Katrina Vanden Heuvel

The staggeringly high price of a prison phone call

In the United States’ jails and prisons, many incarcerated people are charged steep fees to make phone calls to the outside world. The correctional telecom industry rakes in more than $1.4 billion annually from prisoner phone calls.

The holiday break's over. Will Democrats act?

Nearly one-fourth of American households lack broadband access. A water main breaks every two minutes. With child-care costs soaring, more than 1 million workers—largely women—have been driven out of the economy, even as the economy reopens. Are Democrats ready to act? That is the critical question as Congress returns from its holiday break. While President Biden is selling the bipartisan infrastructure deal as a “generational investment,” the real effort will come from using the budget reconciliation process to pass vitally needed public investments with Democratic votes only.

America’s digital divide is an emergency

Far too many Americans are cut off from access to affordable high-speed Internet even as more of our core systems go digital. Unchecked, the result will be an America even more unequal than the one we see today. The United States has failed in the equitable delivery of this public good. The disparity will almost certainly lead to further inequity. No American should suffer the indignity of searching for Internet. Starbucks WiFi is not a social safety net.

The Trump administration’s other war on the media

Despite his crusade against the press, President Donald Trump’s contempt does not seem to apply to the massive conglomerates — such as Comcast and Verizon — with so much influence over what the American people watch on television and read on the Internet. And at a time when extreme commercialization has helped drive the decline of accountability journalism, President Trump and his recently appointed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai have signaled their intention to exacerbate the problem.

A former associate general counsel at Verizon and a consistent opponent of FCC rules intended to protect consumers, Pai fits the mold of other, higher-profile Trump appointees whose experience and ideology run counter to their roles in the administration. And since taking over the top job, Pai has already started transforming the FCC into an unofficial branch of the telecommunications industry. In Feb, Chairman Pai put his initial stamp on the agency with a series of orders that elicited harsh criticism from media reform and consumer advocacy groups, such as Free Press, which said they will “undercut affordable broadband, greenlight more media consolidation and endanger key protections for Internet users.”

Reining in the surveillance state

[Commentary] Sen Rand Paul’s (R-KY) strong libertarian principles have always differentiated him from many of his Republican colleagues. His outspokenness has many liberals and leftists asking a legitimate question: Why aren’t there more Democratic voices opposing the surveillance state?

Protecting civil liberties should be a critical piece of the progressive platform, but too many establishment Democrats and progressives have been silent on this issue simply because one of their own is in the White House.

Some Democrats in Congress have taken bold stands. Longtime civil-liberties champion (and former House Judiciary Committee chair) John Conyers has worked to limit the National Security Agency’s collection of bulk telephone data. Reps Keith Ellison of (D-MN) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) have probed the administration’s drone and surveillance programs. Rep Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) is pushing to prevent the NSA from weakening online encryption. In the Senate, Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has held oversight hearings questioning excessive surveillance. Even Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and normally a committed defender of the intelligence community, finally spoke out after discovering that the CIA spied on Senate staffers. And recently, Sens Mark Udall (D-NM) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a letter to Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., strongly criticizing a “culture of misinformation” that has resulted in “misleading statements . . . about domestic surveillance.” And Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has proposed a bill limiting FBI and NSA spying.

Still, too many Democrats and even progressives are reluctant to challenge the Obama Administration, either because they don’t want to criticize a besieged president or because they’re focused on other priorities. As they stay silent, a host of troubling policies, including the assassination of US citizens without due process, the prosecution of record numbers of journalists and whistleblowers, the unaccountable growth of the surveillance state and the vast expansion of the drone program, are proliferating unchecked.

Comcast-Time Warner doesn’t pass the smell test

[Commentary] One thing is certain about Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable: It doesn’t pass the smell test.

Comcast claims that the combination of the number one and number two cable companies will somehow enhance rather than diminish competition and lead to greater consumer satisfaction. Don’t worry, Godzilla will play nice on the playground. Comcast is just digesting its previous mega-merger, the takeover of NBC Universal that should have been blocked by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That leaves Comcast controlling an empire that includes NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, Telemundo and other networks. Here the merger doesn’t just impact the marketplace of cable; it threatens the marketplace of ideas.

The protection of free speech under our Constitution depends on citizens having access to many ideas, many sources, many ways of getting ideas and information. Letting mega-corporations consolidate control of key parts of the media infrastructure is a direct threat to that access. So blocking the merger, which should be a no-brainer, will require an aroused public opposition