Washington Post

A golf channel tells Congress: Comcast-TWC would hurt little guys like them

Back9Network, a golf lifestyle cable channel, fears that the merger between Comcast and Time Warner could spell the end of its business.

The remarks by the CEO of the independent programming firm were made during a Senate Judiciary hearing on the proposed $45 billion cable and Internet mega merger.

James Bosworth, chief executive of the Hartford-based network, told lawmakers that for an independent programmer to succeed, it needs its channel to be carried by one of the big four paid television providers: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Dish or Direct TV.

The backlash to the Comcast merger is now bipartisan

Ever since Comcast unveiled its plan to take over the nation's second biggest cable company, liberals have been pretty upset about the idea. Among the most vocal is Sen Al Franken (D-MN), who argued recently in blunt messages to federal regulators that "the Internet belongs to the people, not huge corporations." Recently, dozens of left-leaning organizations, such as Moveon.org and SumofUs, sent a letter to the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission expressing their displeasure.

Conservatives, by contrast, have mostly kept mum or praised the looming merger. But that may be starting to change as Republicans detect a political opportunity in the proposal -- not to mention some burgeoning problems with the merger itself.

The result is bipartisan objection to a buyout that critics say would be harmful to competition. Republican and conservative groups see the merger as a chance to score points against the Obama Administration, which has close ties with top Comcast executives Brian Roberts and David Cohen. The right-leaning Washington Free Beacon published a 1,200-word column excoriating Comcast's political contributions to Democratic politicians. That was soon followed by columns on Breitbart.com and a number of other outlets.

Comcast the little guy? There’s competition everywhere, the company argues.

Comcast says it has loads of competition -- everyone from Facebook to Apple, which Comcast says is contemplating a television set-top box to compete with cable service.

Plus, Netflix and Amazon are already giants in online video, which also keeps the company on its toes, Comcast said in a regulatory filing for its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable.

"The difference between all those competitors and us is they have global and national scale,” said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen. That scale allows companies like Netflix and Apple to sell their products globally and invest in research, development and new technology. Comcast needs the merger with Time Warner to reach that level, he argued. But defining its competition in the broadband Internet industry may be harder for Comcast to do, some public interest groups and technology experts say.

And those definitions may be the crux of federal reviews into the company's $45 billion bid to become a national broadband business.

Comcast, Time Warner Cable merger faces a grilling in Washington this week

When Comcast sneezes, will too much of the technology industry catch a cold? That may be the central question facing regulators reviewing the company's $45 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable, a deal that again expands it cable television and, perhaps more importantly, its broadband Internet businesses.

The deal will be scrutinized in a Senate judiciary hearing and by regulators who will study Comcast’s arguments filed to the Federal Communications Commission and to the Justice Department. The merger on its face may not appear anticompetitive because Time Warner Cable and Comcast don’t compete in the same territories, analysts say. And that’s what Comcast stressed in its government filings, adding that it would commit to a string of conditions to assure it won’t squeeze out competition as the first-ever nationwide cable service provider.

But the problem isn’t only about getting bigger, public interest groups and smaller competitors say. It’s about the outsized power Comcast could have over an ecosystem of media, telecommunications and tech companies. After the merger, Comcast would have more than 40 percent of the home broadband market and 30 percent of cable subscribers.

Comcast refutes criticism that the deal is anticompetitive. It points to a thriving entertainment market where Netflix and Amazon compete with Comcast’s bundled cable television services. In the broadband market, Comcast points to competition from satellite firms, telecom companies such as Verizon with its FiOs service, and Google’s plans to expand its ultra-fast fiber service to dozens of cities.

But critics say satellite and wireless aren’t true broadband competitors because they're unable to deliver comparable fast downloads of videos and other large files. FiOs is in limited markets, and Google’s plans are years off in the future, they note.

But Comcast said it will commit to conditions to placate concerns. It will divest subscribers to keep its reach at 30 percent of the cable market, a benchmark that regulators say ensures competition between cable and satellite operators with programmers. It will extend network neutrality conditions that it committed to with the NBC merger. And it will continue to offer a low-income broadband service.

The emerging dark side of social networks

[Commentary] We’ve all heard how social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube help to spread democracy around the world by mobilizing the masses and making it easier to topple dictators. Now, we’re now seeing a darker side to them.

In some cases, they’re being co-opted by governments as disinformation tools, used by authoritarian regimes to crack down on Internet dissenters, and even being used as part of digital Black Ops by the United States in places like Cuba. The story of “fake Cuban Twitter” is especially disconcerting -- we’re talking about a digital Bay of Pigs, in which the US State Department, working through US Agency for International Development (USAID), actively worked to create a Twitter-like social network (ZunZuneo) to engage the local Cuban population in order to topple the Castro regime. In other cases, social networks are being used as part and parcel of government disinformation campaigns to co-opt opposition movements -- sometimes by the US government and its allies.

In countries such as Egypt and Turkey, data from social networks is being used to find exact locations of protesters based on GPS locations or to track down the IP addresses of Internet users the government wants to discipline. The question now is to what degree Western know-how is being used to facilitate these actions.

This emerging dark side of social networks has enormous implications for how America conducts its diplomatic business abroad. Terms like “digital statecraft” and “e-diplomacy” are commonplace these days -- not just for America, but also for nations that would like to emulate America’s ability to project power around the world. At little or no cost, social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube made it possible to spread the message that America was the land of baseball, apple pie and democracy for all.

But the more that social networks are seen to be doing the bidding of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency (and proxy organizations such as USAID) in terms of gathering and mobilizing the masses against governments, the less effective they are in sharing American values abroad.

The real danger behind the ‘McCutcheon’ ruling

[Commentary] There is more than one way to demolish a wall, physical or legal. When it comes to undermining the structure of modern campaign finance law, Chief Justice John Roberts has done it both ways.

The risk posed by the ruling, in which the chief justice wrote the plurality opinion, is not as much its immediate impact but the implications of its reasoning in demolishing an already rickety campaign finance structure. McCutcheon’s critics wail that it clears the way for wealthy individuals to plow millions into political campaigns. Um, but where have they been? The opportunities to write seven- and eight-figure checks were plentiful before the ruling.

The difference that McCutcheon makes is that mega-donors have previously had to conduct their political spending indirectly, through super PACs or other entities that do not write checks straight to candidates or parties. The real risk lies in the conservative justices’ seemingly deliberate obtuseness to the real world of campaign contributions -- in particular, their cramped understanding of what constitutes the kind of corruption or risk thereof to justify campaign finance legislation.

In a prying world, news organizations are struggling to encrypt their online products

The old-fashioned newspaper, long maligned for its stodginess and sagging profits, has one advantage over high-tech alternatives: You read it. It never reads you.

The digital sources that increasingly dominate our news consumption, by contrast, transmit information across the fundamentally public sphere of the Internet, leaving trails visible to anyone with the right monitoring tools -- be it your employer, your Internet provider, your government or even the scruffy hacker sitting next to you at the coffee shop, sharing the Wi-Fi signal.

A pay scale that doesn’t reward star employees makes hiring the best tech talent impossible. This is why privacy advocates have begun pushing news organizations, including The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian, to encrypt their Web sites, as many technology companies increasingly do for e-mails, video chats and search queries. The growing use of encryption -- signaled by the little lock icon in your browser’s address box -- has emerged as perhaps the most concrete response to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the ability of the National Security Agency to collect almost anything that exists in digital form, including the locations, communications and online activities of people worldwide.

Encrypting something as complex as a news site is enormously difficult, according to technical experts within the industry. Several major news organizations offered encryption for some elements of their sites in recent years but largely stopped when problems arose in displaying content quickly and cleanly to readers, said Peter Eckersley, technology projects director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which tracks the use of the technology. In an era when news zings across the globe at the speed of light, making encryption work properly across an entire site is a challenge worth undertaking, advocates say. “No one has done it for real,” Eckersley said.

The biggest issue in government that no one talks about

While Silicon Valley start-ups reinvent the world, most government agencies can only dream of being innovators.

Basic competence on tech projects is a struggle, as the rollout of HealthCare.com illustrated. At a GE-hosted event in Washington addressing the future of work, Gov. Pat McCrory (R-NC) addressed what he believes is the root of the problem.

“The biggest issue we have in government is the one thing no one talks about,” Gov McCrory said. “It’s how to get the work done in the most efficient, effective and quality way. I’m CEO in addition to being chairman of the board as governor and my biggest issue is being hamstrung by policies and politics which don’t allow me to operate in the most efficient and productive way and that includes paying the people who are really good.”

The problems begin with hiring, a report from the Partnership for Public Service noted: “The federal hiring process over time has become so slow, complex, opaque and imprecise in its ability to identify the best candidates that it is more likely to impede than facilitate the government’s ability to hire well.” And things don’t get better once employees are in the door. One study found that only 57.8 percent of federal government workers are satisfied with their jobs, as opposed to 70.7 percent of employees in the private sector.

What House lawmakers still don’t get about control of the Internet

America is the reason why everyone thinks the Internet is awesome and, more important, it's why Russia and China haven't already taken over the Web and foisted their draconian rules on the rest of us.

That's apparently what some members of the House believe, at any rate. Republican lawmakers grilled officials about a recent proposal that would end the Commerce Department's business relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit charged with administering the Internet's system of names and numbers. This system syncs Web domains to IP addresses and makes sure that when you type in Google's address, you actually land there. Maintaining this system has technically been the US government's job.

But for more than a decade, it has contracted with ICANN to do the work. This contractual relationship is what people are talking about when they refer to the United States' "control" of the Internet. It also helps that ICANN's international headquarters are in California.

Now the Obama Administration may let that contract lapse, replacing it with a multistakeholder body composed of corporations, states, advocacy groups and other potential members. It's not yet clear what that body will look like, but this idea already has some members of Congress worried. They're concerned it means the United States is giving up its influence over the Web -- even though that critique has already been debunked.

The power over the Internet that some in Congress think the United States has to beat back authoritarian regimes doesn't actually reside in the United States at all. But that reality is being obscured by a myth: that the United States, having played a pivotal role in the Internet's creation, has a magical power to thwart speech-stifling regimes.

Why so many want Aereo to beat broadcasters in the Supreme Court

Precious little is known about Aereo, the online video startup that doesn't say how many subscribers it has in its select number of markets.

Yet as it prepares to argue its legality before the Supreme Court in late April, the company has captured the attention and imagination of the media and technology world. That's because the company, funded in part by IAC chairman Barry Diller, could upend the television industry if the high court decides that its capture of broadcast television signals doesn't violate copyright law.

Turns out many want to change the way the television industry works -- where programmers such as Fox, NBC Universal and ABC (Disney) charge cable and satellite firms enormous licensing fees and cable companies push fat and expensive bundles of channels on consumers.

Aereo's supporters came out in force in a string of amicus filings to the Supreme Court ahead of an April 22 hearing. In the filings, Dish satellite, smaller cable firms and even some small broadcasters argued that Aereo isn't violating copyright laws as alleged by every major television broadcasting firm. They, too, would like to get broadcast content without paying for ever-increasing retransmission fees.