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Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

National Conference for Media Reform 2008

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Thu, 2008-07-10 15:36.

Minneapolis, 6-8 June 2008

The National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR), organised by Free Press, brought together US activists, media professionals and academics concerned with issues of media ownership, communications technology and democracy.

Global Partners presented at a conference panel and also at a preconference on international media and human rights, convened by Consumers Union. These were useful opportunities to introduce and discuss the work of the Freedom of Expression Project, with an international as well as a US audience.

Global Partners also attended a number of sessions at the Conference, deepening our understanding of how issues are framed in the US and of ongoing activism to address challenges to freedom of expression. This report gives a brief overview some of those sessions, noting links and work relevant to the Project.

Opening plenary, Lawrence Lessig

LL drew a parallel between code flaws in a computer’s operating system and flaws in the US constitution as the ‘operating system of government’. He highlighted the problem of dependence on other interests as a cause of corruption, noting that when the return for companies from regulation is higher than the return from competition, it leads to more lobbyists, less confidence in Congress and ‘crony capitalism’. He stressed the need to fix the issue of dependency in order to address problems with the media: he has founded the campaign Change Congress.

Future of the Internet: Open, neutral, mobile and ubiquitous

This panel considered questions of internet openness and access, both from technical and social perspectives.

Tim Wu (Columbia University Law School) explained how he came to propose the principle of a ‘non-discriminatory internet’ in a 2003 academic paper, after working to market technologies that enabled levels of internet service dependent on price. He suggested two potential solutions to the problem of concentration in US infrastructure: government regulation of monopoly, or the start of an ‘independent access movement’ to develop new infrastructure under people’s control, e.g. by buying fibre optic cables and extending wi-fi networks.

Eloise-Rose Lee (Media Alliance) highlighted problems of access and the ‘digital divide within the US’, through the testimony of migrant workers at Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearings on net neutrality. She stressed it was important to build grassroots responses and hear from less visible communities.

Jef Pearlman (Public Knowledge) discussed the freeing up of sections of wireless spectrum from 2009, when they will cease to be used by analogue television broadcasters. He noted some positive aspects. In the recent spectrum auction the licence for ‘C-Block’ (bought by Verizon) requires that they carry all traffic. PK and other activists are lobbying for unlicensed wireless use in those the parts of the spectrum where digital television will not be broadcasting, known as ‘white spaces’.

Susan Crawford (Yale Law School) launched a call to action for ‘one web day’ in September 2008. The campaign aims tto focus on local issues and build a global constituency concerned with issues including censorship, net neutrality, surveillance and democracy.

Questions and answers ranged widely, including:

  • The need for policies that focus on keeping the internet free and also frame it as a public utility.
  • The need to bring poverty into debates around access.
  • The potential of mobiles to provide access for low-access communities, though the problems of speed were discussed.
  • The need to lobby operators to increase bandwidth and address the current asymmetry between downloading/ uploading speeds.
  • Whether white spaces could become public airwaves, separate from corporate ownership.
  • Net neutrality as a government guarantee or positive obligation.

Shaping the internet the fun and easy way

Media justice group People’s Production House demonstrated an example of the interactive training sessions they use in community projects to explain concepts of internet structure and policy. They presented interim results of their survey in New York City into problems of internet access among immigrant communities, which aims to gather detail needed to hold corporations accountable and inform policy solutions.

International caucus

A meeting for non-US participants brought together over 20 people for informal discussion including journalists, broadcasters, community activists, researchers and students. Some participants focused on the significance of the US and US media globally; others discussed opportunities for presenting alternative viewpoints that can arise from the mainstream media’s need for content.

Promoting global human rights through progressive communications policies

This panel explored the potential of communications policies to expand consumer, democratic and human rights, through four perspectives.

Rosemary Okello-Orlale (African Woman and Child Feature Services, Kenya) highlighted how women and children’s issues are marginalised when policy-makers rely on surveys of media that exclude their issues. Alternative platforms, e.g. radio for women in refugee camps, help to address this; expanding media coverage and access to are critical to democracy. She emphasised the need for education to enable communities to develop and create media, and use it as a tool for social change.

Estela Waksberg Guerrini (Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor, IDEC) explained the implications for Brazilian consumers of telecommunications convergence and consolidation of media ownership. Legislation lags behind technological change, and consumer rights are not consistent across platforms. Broadband access is not considered a social utility, and there is little choice of ISPs, some of which make purchase of other services a condition of supply. Copyright restrictions also affect the free flow of information. IDEC works to extend people’s access to sources of information, e.g. by providing accessible information on a current telecoms public enquiry and by pressing for regulatory/legislative change.
Download Estela's presentation by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page

Mak Yin-Ting (formerly Hong Kong Journalists Association) outlined aspects of the situation in China on media freedom. Half of newspaper owners are members of government advisory bodies, and surveys of journalists have shown that self-censorship is essential to career progression. People find ways to circumvent government control; e.g. publish local coverage in a neighbouring province; reporters work under assumed names. The internet means that government can no longer control information, e.g. about the recent earthquake. However, charges of ‘subversion’ are commonly used to silence people; there needs to be international pressure to hold the Chinese government to account as a signatory to the ICCPR.
Download the presentation by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page

Lisa Horner (Global Partners, UK) introduced the work of the Freedom of Expression Project, now developing and consulting on a set of universal principles to guide policy in the networked communications environment. The principles set out overarching values that are grounded in the international human rights system, and articulate overall policy goals for different ‘layers’ of the communications environment (infrastructure, code, applications and content). The development of the draft principles follows 18 months of research, policy analysis and a series of participative workshops in Europe, Latin America, East Africa and South East Asia.
Download the presentation by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page

The lively and wide-ranging question session raised many issues, including:

  • The need to focus on other human rights issues and socio-economic rights as well as communications concerns.
  • Strategies for getting information out from China about human rights abuses, including: working with allies within governments and the media; reminding and keeping up pressure about international obligations and treaties they are signatory to; civil society action in China to extend education and electricity so as to enable access access to communications.
  • How human rights organisations can best work/deal with mainstream media – they need to get their messages out but risk them being truncated or ‘used’
  • The role of pressure from the Chinese people and from external governments in making changes in China – pressure from Peruvian government and internal (via internet and the media) led to a memorial and flag-lowering ceremony for the victims of the earthquake.

Standing up against hate speech

Panellists discussed media coverage of anti-immigration positions, recent increases in hate crimes against Latinos and strategies for action, in the context of supporting the First Amendment right to free speech.

Mark Potok (Southern Poverty Law Center and Intelligence Report) highlighted an increase in the number of anti-immigration groups, and how their misinformation (e.g. about disease) leaks into mainstream media and political discussion. Marilyn Mayo (Anti-Defamation League) reported that white supremacist groups have shifted their focus to Latinos, seeking to demonise immigrants and blur distinctions between immigrants and other Latino citizens. ADL works to make clear the identities and agendas of these groups’ ‘experts’ and media spokespeople.

John Travasiña (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) explained their work to counter misinformation about who can enforce immigration law. Mark Kappelhof (US Dept of Justice) defined hate crime in US law and gave examples of successful prosecutions.

Corinne Yu (Leadership Conference on Civil Rights) highlighted why the civil rights community is concerned with communications policy. LLCR makes the case to policy makers about the evidence of connections between hate speech and hate crime, and calls for policies to counteract the effects of hate speech: e.g. balance in the media, education of journalists.

An animated question session highlighted participants’ experiences in developing strategies for action. Issues included:

  • The importance of countering factual inaccuracies, educating the public, and offering alternative spokespeople/content to mainstream channels.
  • Options for counter-programming/ selective timing of hate speech content on public access TV, which by law has to allow all groups access to air time.
  • The difficulties experienced by a black woman journalist in getting legal protection after receiving death threats at her place of work.
  • Commercial strategies: one blogger (‘Spocko’s Brain’) contacted a radio station’s advertisers directly with clips of hate speech, after which several withdrew.

Copyright wars: Will filtering censor free speech and kill net neutrality?

Alex Curtis (Public Knowledge) set the context for this panel on current developments in preventing copyright violations. Action is possible at ISP level, i.e. by ISPs inspecting data, and potentially at a software level with technology similar to anti-virus technology. While ‘fair use’ of content is permitted, its interpretation can be complex.

Alison Hanold (Center for Social Media) reported on trends in ‘video quotations’ (Recut, reframe, recycle). Around 40% of under-30s in the US have created online content, using it in a wide variety of ways. This new culture is potentially endangered as people can be intimidated by content companies’ ‘takedown requests’. To address this, CSM is launching a fair use code of conduct for online content makers in July 2008.

Robert Millis (Hudson Street Media, makers of ‘Political Lunch’ daily bulletin of online content) highlighted how filtering would potentially flag for takedown much of the material they use, although it is legitimately used and credited.
Elizabeth Stark (Free Culture) discussed the complexity of copyright law in practice, its inconsistencies, the operation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s provisions to limit the liability of content providers, and YouTube’s digital fingerprinting technology that can recognise infringements.

Discussion included:

  • Likely type of technology for ISPs’ use, based on filters to pick out blacklisted content.
  • How digital rights management could potentially also exclude ‘fair uses’ of content.
  • Use of copyright provisions and takedown notices when the real issue is not infringement of copyright but revenue of/inconvenience to media owner.
  • Whether consumers would protest against filtering technologies being used.
  • International comparisons – e.g. a ‘fair dealing’ provision in the UK and the concept of ‘copie privée’ in France. An EU proposal (originating in France?) that a certain number of takedown notices would bar you from using the internet.

New directions in public media

Panellists discussed the potential place and role for ‘public’ or ‘public service’ media in the developing media environment.

Jim Pagliarini (Twin Cities Public TV) gave a historical perspective on the development of public TV, from its origins in the ‘50s as educational content. The internet is changing the model of distribution so that the focus is less on ‘last mile’ infrastructure and more on how to engage different publics.

Alice Myatt (Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media) suggested that public TV is now less about TV stations but about community based organisations with media tools. She emphasised the importance of innovation, citing the BBC’s business successes in exporting home-grown products to the US.

Nick Penniman (American News Project) explained the business model behind recently-launched ANP, an online public media news service. It produces high-quality short-form news videos, free to all willing distributors, aiming to aggregate audiences equivalent to mainstream channels. Aiming to distribute to mainstream based on the quality of journalism. Budget $1M first year will produce 200 short films. IT is funded by foundations, major donors and ‘microfinance’ donations that relate to particular issues, with a separation between funding and editorial.

Questions and discussion covered:

  • Difficulty of securing funding for long-form reporting (60-90 mins)
  • Trend towards ‘backpack journalism’, i.e. young reporters with camera who can work solo, rather than traditional crew of 3
  • Other microfinance models including and
  • Potential of small-scale enterprises echoing big business model, using revenue as ISP to fund radio station.
  • Lack of and need for political movement to press for public funding for public broadcasting.
Estela Guerrini - Promoting Rights through Communications Policy in Brazil (Power Point)145 KB
Mak Yin-Ting - Rights and journalism in Hong Kong (Word)36 KB
Lisa Horner - The Freedom of Expression Project (Word)33 KB