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UCC Media Justice Update

Posts in category: "broadband for everyone"

FCC's Shameful Assault on Access to Information, Implications Widespread

The following can be attributed to Cheryl A. Leanza, policy advisor to the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry, OC Inc., in response to several votes today at the Federal Communications Commission:

In today’s string of votes, we see Federal Communications Commission Chairman Pai agenda unleashed on the United States.  He coyly waited until after his Senate confirmation vote and the most recent Congressional oversight hearing to unleash an unprecedented attack on civil rights and access to information.  The most vulnerable are feeling the most harmful impact.  Tribes, the most in need of affordable accessible communications, will see their subsidies immediately cut and their lands redefined without intergovernmental consultation.  Low income people must anticipate damaging changes as the Commission plans to cut off almost 70 percent of its subscribers and then proposes to add insult to injury with more draconian cuts in the form of a budget cap, lifetime limits on benefits, and more.

Today’s media ownership vote will take effect immediately:  it is not a proposal.  The ruling cuts back and eliminates rules that have been in place since the beginning of broadcast regulation.  We are losing rules that were designed to protect economic competition as well as competition in the marketplace of ideas.  No one looking at today’s media environment could imagine that the FCC, today, would see a media environment in need of fewer fact-checked news stories, fewer journalists, and reduced numbers of independent locally accountable news outlets--but that is what we will get.

This vote puts the final nail in the coffin for ownership diversity at the FCC.  This year’s Trump FCC fully exploits the failings in last year’s vote, which ignored the record in an effort to hide the connection between ownership and content.  The incubator proposal is meaningless, particularly in a consolidated media environment like the one we are about to experience.

With these actions, the Trump administration lays groundwork for less access to information and less voter education and engagement, which increases the likelihood that elections can be skewed by unverified news stories intent on confusion and manipulation. The forthcoming vote on net neutrality will further diminish freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas online.

One rule now stands between the Trump FCC and approval of the Sinclair merger.  Sinclair is poised to fully exploit the rule rollbacks adopted today and waits expectantly for Chairman Pai’s promised revisions to the national TV ownership cap.  Congress set the national TV ownership cap by statute in 2004, but Chairman Pai has promised to change it, evading the statutorily-set limits on FCC power.  After that illegal change, the Sinclair merger will set the state for a new breathtaking wave of consolidation as other media companies rush to catch up.  Congress must ensure the FCC does not evade the limits of its statutory authority.

Rev. Dr. Everett C. Parker, founder of the United Church of Christ's media justice ministry, OC Inc., dedicated his life to accountable and local broadcasting.  I am ashamed that so much of his amazing life's work is being tossed in the trashbin today.

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Trump Federal Communications Commission Keeps Its Dark Promises

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, like Donald Trump who appointed him, intends to keep his promises. His dissents as a minority Commissioner made clear his plans. This month, after squeaking through his confirmation vote in the Senate, he finally brings out the big guns.

He is fulfilling his promise to gut the FCC's program to assist low income people with the costs of telephone service and broadband.He is fulfilling his promise to turn over the media marketplace to a few, huge owners, while offering women and people of color a fig leaf of paper ownership that conveys no equity rights. And he intends to fulfill his promise next month to turn over Internet freedom to the control of a few large corporate ISPs. These are just a few examples of the decisions that will be adopted next month and the month after, some of which will be almost impossible to reverse if he succeeds.

Not only is he keeping his promises, he is again attempting to disguise them with technical terms and doublespeak that, heretofore, could only be found in George Orwell's dystopia. Thus, he attacks low-income households in a docket titled, "Bridging the Digital Divide for Low-Income Consumers," and his decision to ignore the pleas of civil rights leaders is called "Rules and Policies to Promote New Entry and Ownership Diversity in the Broadcasting Services." Could it be the Commission is secretly ashamed of its actions, using these euphemisms to disguise their favors for corporate America at the expense of the rest of the country?

Perhaps he uses these terms because he knows he is undermining the chances that anyone can question his decisions. The steps he is taking will tip the balance even more toward benefits for the privileged, leaving the most impacted behind, favoring fake news against fact-checked journalism. These decisions combined will mean less access to the Internet, less free speech on the Internet and more inflammatory, uniform broadcast content in cities and towns across the country. If he succeeds, as long as the names sound pretty, the dark effects underneath will be ignored.

The agenda released last night make clear that the Ajit Pai threat is terrifying, and it is no innocent Halloween joke. The scars of the Trump Administration continue, and with these decisions it may be that no journalists or activists will retain the tools needed to challenge them.

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FCC Moves to Bridge the Digital Divide

The United Church of Christ has a long-standing commitment to economic justice and communications rights.   We envision a world where education and economic opportunity is open to everyone. The Internet is the tool today that many Americans use to successfully learn, find jobs, and engage in their communities, and yet one-third of U.S. households do not subscribe to broadband Internet at home. These families are left further and further behind while more fortunate people have better tools to succeed. Statistics show these burdens fall heavily on communities of color.

In pursuit of greater economic justice, UCC OC Inc., the UCC's media justice and communications rights ministry has been working with a large coalition of civil rights and public interest colleagues to increase low-income people's access to broadband. This morning the Federal Communications Commission announced it is moving ahead to take action in a vote at the end of this month. After this vote, we expect the FCC's Lifeline program will offer support for broadband Internet for low-income people in a meaningful way for the first time. Not only this, but we understand the draft circulated today adopts aggressive service standards for these products, meaning that low-income people will gain access to robust services that will fully meet their needs. The FCC has promised it will monitor carefully this new era to ensure that low-income people will be well-served by this program. The FCC will also take important steps to insure the program's integrity and increase the number of companies offering services through the program. 

We look forward to engaging with the FCC Commissioners and staff as they move forward on a most important step to address the broadband adoption gap, bringing the most vulnerable communities into the modern technological age.

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Tom Wheeler's 2014 Parker Lecture Remarks

Remarks of Tom Wheeler

32nd Annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture October 7, 2014

Thank you Pastor Edmonds for that introduction. Congratulations to Makani Themba and Commissioner Cathy Sandoval for your well-deserved recognition.

It is an honor to follow Reverend Truman Parker – following a Parker is natural for all of us, and that, in part, is what I’d like to address today.

There are multiple reasons why it is a privilege to be here, but I want to highlight two.

First, I grew up in a UCC church. The church is one that in its own words “joins faith with action.” This call to action challenges us to search for social justice. Everett Parker took that challenge to the parochial corners of telecommunications policy.

Secondly, I knew Everett Parker. Not well, but in the late 1970s we both advocated for diversity of voices in media. I was doing it for the cable television industry, which had an obvious interest in overcoming the restrictive rules imposed by the FCC. Rev. Parker did it because diversity of choice and diversity of opportunity was what he was all about.

Today we celebrate Rev. Everett Parker’s service to God and his contribution to our society. When he appealed the FCC’s 1965 decision to grant WLBT’s license renewal in United Church of Christ v. FCC, he not only took on racism, but also he established the landmark precedent that gave ordinary citizens the right, for the first time, to participate in FCC proceedings.

The fact that today all FCC processes are open and that anyone can provide comments on the topics we discuss is a tremendous legacy that we too often take for granted.

Before this decision, the FCC’s position was that only those alleging “economic injury and electrical interference” had the right to challenge its licensing decisions

But Chief Judge, and soon-to-be Chief Justice, Warren Burger wrote a powerful opinion that said that the public played an important role as “private attorneys general” in helping the FCC enforce the public interest standard.

I have often said that the networks that connect us are the forces that define us – not just our commerce, but also our culture and individual lives. Everett Parker gave us all a voice in the policy related to that defining force.

At the FCC we are the public’s representative in this communications revolution. Fighting for the public interest as technology transforms our economy and society is the FCC’s Number One job responsibility.

And we’ve got our work cut out for us.

At the time of Reverend Parker’s campaign, broadcast TV and radio were by far and away the most powerful sources for news and information. Fifty years after Everett Parker filed the petition that would transform access to broadcasting there is a new platform that is redefining not only access to news and information, but also access to economic opportunity and growth. Of course, I’m talking about the Internet.

Ensuring universal access to the Internet for all will not be an easy task. Nearly 30% of Americans are not connected to high-speed broadband Internet at home. This includes nearly 14 million Americans that have no access whatsoever.

Low-income individuals and people of color are disproportionately offline, and they are unconnected for a variety of reasons: cost, a dearth of relevant content, lack of digital literacy, or a mixture of the above.

The costs of digital exclusion are significant for the non-connected and for our nation.

Broadband is the gateway that facilitates, among other things, online learning, telework, remote health care monitoring, social networking, news and entertainment programming and economic opportunities. Like access to broadcasting in the 1960’s, access to the broadband Internet is critical to full and fair participation in our society and our economy.

In 2014, opportunity for all requires broadband for all.

So what should we be doing to advance the public interest and ensure that all Americans are enjoying the benefits of high-speed broadband?

Let me answer that question of what we should do by telling you some of the things I believe, and how the Commission is acting on those beliefs.

First, I believe that advancing the public interest starts with facilitating dynamic technological change to ensure the U.S. has world-class communications networks.

As many of you know, I’m a student of history. One lesson is that the opportunities created by new networks are always met with resistance. Some resistance comes from economic incumbents threatened. Some of the resistance stems from human nature. Let’s be honest; change is hard. And it’s fair to say that broadband Internet – wired and wireless – is a disruptive force that’s changing almost every aspect of our economy and our society.

But history also tells us that those who embrace change are the ones who write the future.

We need to facilitate change by promoting the world’s best innovation infrastructure. We need faster, affordable networks in more places. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of seeing the charts of where the U.S. ranks in comparison to the broadband speeds of other nations. Table stakes for the 21st century is 25 Mbps, and winning the game means that all consumers can get at least 100 Mbps – and more.

At a time when technological advances are moving at lightning speed, competition that forces companies to embrace those advances is the best way to achieve those goals. Unfortunately, today there is an inverse relationship between competition and broadband speed. Three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice at 25 Mbps. That includes almost 20 percent who have no option at all at those speeds!

To address this gap, I outlined an Agenda for Broadband Competition, which states that where competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Where greater competition can exist, we will incent it. And where competition cannot exist, we will take on the responsibility of promoting broadband deployment.

When we talk about broadband, we are increasingly talking about mobile connectivity. And as the Pew Research Internet Project has found, people of limited economic means and people of color disproportionately rely on mobile phones for broadband Internet access. The 21st century will be defined by the networks that marry the ever-increasing computing power of Moore’s Law with the invisible delivery of wireless spectrum. That’s why the FCC is pursuing a comprehensive agenda to make more spectrum available for broadband, including for small businesses and minority entrepreneurs.

Embracing the future also means focusing on the opportunities created by our new network realities, rather than simply refighting the struggles of the past.

Case in point: look at media ownership. This was at the center of Everett Parker’s fight 50 years ago, and it’s still an important issue today. As many of you know, in recent years, we saw covert consolidation in the broadcast television industry as major corporations used so-called sidecar agreements to do an end-run around the FCC’s media ownership limits. The result was a reduction in the number of ownership opportunities for women and minorities. In March, the FCC cracked down on these sidecar deals. I’m pleased that as a result of these new rules, new opportunities are being opened for minority and women ownership. When Gray Television, for instance, was unable to gain our approval to continue the old ways, they sold six full-power TV stations to new minority and female owners.

That’s great news, but the reality is that – thanks to new broadband technologies – facilities ownership is less critical to diverse voices than ever before. Yes, we will continue to push for diversity in ownership. But, just as important in the Internet Age, we need to exploit our new networks for ownership diversity and content diversity.

So I believe we need to embrace and facilitate the changes made possible by broadband revolution, which brings me to my second point.

While network technologies have changed, the principles that define the relationship between those who build and own our communications networks and those who use them have not. Advancing the public interest requires ensuring that our networks reflect our civic values.

At the beginning of my term, I spoke about the Network Compact, those immutable values that have formed the foundation of our communications networks for over a century. These principles include:

  • Access – both to networks and on networks,
  • Interconnection – by definition a network is a series ofconnections; in the broadband world, the Internet isn’t a thing,

    but a connected collection of networks,

  • Consumer protection – technology has pushed the laws ofphysics, but nothing has changed the laws of human nature or

    economics, and consumers must be protected from exploitation,

  • Public safety –without a doubt, this must be the underlyingdeliverable of all networks, and
  • National security – in a world in which networks are now attackvectors, we must have secure and safe connectivity.

Telephone companies are retiring their old networks – which primarily run over copper — and are moving to internet protocol or “IP” networks that use a variety of means of transmission, including fiber and wireless. This transition raises a multitude of questions: What obligations will attach in an all-IP environment? Will 911 calls be required to go through with the same reliability as old landline networks? Will carriers be responsible to serve the remotest areas or the poorest populations? What about disability access and protections against privacy violations and fraudulent billing?

There are those who argue that the move from analog networks to IP networks changes the principles of the Network Compact. They are wrong. The form these responsibilities take may change in an IP world, but the principles do not – and should never – go away.

While our principles remain constant in the face of change, our policies to protect those principles cannot. I believe that to serve the public interest government oversight must evolve to reflect changes in technology.

Which brings us back to Rev. Parker. In the last half of the last century he fought for the public interest in the then-dominant communications technology. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we must transition his fight to the new communications technology.

The fight for the diversity of viewpoints and the protection of fundamental democratic values has leapt to the Internet. The opportunity the Internet offers for making everyone a publisher with their own outlet to the world – literally the world – is the greatest advance in democratic values in history. But it only works if the Internet remains open.

Everett Parker’s fight began when a Mississippi television station chose to go dark rather than broadcast information about racial justice. Rev. Parker fought to see that there were consequences to that activity and that the people’s airwaves were not manipulated in such a manner.

Today our challenge is to ensure that the Internet remains open to new ideas, new people expressing themselves, and new economic opportunity.

The history of networks – whether the railroad, telegraph, or telephone – has been one where the incredible opportunity presented to society is tempered by the reality of economic opportunism.

Everett Parker fought for the free flow of information without economic obstruction. In his time it was necessary to own a broadcast license or buy ink in 50-gallon barrels for your newspaper in order to have a conduit for widespread expression. Today you just need an Internet connection. That connection must be able to lead you and your opinions to the world, as well as bring the thoughts and ideas of the world to you – both without interference.

Free expression is the basis on which our democracy is constructed. We have learned that financial interests can under-value the importance of speech. But we will not. We will recognize the importance of the speaker. Just as importantly, we will recognize the importance of the listener to receive information. Democracy cannot work if political expression is

cabined and confined. The history of America is the history of unpopular ideas that came to be recognized as essential truths – from the independence of colonies, to the abolition of slavery, to the simple notion that people should not be judged on the basis of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. This is why free expression is a value that stands at the center of our work to promote an open Internet. As if the revolutionary expansion of free speech represented by the Internet isn’t enough, the Net is also an unprecedented expansion of economic opportunity. Networks have always been the backbone of economic expansion, but what is new this time is that an open Internet allows innovative economic activity to reach scope and scale at an unprecedented rate.

These are the fundamental reasons that we are considering Open Internet rules at the FCC. Some have remarked that this may be the most important decision to be made during my term. I don’t know whether that is true or not, but I can assure you that I am treating it that way.

Everett Parker was motivated by a dream that the principal means of communications in this country would serve everybody, regardless of the color of their skin or the size of their paycheck. His work continues today. It is in that spirit that I am proud to accept your kind recognition.

Thank you.

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Join us! Ideas for an Online Justice Agenda for Extravagance UCC

Last week I attended an important meeting hosted by the United Church of Christ:  a meeting to envision what a UCC community could look like that existed mostly, or solely, online.   I attended the meeting as a representative of the UCC's historic media justice ministry, which goes by the name of OC Inc. The leaders of Extravagance asked us to envision a community that could reach people who did not have a local UCC church, or were not comfortable or able to come to a physical building.  It was a great treat to be with so many people who were both heavily invested in the church and also deeply immersed in new technology. 

 

During the meeting we spent considerable time discussing what is church and what a church online could be.   As I reflected on the meeting afterward, I was excited to see where this next chapter of ministry would lead the UCC.  I also was delighted because the UCC has been such a significant leader in communications rights and media justice, and this new ministry is a chance to deepen further the modern connection to this work.  As is true with most UCC churches, I hope an important part of the new work is social justice ministry.  And the world of communications rights and media justice would be a logical focus.  As the UCC and other churches embrace virtual community, it is important that we understand the inherent justice challenges in the new technological landscape.  Just as we fight to improve the functioning of democracy even as we advocate as part of our civic institutions, we should maintain a focus on the just use of technology as we utilize it to bring full incarnation to the United Church of Christ online.

 

To that end, I thought it would be useful to lay out a few of the justice issues that UCC OC Inc. is working on now, to offer them for consideration as the Extravagance team considers how to move ahead. 

 

Social media:  making our members into a product?  Social media is part of modern life, whereas in previous decades in the U.S. we used to socialize in bowling leagues and church social halls, we now have moved to virtual communities.  According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as of May 2013,  72 percent of online adults use social networking sites, even those ages 65 and older have roughly tripled their presence on social networking sites in the last four years.   Half of teenagers own smartphones. 

 

But social media is a business; it is not a church-owned social hall.  Social media companies have offered many services for free, but as many a wag has noted, if the product is "free" you are the product.  For example, Facebook's new policies on including user images in advertising are currently under federal investigation.  And this does not even begin to address the data the government might be collecting in violation of our civil liberties, and the civil liberties of perhaps some of our sister and brother faith communities, such as the Muslim community.  UCC OC Inc. has been involved in seeking improved choices by the companies themselves, and also improved regulation to protect children and teens.

 

Social media:  who decides what we see?  Moreover, social media users cannot make their own ethical choices about what they see and what others see -- so we may not be able to see images of breastfeeding mothers, at the same time that violence against women is distributed widely.  It was great to see the successful campaign to persuade Facebook to address violence against women more actively.   Twitter just became a public company--the drive to earn revenue will increase.  In my conversations with UCC leaders, at least some online users have felt that Facebook's system of advertising feedback lead to their advertisements being pulled--not that different from when UCC's still speaking advertisements were pulled from some television stations. 

 

As we use social media, such as public and private Facebook pages, YouTube, Pinterest  and others, it is important to remain aware that we are meeting in a for-profit public space.  As we use the technology--which we should--we cannot stop pushing for it to be more just in its implementation.

 

Fair rules of the road for unpopular or noncommercial content.  Today, for the most part, when people view video streaming or other content online, their only limit is in the speed of their broadband connection.  But those days are not likely continue, especially absent strong widespread public engagement.  This is perhaps one of the most fundamental communications justice issues afoot, largely occurring outside of the public eye.  It extends the for-profit meeting hall metaphor to a new level--in the U.S. the physical networks, the wires, that we use to connect with each other are owned by private companies. 

 

While for much of the Internet's history regulations governed the use of these wires, it is no longer the case.  For this reason, UCC OC Inc. is part of the effort to persuade the US to adopt policies  mandating "net neutrality" or "open access."  It is the principle that private companies that own the wires cannot use the wires as a monopoly for their own gain at the expense of other content.  In the past commercial networks have removed controversial content and blocked large downloads (of the Bible no less!).   Network companies are considering charging content creators to distribute content--like the potential deal between ESPN and Internet companies.  But what about noncommercial content?  Who can pay for the distribution of church content, social justice advocacy and content serving vulnerable communities?  Will church YouTube channels go the way of cable access while commercial content is still as powerful as NBC or ABC today? UCC OC Inc. is a leader in demonstrating open Internet is important to the faith community and others.

 

A good example of this is text messaging.  The parameters for text message donations are set by the mobile phone companies that control them.  Currently donations are capped at $10 each.  These rules are not designed to undercut noncommercial or church fund-raising, but the impact is the same.  And occasional mistakes show that non-profits and churches have little leverage in these relationships.  In another recent change, just this week Comcast started to experiment with data caps--one industry publication estimated this might cost 40 cents per hour for Netflix movies. While this is a small sum today, the potential if this were to be a routine industry practice is of concern.  Historically we have always set aside space for noncommercial speech and civic discourse--whether that was the town square or public broadcasting.  The noncommercial space of tomorrow without net neutrality is fragile, which is why UCC OC Inc. helped lead the National Council of Churches Communication Commission to adopt a resolution supporting net neutrality.  But we don't have a UCC synod resolution yet -- maybe it is time?

 

Access to communications for all.  Thirty percent of people (90 million) do not have broadband access at home, for reasons of cost, access, and digital illiteracy.  And people of color are much more likely than whites to access broadband via mobile devices, with all the bandwidth and other limits those devices bring--it is still very difficult to apply for a job or write a resume on a smart phone.  In fact, the government program to support simple voice telephones for low-income people is under attack.  And while UCC OC Inc. and a range of allies have just persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to bring down the price of a long-distance telephone call to prison, the prison industrial complex is developing ways to charge families and inmates for the use of email and video conferencing.  A young LGBT person in rural America might not be able to access the many resources available without broadband; an impoverished family in the inner-city might be sending their children to McDonald's to access broadband to do their homework.  UCC OC Inc. has been a leader in advocating for policies to support technology for underserved communities.

 

Ethical use of technology.  As we have started to explore what theology might look like and mean online, we also face some practical immediate questions about how to go about using it as ethical people.  An obvious point for people of faith is the importance of addressing online bullying.  But other questions abound -- the UCC Insurance Boards have started to offer guidance for the appropriate ways for clergy and members to communicate online in a manner that echoes the UCC's safe church initiative.  This is a rapidly evolving field where some of the most cautious advice may be hard to implement if we are to truly become an online community. 

 

While technology can improve and augment in-person and long-distance relationships, technology can also become a crutch or a wall between us and our loved ones.  There is an emerging community looking at media fasts, technology Sabbaths and other techniques to make sure technology plays a helpful and supportive role, but does not move into negative or obsessive behavior.   Check out UCC OC Inc.'s media violence fast next September, and the technology Sabbath March 2014.

 

Children. As adults we can model appropriate use of technology for our children.  An astounding 38 percent of children under two years old have used a mobile device and three quarters of children under eight have access to a mobile device at home, while the under-eight crowd's total screen time still totals almost 2 hours daily.   As the technology visionary Sherry Turkle noted in Alone Together, while teens recognize that they often overindulge in technology and communications, they are anxiously looking to see whether the adults in their lives can offer positive role models.  Do we stack up?  Do we put away mobile phones and blackberries at dinner, when our children are talking to us?  A supportive community will both use and manage media well, for example using these resources from the American Academy of Pediatrics for children's media use. 

 

The world of communications justice is vibrant.  UCC is a leader and has partners in organizations like the World Association for Christian Communications.  As we move ahead on the grand experiment of Extravagance UCC, it is also time to more fully embrace our long history in justice online. We invite everyone working on Extravagance to join us!  Let's start a dialogue about how we can work together.

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