Beyond Tech: Policymaking in a Digital Age

[Commentary] All tech starts out imperfect and evolves over time based on user needs and user behavior. We now have examples of rule makers testing with users and evolving the rules based on user needs and user behavior. To do this, the process of rulemaking, and eventually lawmaking, must be redesigned. And we have a long way to go before this is a well understood practice; it’s still very early. But perfecting imperfect laws is the best chance we have; as the complexity of our society increases, our chances of getting policy right the first time goes down rapidly.

[Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America]

Handcuffing Cities to Help Telecom Giants

[Commentary] It is good to be one of the handful of companies controlling data transmission in America. It’s even better — from their perspective — to avoid oversight. And it’s best of all to be a carrier that gets government to actually stop existing oversight. The stagnant telecommunications industry in America has long pursued the second of those goals — avoiding oversight, or even long-range thinking that would favor the interests of all other businesses and all other Americans over those of AT&T, Verizon, Charter, and Comcast — by proclaiming that there is something really magnificent coming any day now from the industry that will make anything regulators are worrying about irrelevant. And now that technique is at the heart of achieving Goal Three—wiping out oversight.

Case in point: Right now, plans are being implemented at the FCC and at least 17 state legislatures to block cities from constraining uses of their rights-of-way by private cellular companies for 5G deployments that — you guessed it — are coming any day now. In other words, if a city wants to set up a fair and competitive system that favors competitors, citizens, and long-range goals instead of the interests of a single big company—well, that would be illegal. This nationwide effort is aimed at, effectively, privatizing public rights of way.

Google is Quietly Grooming Companies Overseas in a Strategic Move to Bring the Next Billion Online

[Commentary] Google wants to educate non-US born entrepreneurs on the best practices of product development and speed up their learning curves. Think of it as strategic philanthropy: In exchange for helping these companies grow, Google gets to scrutinize their books, observe how its own products are being used (or not) in less familiar markets, and spread its gospel to the far reaches of the globe. Eventually, these companies will play an enormous role in getting millions more people to conduct their lives online, and Google will be there as well, ready to scoop up new users.
[Sandra Upson is executive editor of Backchannel.]

Wellspring’s dark money crucial to judicial group, helps others in Trump orbit

[Commentary] Moments after President Donald Trump’s January announcement that Neil Gorsuch was his pick to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, a small nonprofit that most Americans have never heard of launched Complete with a tender video telling how Gorsuch “ran a paper route, shoveled snow, worked the night shift” before becoming a judge, the site provides biographical material and recorded lectures from Gorsuch The group behind the site, the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) let it be known that it was playing for keeps, pledging to put $10 million into ad campaigns and social media promotion and hiring multiple lobbyists, all meant to pressure senators into approving Gorsuch for the slot.

But don’t expect to soon learn what wealthy individual, corporation, or even, potentially, foreign entity is providing the cash for this pro-Gorsuch push. JCN, as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, can keep its wealthy funders anonymous. Mostly, anyway: The only traceable donors are other 501(c) organizations acting as conduits for the anonymous cash directed at JCN and other groups. New tax returns obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics show that one such donor group, the Wellspring Committee, keeps the Judicial Crisis Network afloat, as it has for years. The filings also show that Wellspring’s own cashflow comes largely from an $8.5 million contribution from a single anonymous donor. In addition to pumping millions of dollars into JCN, the Wellspring Committee began to fund a handful of other nascent organizations — like the 45Committee — that have strong ties to the Trump administration and are boosting the White House’s agenda.

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Google Fiber Was Doomed From the Start

[Commentary] In Feb, there was a shakeup at Alphabet’s Access division (the new name for what was originally called Google Fiber). It named a new CEO, Greg McCray, and news outlets reported that hundreds of Access employees were being shifted to other parts of the Google empire. The bumpersticker from defenders of the status quo is that this means the Google Fiber experiment was a disaster. That’s simply not the case. What this set of events does usefully and colorfully signal is that we need an entirely different approach to the country’s desperate need for world-class data transmission....

The only business model for fiber that will work to produce the competition, low prices, and world-class data transport we need — certainly in urban areas — is to get local governments involved in overseeing basic, street grid-like “dark” (passive, unlit with electronics) fiber available at a set, wholesale price to a zillion retail providers of access and services. There’s plenty of patient capital sloshing around the US that would be attracted to the steady, reliable returns this kind of investment will return. That investment could be made in the form of private lending or government bonds; the important element is that the resulting basic network be a wholesale facility that any retail actor can use at a reasonable, fair cost.

[Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School]

Welcome to Series, a new type of story on Medium

Medium is introducing a new type of story to Medium for readers who just can’t wait for that next post: Series. Series are mobile stories that can be added to over time and unfold card by card with the tap of your finger. This is our first step toward building a new way to read on Medium that’s both seamless and serialized.

Mark Zuckerberg’s welcome embrace of journalism

[Commentary] While a majority of Americans are spending more time consuming news on social media platforms, the leaders of these companies have until recently declined to accept their role as the most important publishers of our time. They have shown scant interest in judging wheat from chaff while chasing market share. The good news is that’s changing, and Zuckerberg is leading the way. He and others in Silicon Valley would be well served by turning to Jack Knight’s core values for guidance. In our digital age, it may seem counterintuitive to look to a man who had ink in his veins for advice. But the basic principles about the role of information and the media in our democracy that Knight embraced remain critically important:
First: get the business model right.
Second, the product has to be demonstrably true to be believed. Knight wrote, simply, “get the truth and print it.”
Third, use technology to engage the reader.

[Alberto Ibarguen is the president and ceo of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation]

Trump’s FCC Pick Is Threatening the Jobs His Boss Promised America

[Commentary] To meet the loss of the manufacturing industry, tech jobs are going to have to move outside of Silicon Valley, to the center of the country. This shift, however, won’t just happen—it depends on oversight by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC ensures that internet access for ex-coal guys in Kentucky looks the same as it does for Mark Zuckerberg. This uniformity, called open access, is key: It helps level the playing field for people who live outside urban tech centers but nonetheless need to make a living in an digitized economy. It’s also necessary if you want to, say, create a tech hub in Kentucky. “I have been to coal country,” says Tom Wheeler, who served as FCC chairman during Barack Obama’s second term. “I have met with miners who are now coders. I have been to small towns where, because they were able to build high-speed fiber optic connections, there are more people working now than at the height of the coal boom.” It doesn’t make inherent business sense to build broadband in rural areas. But part of the way the FCC oversees open access is by treating internet like a public utility—meaning that everyone has to get access to it. But protecting those tenets makes little business sense if you’re AT&T, or Comcast, or Verizon. It makes much more sense to charge a captive audience as much as possible. Some can’t afford to play that game? Not their concern.

Can We Make Media Better? Some Signs Of Hope.

[Commentary] I see two main opportunities to make media more informative, delightful and inspiring of action:
1) Change media’s ad-driven business model: Can revenue be connected to trust and community building, instead of audience size and amount of content published? Instead of breadth, can business models encourage depth and time well-spent?
2) Harness social media for 2-way conversations: How can we use different formats and communications channels to make stories more engaging and more authentic? How can we elevate new voices and bringing richer, more diverse perspectives to the table?

[Julie Menter is Principal at New Media Ventures]

The Alternative Facts of Cable Companies

[Commentary] Cable is in many ways an uncreative business—“like chicken in a grocery store,” as Comcast founder Ralph Roberts once said. The cable guys (today, mostly Comcast and Charter in the US, who together account for half of the 92 million high-speed internet access subscriptions in the country) have successfully implemented one basic, foolproof idea: locking up entire geographic markets by acquisition while scaling up rapidly as possible. With high numbers of subscribers all within clustered markets, costs per subscriber are vanishingly low, back office functions can be shared, programming can be bought at a bulk discount price (half or a third of what any smaller operator might pay), and competition can be avoided. Meanwhile, customers keep paying. Another week, another chicken. But in order to avoid anyone getting the idea that oversight might be a good idea, Charter and Comcast have to uphold the fiction that their service is getting better and better in response to trumpeted “competition”—even if there isn’t any actual rival anywhere around. If everyone believes that services are improving, then there’s no need for government intervention. The market is providing!

What a monopolist most desires is a quiet life. That’s why Spectrum’s marketing and management teams let loose with ads claiming that consumers would get new X internet data speeds — “fast, reliable internet speeds.” The branding people went nuts, using adjectives like Turbo, Extreme, and Ultimate for the company’s highest-speed 200 or 300 Mbps download offerings. But no one, or very few people, could actually experience those speeds. Why? Because the company deliberately required that internet data connections be shared among a gazillion people in each neighborhood.