading in the extreme. As we've discussed before, the USTR tells elected officials that they can't copy anything, take any notes, or even bring staff experts on trade agreements (or related issues)... even when those staffers have security clearance.
We pointed out this was a problem back in 2012 and it appears to be ongoing. The Huffington Post article above quotes Rep. Rosa DeLauro who appears to be having the same problem:
"Even now, when they are finally beginning to share details of the proposed deal with Members of Congress, they are denying us the ability to consult with our staff or discuss details of the agreement with experts. This flies in the face of how past negotiations have been conducted and does not help the Administration’s credibility. If the TPP would be as good for American jobs as they claim, there should be nothing to hide."
Rep. Lloyd Doggett also seems amazed that his staffers with security clearance are blocked from getting information about the TPP agreement:
"I tried to find out what level of classification applies," he said. "Can my top cleared staff read it? If he can hear about ISIS, is there something in here that prevents him from seeing these trade documents?"
It really does make you wonder, once again, just what is the USTR hiding here? There is simply no reason to keep these details secret -- except if you know that the American public won't approve of them.
During the last election cycle, Representative Marsha Blackburn received $15,000 from a Verizon PAC, $25,000 from an AT&T PAC, $20,000 from a Comcast PAC, and $20,000 from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Surely that funding is only coincidentally related to Blackburn's recent decision to rush to the defense of awful state protectionist law written by the likes of AT&T and Comcast, preventing towns and cities from doing absolutely anything about their local lack of broadband competition.
That money surely is also only tangentially related to the fact that Blackburn has also just introduced the "Internet Freedom Act" (pdf), aimed at gutting the FCC's recently unveiled Title II-based net neutrality rules and prohibiting the agency from trying to make new ones. Whereas most of us thought net neutrality is about protecting consumers and smaller competitors from the incumbent ISP stranglehold over the last mile, Blackburn's website informs readers that net neutrality rules harm innovators, jobs, and err -- freedom:
"Once the federal government establishes a foothold into managing how Internet service providers run their networks they will essentially be deciding which content goes first, second, third, or not at all," Blackburn said in an announcement yesterday. "My legislation will put the brakes on this FCC overreach and protect our innovators from these job-killing regulations."
And here I was thinking that the FCC was responding to unprecedented public support for some of the rules aimed at keeping AT&T, Comcast and Verizon on their best behavior. Blackburn makes sure to lean heavily on that thoroughly discredited report by the Progressive Policy Institute claiming consumers will all suffer from "billions" in new taxes, and again tosses out the well-worn trope about how Title II is bad because it originated in the 1930s (because old laws are always bad, get it?).
Again though, the fact that Blackburn has received $66,750 from AT&T, $59,650 from Verizon, $56,000 from the NCTA, and $36,000 from Comcast over the last decade surely has nothing to do with her suddenly scurrying on multiple fronts to protect those companies' stranglehold over the U.S. broadband market. For freedom.