NYTimes Looks At FCC’s Decency

Editorial Observer: Fighting for Free Speech Means Fighting for . . . Howard Stern

It is Mr. Stern’s offensiveness that makes his cause so important. The F.C.C. is using his unpopularity as cover for a whole new approach that throws out decades of free-speech law. The talk right now is over the colorful battles between Mr. Stern and Michael Powell, the head of the F.C.C. But when the headlines fade, the censorious new regime will apply to everyone. The danger it poses to the culture is real.

On March 18, the F.C.C. issued orders that spell out, as the commission puts it, “a new approach.” Some of the standards are objectionable on their face. The F.C.C.’s inclusion of “profanity,” which it concedes is often synonymous with “blasphemy,” means, a coalition of civil liberties groups, media organizations and artists points out, that “the most commonplace of divine imprecations, such as ‘Go to Hell’ or ‘God damn it,’ are now actionable.”

As disturbing as the new rules, however, is the F.C.C.’s warning that it does not intend to hold itself to any specific definitions of indecency. The commission states, at the end of a list of vague categories of forbidden speech, that it will “analyze other potentially profane words or phrases on a case-by-case basis.”

While making its criteria hopelessly vague, the F.C.C. is removing longstanding protections that give speakers breathing room. While the law has long said that violations must be “repeated” before a penalty can be imposed, the F.C.C. now says an isolated incident is enough. Instead of requiring that offenses be “willful,” the new rules hold that a broadcaster’s good-faith efforts to understand highly subjective standards are “irrelevant” to whether it will be punished.

This new legal landscape will stifle important artistic expression, since broadcasters will be afraid of wandering too close to an essentially undefined line. It also raises a real danger that indecency will be used to stifle political dissent. Among the comments Mr. Stern is in trouble for are a schoolyard epithet used about President Bush and another aimed at a Republican congresswoman.

The combination of unknowable rules and draconian penalties is already having a chilling effect. There are reports of radio stations banning classic songs like Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back.” The television show “ER” recently edited out a brief shot of the exposed breast of an 80-year-old hospital patient. And the satirist Sandra Tsing Loh was fired by a public radio station when an engineer failed to bleep out various words that were meant to be bleeped for comic effect.

Compare and contrast with Ernest Miller’s The Broadcast Flag vs. Indecency Enforcement and F*cked by the F*CC

Followup: Letters to the editor

Dominance?

U.S. Is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences

The United States has started to lose its worldwide dominance in critical areas of science and innovation, according to federal and private experts who point to strong evidence like prizes awarded to Americans and the number of papers in major professional journals.

Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or even exceed America’s, apparently with little public awareness of the trend or its implications for jobs, industry, national security or the vigor of the nation’s intellectual and cultural life.

“The rest of the world is catching up,” said John E. Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that tracks science trends. “Science excellence is no longer the domain of just the U.S.”

[…] “It’s all in the ebb and flow of globalization,” said Jack Fritz, a senior officer at the National Academy of Engineering, an advisory body to the federal government. He called the declines “the next big thing we will have to adjust to.”

[…] More troubling to some experts is the likelihood of an accelerating loss of quality scientists. Applications from foreign graduate students to research universities are down by a quarter, experts say, partly because of the federal government’s tightening of visas after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the recent forum audience that the drop in foreign students, the apparently declining interest of young Americans in science careers and the aging of the technical work force were, taken together, a perilous combination of developments.

“Who,” she asked, “will do the science of this millennium?”

Slashdot: US Losing its Scientific Dominance

Followup: NYTimes editorial: Losing Our Technical Dominance

An Experimental Online Political Watchdog — On the Left

New Internet Site Turns Critical Eyes and Ears to the Right

David Brock, the former right-wing journalist turned liberal, describes himself as once having been a rather large cog in the machinery of the conservative media.

Now Mr. Brock is starting a new endeavor built to combat the very sector of journalism that spawned him, with support from the same sorts of people (Democrats) about whom he once wrote so critically.

With more than $2 million in donations from wealthy liberals, Mr. Brock will start a new Internet site this week that he says will monitor the conservative media and correct erroneous assertions in real time.

The site, called Media Matters, was devised as part of a larger media apparatus being built by liberals to combat what they say is the overwhelming influence of conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.

An Unexpected Cable Competitor

Local Broadcasters Offer Cheaper Premium Services

In an age when cable and satellite television companies offer channels by the hundreds, the service that Aaron White receives at his home in Sandy, Utah, seems almost quaint. For $20 a month, Mr. White has a dozen specialty channels, including ESPN and the Discovery Channel, along with all his local high-definition stations for just $20 a month.

What is quainter still is that Mr. White does not have either cable or satellite service: he and other customers in the Salt Lake City area receive premium channels through his own antenna and a set-top box he bought at Wal-Mart.

[…] The service he receives – premium channels that are ordinarily found only on relatively expensive cable or satellite services – is the result of government largesse. In the late 1990’s, broadcasters throughout the country were given large chunks of the airwaves at no cost with the understanding that they would provide free digital signals as part of the government’s push for high-definition television. But because of improvements in digital signal compression, it no longer takes nearly as much bandwidth to broadcast digital television, so the broadcasters are left with plenty of bandwidth to use, and profit from, however they see fit.

[…] Such uses are not without critics. The consumer electronics companies, which want to sell expensive components and television sets, want the spectrum used for high-definition broadcasts, not low-cost alternatives to cable. At the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in April, Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, called these services “technological mirages.”

The Media Access Project, a public interest law firm in Washington, was among those who were critical of the handover of bandwidth.

Aviel Rubin Profiled

Who Hacked the Voting System? The Teacher

Luckily, the setting was not an election but a classroom exercise; the conspirators were students of Aviel D. Rubin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. It might seem unusual to teach computer security through hacking, but a lot of what Professor Rubin does is unusual. He has become the face of a growing revolt against high-technology voting systems. His critiques have earned him a measure of fame, the enmity of the companies and their supporters among election officials, and laurels: in April, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave him its Pioneer Award, one of the highest honors among the geekerati.

The push has had an effect on a maker of electronic voting machines, Diebold Inc., as well. California has banned the use of more than 14,000 electronic voting machines made by Diebold in the November election because of security and reliability concerns. Also, the company has warned that sales of election systems this year are slowing.

[…] Typically, Professor Rubin decided to confront the issue of whether he had experience with elections by taking part in one. During the March presidential primary, he signed up to become an election judge and found himself sitting all day at a precinct in a church at Lutherville, Md., helping voters use the same Diebold touch-screen machines that he had criticized so roundly. He then went home and wrote a full account and posted it to the Internet.

Slashdot stories: Avi Rubin’s Thoughts On e-Voting; E-Voting Expert Testifies

Copyrights, Culture and DVD Releases

A complex brew: Popeye fans get animated in DVD debate

[Fred M.] Grandinetti, 42, is cofounder of the 1,600-member International Popeye Fan Club and author of “Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History.” As such, he was eagerly awaiting the release of this year’s 75th anniversary compilation of “Popeye” cartoons on DVD. But to his consternation, when the DVD was released recently, it contained only “Popeye” cartoons that aired on television in the early 1960s, and not the short black-and-white films that debuted in the 1930s — and that connoisseurs consider the best and truest representation of the sailor with the wizened mug and the bulging forearms.

[…] “What is appalling is that on the 75th anniversary, you cannot walk into a video store and get a collection of his work,” he says.

But the reality is that the early “Popeye” films cannot be released on DVD unless King Features Syndicate — which controls the rights to Popeye and the other characters — gives a green light to Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to the old films.

[…] Popeye first surfaced in January 1929 in E. C. Segar’s newspaper comic strip, “Segar’s Thimble Theatre,” which revolved around Olive Oyl and her family. Segar intended Popeye to make a one-time appearance, Grandinetti says, but “the newspaper reading public fell in love with him. Here was a character who stood up for his morals and his values and didn’t take any guff. And this was during the Depression, so you really needed to see that back then.”

Animators Max and Dave Fleischer, who also created Betty Boop, began making animated film shorts starring Popeye in 1933. The Fleischers were “innovators,” Grandinetti says, who mobilized their imaginations to create inventive stories, songs, and “just an outstanding quality of cartoons.” From 1933 to 1957, he says, the “Popeye” films were Paramount Pictures’ highest-grossing animated film short series. The black-and-white films also gained popularity on television in the 1950s.

Janus Released

After much speculation, it looks like the questions about Microsoft’s DRM for consumer electronics devices is here: Microsoft unveils copyright software

The company’s latest “digital rights management” software, code-named Janus, was released today. It will give songs and videos purchased through subscription services a sort of digital expiration date that works even when the data is transferred from a computer. The technology also protects the content against piracy. The goal is to make it easier for companies who want customers to rent songs or videos, rather than own them, to also let those users play the content on portable players.

For example, with the new technology a user could rent several movies for a long trip, download them onto a portable player, and then watch the movies until the rental expires a month later. A user also could rent songs for a set period and play them back on a portable player.

“At the moment the current subscription models that are out there are so hobbled by the fact that they cannot be taken away from the computer,” Microsoft spokesman Jason Reindorp said.

So, we can wait on the real test — will the fact that you’re getting less mean that the price will fall, too? Something tells me that, once again, the perspective of Theodoric of York will win out.

CNet’s article: Microsoft unveils new antipiracy tools

[T]he new digital rights management tools also include features that would protect content that is streamed around a home network, or even block data pathways potentially deemed “unsafe,” such as the traditional analog outputs on a high-definition TV set. That’s a feature that has been sought by movie studios in advance of the move to digital television.

“This release of technology really enables all kinds of new scenarios that are emerging now,” said Jason Reindorp, a group manager in Microsoft’s Windows digital media unit. “We’re taking quite a holistic view.”

I’ll bet.

Related: Home PCs to gain multimedia savvy

Update: Slashdot discussion – Microsoft’s Janus DRM Software Officially Unveiled — the article writer picked the same part of the CNet article to respond to that I did.

Futher update: Groklaw’s thought — Protecting Copyrights – Reductio Ad Absurdum – and a Choice: An Independent FOSS Study

The Power of Google?

The title is a little confusing, but the questions raised are worth thinking about: Is a Do-Gooder Company a Good Thing?

But will Google be able to adhere to its famous corporate ethos, “don’t do evil,” with its role as the Internet’s chief gatekeeper bolstered by the several billion dollars a stock sale is expected to raise? Supporters and critics alike agree that the public would do well to scrutinize the effects of Google’s outsize influence, whether or not it adheres to its promises of trustworthiness.

“Google’s greatest challenge, beyond innovation or competition, is what to do with the gift of power that the culture has bestowed on them,” said John Battelle, a media consultant who is writing a book about searching the Internet.

[…] In the political realm, Jonathan Zittrain, the co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said Google had voluntarily decided to remove certain hate sites in its German and French versions that could be deemed illegal in those countries. Mr. Zittrain, whose organization is cataloging the omissions (cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/google/), said the move raised concerns about the pressure governments can exert on Google to censor data.

“Google serves such an important gatekeeping role that its decisions have implications for speech and the exchange of ideas,” Mr. Zittrain said. “Imagine John Ashcroft calling Google and saying, ‘Get rid of that Web site.’ ”

Still, many Internet observers say they are heartened by the unusual commitment to the public interest voiced by Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. “I think it’s really good that someone whose motto is ‘don’t be evil’ is in this position,” said Esther Dyson, an Internet analyst. “Power itself isn’t the problem. We just have to hope they don’t abuse it.”

Dahlia Lithwick on Rosenbaum’s “The Myth of Moral Justice”

From the NYT Book review: ‘The Myth of Moral Justice’: Lawyer, Heal Thy Client

Sounds like a provocative read — an interesting diagnosis, but an umimplementable (if not dangerous!) solution:

He paints a picture of a frosty system that blasts the emotion, subjectivity and complexity out of every dispute brought to its doorstep. Citing the ”bureaucratic efficiencies” governing decisions, the ”winner take all” mentality drummed into lawyers and the profession’s ethics, which bear only a glancing familiarity with human morality, he exposes a system that encourages lying, permits truth to be stifled and allows evil men to roam free.

Rosenbaum wants to hold law to a higher moral standard, but what’s moral is simply assumed throughout the book. He defines it at one point as a collective agreement about ”what is right, what is true” (quoting Paul Newman in ”The Verdict”). But this assumes truth is objective. Elsewhere he observes that ”the community” should feel satisfied with legal results, suggesting — even more perniciously — that truths are determined by majorities. He argues that moral outcomes make sense ”in the heart and soul.” But atrocities are carried out by people for whom bad acts satisfy the heart and soul. Rosenbaum worries for the law students who believe morality is subjective and uncertain, but it’s virtually impossible to grasp why the result of one trial is moral to him and another is not.

[…] Rosenbaum should still be read by every law student in America. His assessment of attorneys as unhappy shells of people and his statistics about the rates of depression and addiction remind us of the dangers inherent in locking your heart in the parking lot each morning. Being more empathetic, attempting to broker compromise, encouraging parties to apologize, becoming, as he puts it, ”feelers” rather than mere ”thinkers” — all are crucial steps toward making lawyers emotionally intact again. But the single most moral thing lawyers can do is to urge clients to understand that even if they win their case they won’t necessarily be happy and that they can’t get their old life back. That happens in church, or therapy, if it happens at all. The myth behind ”The Myth of Moral Justice” is that the law would be more moral if it could become more than it is. The truth is, we’d all be better off if we looked to it for far less.