Why “New Media” is no replacement for “Old Media.”

200px-NetNeutrality_logo.svgThe DC circuit court struck a stinging blow to any thoughts about so called “Net Neutrality” when it overturned the FCC attempts to force Comcast the abide by its rules regarding internet access.  The three judge panel ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to force Internet Service Providers (ISP) to give equal access to all its customers.  In a nut shell, this means that companies like Comcast, ATT, Verizon, can filter search engine results and traffic, baning  websites for no specific reasons.

So much for net neutrality.  Say I type something here that is critical of one of those companies, or any ISP for that matter.  With a few key strokes, my site will disappear.  Gone.  Just like that.  For those that think the internet is this wonderful open global village thing that can spread the word and and as a sort of modern day check and balance system, think again.  In this day and age, when corporations have the same rights as people, look for the large ISPs to spend significant lobbying dollars to keep the laws tilted in their favor.  I would expect to also see quite a few campaign contributions to legislators that are friendly to large corporations.

There are several letter writing campaigns, urging the FCC to change its classification of ISP’s to a common carrier status, something that would put the ISP’s squarely under the FCC’s control.   I look upon those with a jaundiced eye.  Perhaps the FCC can be convinced to change the rules, this time.  What will happen when a new FCC gets appointed?  Will those changes stay in effect?  The cynical side of me says no.

Independently run media outlets have traditionally acted as a backstop in our society.  There are fewer and fewer of those left these days.  I will readily acknowledge that the current crop of radio station owners, with some minor exceptions, have left the industry in a shambles.  Their decision to place profit above all considerations, in spite of  the license being granted in the public trust, has decimated news rooms, reduced staffing, and relegated community involvement  to a minor paper work shuffle at license renewal time.  All of this and more have conspired to make radio dull and uninformative.   Bland canned formats created and programmed thousands of miles away have ruined local radio flavor.  No wonder why people spend money to download from Itunes.

Yet, radio listenership is still high.  Radio’s saving grace is it is nearly universal, everyone has a radio, most households have four or five radios.  The technology is time tested and it works well.  Almost every square mile of the US is covered by broadcast radio signals.  Some areas are sparse, but there is at least one or two stations that come in.  People are used to radio, there is no learning curve, no subscriber fees, no censorship from a huge faceless mega corporation.  Well, that last part is in theory, anyway.  It is almost too much of a coincidence that mega corporations also own the majority of radio stations too.

Television as a medium is almost gone.  Very few people actually watch over the air TV, most people get their TV piped into their house via cable.  Once again, as those in the NY metropolitan area know, there is no guarantee that the local cable operator will carry a broadcast station, vis a vis the WABC-7 Cablevision dispute from last month.

Newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, even the once mighty New York Times has seen better days.

That leaves us with Radio to fill in role of un-censored informer.  Can they?  Will they?  It would be a radical departure from the current course and only time will tell.

Net Non-Neutrality

200px-NetNeutrality_logo.svgInternet Neutrality has become a big topic among some groups.  The fear is that some ISPs will filter internet users content, arbitrarily excluding whatever items they want without explanation or disclosure.   The temptation is too great for some ISPs (Verizon, Comcast, ATT, et. al.) not to block certain IP addresses, say for example, that of a competitor.

This amounts to corporate censorship.  If I have a Verizon account and I want to research other telephone companies, will I get accurate results?  What about some potential regulation change that the company didn’t want to have congress pass?  How about adverse rulings about Verizon from the state public service commission?

In light of the NBC/Universal – Comcast deal announced last week, those concerns appear to carry even more weight.  If the internet is going to replace radio, TV, and newspapers as some suggest, access must be unfettered.  Any member of the public should be able to search through any ISPs infrastructure and find all relevant data.

There have been FCC hearings on the matter, there is a NPRM,  a web site has been set up, there is a wikipedia entry.  Recently, senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) have come out against the idea of Net Neutrality, although I cannot imagine why.

I decided to do a little experiment myself.  At my official job, we have to ISPs, each on a separate T-1 line.  The first ISP is a local company, Best Web.  The other ISP is Verizon.  On the Best Web circuit, I did a Google search for some innocuous term, with safe search turned off.  I then used the same search terms on the Verizon circuit.  I was surprised to see different results for each search.  I did specific searches for items based on a geographical location, e.g. “widgets, Washington DC.”  In each case, the Verizon search results were missing some of the pages that the Best Web search results had.  This is going through Google.  I have Verizon at home also, and noted the same differences there.

By this relatively brief research, it would seem that Verizon is filtering out some pages they don’t like.  It is difficult to say why, and if I didn’t go through the trouble of changing ISPs and repeating the search, I would have never known about it.  Clearly most people don’t understand:

This is already happening!

This is one of the key problems with the “internet” future.  Access to data can be very easily controlled by programming fire walls and gateways at the IPS’s data center.  Users searching for items will never know what they are missing.  Having a diverse broadcasting industry has fostered freedom of the press and advanced our democracy.  Loosing that will put us on a slipper road to Corporatocracy, if we are not already there.

Is internet radio really radio?

Technically speaking, no.  Here is how radio is defined in the dictionary:

ra⋅di⋅o

[rey-dee-oh]
-noun
1. wireless telegraphy or telephony: speeches broadcast by radio.
2. an apparatus for receiving or transmitting radio broadcasts.
3. a message transmitted by radio.

Therefore, the internet, something relying on wired connections for the transmission of data for the most part, is not radio.  A radio station that is streaming audio, is a different matter.

Aside from that technicality, there is something else that is important to note.  Internet broadcasters (AKA webcaster) lack some other key components that make a radio station a radio station;  A specific set of rules that govern their behavior.  Things like profanity, copyright infringement, slander, payola, plugola, syndication rights, advertising rules (things tobacco, alcohol) emergency information, public issues and so on.

A radio station license is granted in the public interest.  Time was that radio station were required to do a certain amount of public service broadcasting, things like the news, religious programs, community interest programs.  Many station still do this.  An internet broadcaster is under so such constraints.   Some would say that is better and it just might be.  However, when Tim Westergren says “don’t call it internet radio, just call it radio,” sir, you are wrong.