Tag Archives: Internet

Media literacy in a post-fact age

February, 2017

Fake news is as old as the Internet. From the 1990s, I remember spam, scams, and ghost ship “rolling” petitions that sailed the white-font-on-black-background PINE and LYNX seas – almost as soon as the first E-list was compiled.

Spam couldn’t easily penetrate Usenet – the threaded online discussion Bulletin Boards, or BB ses that scientists used. When email lists proliferated, however, spamsters found ways to hop on board other people’s trains, at open relays.

Good e-lists relied on volunteer moderators (as the long-lived feminist PAR-L list still does)  but messages on even the best-intentioned lists often carried warnings about non-existent viruses that urged recipients to “send this to everyone you know.” Such scaremongering turned the fake news messages into viruses in themselves.

Those fake warnings often pretended to be from the FBI or Microsoft. Up until now, nobody has ever dared to disseminate nakedly false news from the address @POTUS, President Of The United States. The new @POTUS breaks ground every day. On January 24, #45 tweeted what he said was an Inauguration Day, January 20, crowd photo. The problem is that the photo’s time/date stamp said it was taken the next day, January 21, the day of the Women’s March on Washington.

An old gag says you can’t make this stuff up – except that the recent U.S. election proves that scammers do! We the people are barraged by click bait and propaganda, both online and off. Fraudsters abroad fabricate stories with the sole purpose of shocking people enough to entice them to click through to bogus stories – stories which, beyond doubt, influenced the US election.

@POTUS himself tweets an endless stream of 140-character fantasy headlines which, in Cold War days, we would have called propaganda. These days, we just call it advertising.


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With online news accounting for so much of what we see and learn, a smart Internaut needs ways to assess the increasingly startling reports that other people share. Every published story usually carries some clues. As a journalist, I look at the reputation of the source of the story and the outlet that carries it. I search on the topic and see what other publications are saying. Lack of corroborating stories is usually a bad sign. And I try to check the facts, or find a fact-checker on the story.

Perhaps the longest-serving fact-checker on the Web is Snopes.com, which began in 1995 by checking urban legends and has evolved into checking news stories and celebrity claims. Started by two retired insurance workers, Snopes soon became a standard newsroom reference if you wanted to check a jarring story. Last December, Facebook signed a deal with Snopes to check the fake news circulating on member pages.

Now, says Kalev Leetaru, Snopes’ founders are divorcing, and the expanded Snopes site is part of the divorce case. Snopes is still a standard reference in newsrooms, he says, for situations like the recent case when the president’s spokesperson invented an imaginary Bowling Green Massacre to justify the travel ban on people from Muslim countries.

A more recent contender is MBFC, short for Media Bias Fact Check, which also provides lists of publications according to their left/right bias or reliable/unreliable status. MBFC even includes a list of
the 10 best fact-checking sites, such as Politifact, or the Annenberg Centre, or the Poynter Institute.

Fact checkers can help identify which news sites to avoid, and can be useful in online discussions. However, we seem to live in a post-fact or “alternative fact” political climate. Now let’s look at some recommendations for websites to include in order to get a wide perspective when an issue suddenly flares up.

Fans of democracy argue that, as a society, we need the whole news media ecology, including funding for major investigations as well as independent journalism sites, like FactsandOpinions.com. One major difference between Canada and the US is that Canada’s CRTC rejected core-cable status for SUN News, a kissing cousin to far right-wing Fox News in the US. Canadians have shown that much media savvy already.

In the US, a mere six companies control all the news media, outside of PBS – as Gemini Fox points out. She lists some independent outlets she finds reliable, such as Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!  and Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept. On Youtube, I like The Young Turks – youthful, insightful, insouciant, and literally Turks of Turkish descent. Bill Moyers also listed his top ten investigative sites on his blog.

Among mainstream media, Reuters News Service  stands out for Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler’s instruction to newsroom staff to cover the White House the way they cover governments such as “Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, China, Zimbabwe, and Russia, nations in which we sometimes encounter some combination of censorship, legal prosecution, visa denials, and even physical threats to our journalists.”

For what it’s worth, in my opinion most Americans would be amazed at the even-handed and thorough approach Canada’s CBC takes to news gathering. Business Insider found that Americans place most trust in British news sources, but rely on the likes of Fox and CNN for domestic news.

Pew Research Centre approaches the question another way, asking instead which news outlets are the more trusted. The Center found differences between liberals (who trusted 28 out of 36 news outlets) and conservatives, who trusted only 12 out of the 36 news organizations named.

Like anything else we see, what we observe depends largely on where we’re standing. Social media tend to reinforce our own attitudes, in that we see more of what we indicate we like. We need to treat our media diet like our food diet, aiming for variety as well as flavour and sustenance. We need to teach our children how to assess what they see onscreen, looking at source, content and context. As individuals, we need to follow a few trusted news sources (I like rabble.ca and CBC.ca), and keep a list of wildly inaccurate or politically unpalatable ones, like Breitbart.com And we can’t take them for granted.

News used to be the most important programming that local or national broadcasters could offer. These days, newspapers are thinner than thin mints. TV network websites promote entertainment or reality shows, and conceal news programming under the “More” button. In 2013, Jan Wong reported that Canada’s newsrooms had shed 10,000 jobs in the previous five years. Last December, Canada’s Public Policy Forum des politiques publique du Canada issued a report that warns Canada’s news media cannot survive their steeply dropping revenue. The report found that 225 weekly and 27 daily newspapers have merged or closed shop since 2010, in more than 210 federal ridings. Small market TV stations have closed. Newsrooms everywhere whittle away at staff and services. The PPF cites an estimated 30 percent reduction in journalism jobs since 2010.

In response, Public Policy Forum President Ed Greenspon convened a panel of experts including pollster Allan Gregg to recommend ways to save the industry. “The Shattered Mirror” calls on the federal government to support media in Canada in a dozen ways such as adjusting tax breaks for online advertising; allowing non-profit media to register as charities and thus be eligible for philanthropic funding; strengthening the Copyright Act; strengthening and expanding Canadian Press; establishing Indigenous journalism as a discipline; creating a legal advice service for investigative journalists, and establishing a Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund, with an immediate endowment of $100 million and annual deposits of taxes from Canadian advertisements placed in foreign online media.

There’s a reason American president #45 is furiously trying to control the news media, to the extent that Washington DC police have laid felony charges against six journalists who covered Inauguration Day protests.

And it’s the flip side of the reason that the US and Canadian constitutions protect freedom of speech. As former Globe and Mail Editor-in-Chief Edward Greenspon put it: “Canada’s news media is in the midst of an existential crisis. So, therefore, is our democracy.”

Copyright Penney Kome 2017

Contact:  komeca AT yahoo.com


Read more F&O columns by Penney Kome here

Related works on F&O:

Fake News and Our Happiness Disorder, by Deborah Jones, Free Range  Column

Fake News: Déjà vu all over again, by Tom Regan, Seeking Orenda  Column

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Penney KomePenney Kome is co-editor of Peace: A Dream Unfolding (Sierra Club Books 1986), with a foreward by the Nobel-winning presidents of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.

Read her bio on Facts and Opinions.

Contact:  komeca AT yahoo.com




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The US election as Medieval Carnival

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.

By Anastasia Denisova, University of Westminster
November, 2016

“In the 1850s, thousands of Americans proudly called themselves ‘the know-nothings’ and formed a movement against migrants for the ‘purification’ of America. They were bragging about their lack of a clue about politics and rational argument,” my academic friend sighed over a coffee in London last week.

Because they were the only Democrats in the neighbourhood, my friend’s family had moved from Alabama back to the Old World. These days, the politics of the United States has turned into a similar whirlpool of awe and ridicule – but now you don’t have to be geographically bound to the country, as the digital realm makes the flows of controversial rhetoric spill over traditional boundaries of time and space.

The campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton featured an unprecedented amount of memes, viral texts that proliferate on mutation and sharing. In my research, I look at how memes have become the fast food media of contemporary politics as well as mindbombs of political activism. They are absurd, politically incorrect, incomplete and require the knowledge of context to “get” the joke. But most importantly, they mirror public opinion and popular emotions on the subject.

Hillary Clinton’s office tried to appropriate the language of internet cultures and shape their campaign posters like memes. But they failed to detach from the composition and expression style of a traditional poster. Not bold enough for memes, not classy enough for placards, these visuals got stuck somewhere in the grey zone between the online and offline.

Donald Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, demonstrated conscientious engagement with social media. He made his presidential announcement on innovative live streaming app Periscope. His Twitter accounts gathered millions of followers – indeed, just the comparison of the main Twitter feeds of the candidates, not to mention the satellite accounts, reveals the disposition of forces: 11m followers for @HillaryClinton as opposed to 14m for @realDonaldTrump. It was probably the bold rhetoric of Trump’s statements that made them so shareable.

Into the twittersphere

Trump supporters, following their commander, ignored all the rules of political correctness, fair play and sensible campaigning, indulging in meme warfare in the viral meadows of social networks.

Not only did they coin specific memes to attack the democratic candidate for the FBI phone scandal and pro-war sentiments, but even tried to create what I call meme campaigns: chains of similarly styled provocative messages organised by a hashtag that are designed to have a certain effect.

They don’t always work – but they do reveal the mood of public opinion. Several account holders took time to persistently deploy memes accusing Hillary of a drinking problem on Twitter. But #DrunkHillary failed to engage other users. Meek dozens of “shares” and “likes” revealed that both pro- and anti-Clinton voters doubted the idea that Mrs Clinton was an alcoholic.

Another case, the #DraftOurDaughters campaign, demonstrated how memes can “bomb” unguarded minds and influence the digital crowds. This initiative looked more like professional campaigning. Many voters were concerned that Hillary’s support of military interventions abroad would result in sending female soldiers to the battlefield. In order to amplify this concern, pro-Trump users coined a range of smart fake posters that imitated the simple graphic style of authentic Clinton posters. As a result, some social media dwellers believed that the meme-looking controversial images were indeed coming from the Democratic candidate.

Trump himself was by no means safe from the meme battlefield, with social media users creating memes that engaged in a rather lethargic lambasting of the candidate’s groping practices, unorthodox hair style and lack of reason in his assertions. But these memes proliferated in a rather disconnected fashion. Criticisms of Trump were certainly in the air, yet Clinton’s supporters did not create many uniform, clearly-focused campaigns out of them.

What does it all meme?

This meme flood is demonstrative of at least two alarming trends.

First, the growing problem of attention deficit has had a significant impact on the course and outcomes of the election. The phenomenon of “attention economy” has been studied since early 2000s. In today’s environment of multitasking and media oversaturation, the scarcest resource is not money or talent, but attention. People can only concentrate on a print-size version of the text; as soon as they need to scroll down to read the rest of argument, they are most likely to close the link and move to the next tab.

According to Garry Linnell, in 1968, the average politician’s soundbite in the news was 43 seconds, by 1988 it was nine seconds, and in 2016 we barely hear them finishing a sentence. This is the attention deficit environment into which internet memes fit perfectly. Comparable to fast food, they satisfy your information hunger with glitzy, tantalising, succulent bites that have little nutritional value, yet feed you on a very superficial level, right here, right now.

The second trend that the 2016 US election highlighted is the carnivalisation of public politics. Memes have been scrutinised as instances of medieval-like carnival: it is the logic of upside down, ridicule and mockery, stupidity and opposition to any possible elites.

Originally, of course, the carnival was limited to one week before Lent. People gathered in the central marketplace to unleash their desires and let off steam. The e-carnival is dramatically different: it expands beyond the constraints of time and space. It is ever present, and here to stay. Increasingly, attention-deficit voters draw their news and opinion from the fast food media communication and then return their inputs to the same shallow realm.

The consumption of fast food media advances fast politics, the swift, screaming and scandalous sort of politics that is so tempting to share and receive “likes” for. So the real winner of this election, in fact, is the viral state of mind. This renders the future of politics yet more worrying.

As Trump realised early on, the rule of this emerging memeworld is to share or be square, no matter the content.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Anastasia Denisova is a Lecturer in Journalism, University of WestminsterThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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A whole new world

iphone-472197_1920 copy

July, 2015 

I’ve always called them lightning bolts. Those moments in my life when suddenly the path forward or the situation around me became crystal clear.

For me the clearest lightning bolt came in the summer of 1993 when I downloaded my first copy of the Netscape Mosiac web browser. As I opened that browser, I clearly remember thinking that this was the future of newspapers. Within several months, with the help of my editors and friends, Doug McKay and Bill Turpin, we put our newspaper, the Halifax Daily News, on the web making it the first newspaper in Canada, and one of the first in the world, to be available online.

That lightning bolt in the summer of 1993 changed my whole life. Not to be too melodramatic about it, it illuminated the path that I was to follow, and continue to follow, for the next two plus decades.

I had another lightning bolt after reading Paul Mason’s brilliant piece in the Guardian on the post-capitalist world that we are now entering. It was if (to get biblical for a moment) a veil had been lifted from my eyes and I suddenly saw the world in a completely different fashion.

Because the truth is that sometimes when you live in the midst of change, when it is all around you, it can slip by largely unnoticed. Perhaps quietly remarked on, occasionally astounding, but quickly absorbed into the day-by-day ritual of life.

My lightning bolt was realizing, deeply and fully, just how much information technology has changed the way we live, from the large macro things like our economy, to the smaller things like checking sports scores and seeing what the weather will be in a couple of days.

The blunt point of Mason’s article (and I would highly encourage everyone reading this column to click on the link to actually read it) is that we have quietly entered a new era of post capitalism. You might say the old way didn’t go out with a bang but with a tweet. And that this new era is built on information, often freely shared, and increasingly difficult even for totalitarian governments to restrict.

As Mason writes, post capitalism is possible because of three major changes brought about by information technology in the last 25 years: first it reduces the need for work and blurs the lines between work and free time; second it has reduced markets’ abilities to form prices correctly because, as Mason says, markets are based on scarcity and information is abundant; and third the spontaneous rise of collaborative production, “goods, services and organizations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy.” (The example that he gives is Wikipedia, the biggest information product in the world, almost completely compiled by volunteers, resulting in the disappearance of the encyclopedia business and the loss of billions of dollars in revenue for advertisers.)

This free flow of information brought about major changes in ways other than economic. I firmly believe that the increasing acceptance of gay marriage in the United States and the entire transgender movement would not be possible without the Internet. Trolls aside for the moment, the availability of information on these issues, particularly via technologies like YouTube and twitter, has made an enormous difference particularly with young people and their views on gender. Or think of how the cases of police brutality and overuse of force that have been so often in the news lately were made possible by the fact that the ubiquitous smart phone has a camera. Even a short 10 years ago, these things still happened, but could be quickly buried by the police.

Now, it’s not that I was totally unaware the consequences of his information technology transformation; I have been working in the field for over 20 years. But not even I really thought about how deeply it had reached into each my life in many small, seemingly quiet ways.

Let me give you two small examples.

I have for years struggled with my weight. Any time that I weigh too much, my back would howl in protest. So I was a faithful follower of Weight Watchers programs for many years.

About three years ago, I noticed my weight starting to go up. I made a comment to my wife about wanting to get back into shape. So she bought me a FitBit which provides me with information on the number of steps I take every day, how that translates into calories burned, number of stairs – an entire plethora of new information. But the real breakthrough happened as the result of a conversation with my sister-in-law, who had lost almost 50 pounds. When I asked her how she was able to do it and to maintain the weight loss, she told me it was a food diary app on her smart phone that made the difference. So I also downloaded and started to use it.

This new app allowed me to set a calorie goal, and gave me access to a vast treasure trove of food caloric measurements that absolutely amazed me. Between my Fitbit, my new food diary app and a better exercise regime, I’ve lost 20 pounds and kept it off for over three years

And here’s the kicker. The food diary app is free and all the information it provides is free. I have to view the occasional ad and I think some of the recipes it suggests are sponsored but I don’t care because the main information I want is, I repeat, free. Almost all this free information was something that I had paid for when I was at Weight Watchers.

Another quick example: sports. I no longer use newspapers for anything concerning sports. If I want to get the latest result in practically any sport, I open my free ESPN app, and there it is – immediate and free.

One of the nice features of the small community in which I live is the local FreeNet. Local residents post free items on the website, which anyone on the list can claim. While the items may not be in perfect condition they are often very usable and my family has acquired several items this way, which I calculate has saved us roughly in the neighborhood of $500.

The world you and I live in at this time is not the same world that we lived in even 20 or 30 years ago. We communicate differently, read books differently, watch TV differently, do politics differently, listen to music differently, shop differently, buy stocks differently, go to school differently, etc. etc. Since these things have entered our lives gradually we missed the overall effect. In the end what all this means is that it’s a whole new world. And personally, I like where it’s headed.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015 

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com


The end of capitalism has begun, The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun


Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.







Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us with a donation (below), by telling others about us, or purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page. 



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Net Neutrality may face uphill battle

by Leticia Miranda, ProPublica
February 26, 2015

The United States Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 for a proposal today that effectively bars Internet companies from prioritizing some Internet traffic over others. As John Oliver famously explained “ending net neutrality would allow big companies to buy their way into the fast lane, leaving everyone else in the slow lane.”

Demonstrators for net neutrality in the U.S., 2014. Photo by Stacie Isabella Turk/Ribbonhead via Flickr, Creative Commons

Demonstrators for net neutrality in the U.S., 2014. Photo by Stacie Isabella Turk/Ribbonhead via Flickr, Creative Commons

The FCC’s proposal faces plenty of opposition from telecom companies and others, but it’s just the latest round in a long fight. Here is a brief history of attempts to enact net neutrality and the often successful push against it.

The FCC votes to deregulate cable Internet services.

March 2002: The FCC, under the Bush administration and Republican Chairman Michael Powell, declares that cable modem services are “not subject to common carrier regulation,” meaning they aren’t bound by standards for nondiscrimination in service. Instead, cable Internet services fall under a separate light regulatory regime that gives the commission limited enforcement power.

Tim Wu coins the phrase “net neutrality.”

Fall 2003: Tim Wu, then an associate professor at the University of Virginia Law School, first coins the term “net neutrality” in a paper for the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law. He defines net neutrality to mean an Internet “that does not favor one application…over others.”

The FCC adopts a toothless net neutrality-like policy statement.

August 2005: The FCC adopts a policy statement to “preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of public Internet,” which focuses on protecting consumer access to content online and competition among Internet service companies. The statement has no power of enforcement.

The first net neutrality bill is introduced in Congress. It dies.

May 2006: Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduces a net neutrality bill that would keep Internet service companies from blocking, degrading or interfering with users’ access to their services. But the bill stalled in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and never came to a vote.

The FCC tells Comcast to stop slowing down access to BitTorrent.

August 2008: The FCC, under Republican Chairman Kevin Martin, orders Comcast to stop slowing down user access to BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer sharing network often used to share music and videos.

Comcast sues the FCC, and wins.

September 2008 — April 2010: Comcast voluntary agrees to stop slowing down BitTorrent traffic. But it takes the FCC to court anyway, arguing that the agency is operating outside its authority. Specifically, the company points out that the FCC’s 2005 policy statement on neutrality doesn’t have the force of law.

The FCC writes real rules on net neutrality.

December 2010: Democratic FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski writes an order to impose net neutrality rules. Unlike the FCC’s 2005 policy statement, this new order is a real rule, not just a policy statement.

Except Verizon sues the FCC, saying it has no authority to enforce the rules, and wins.

September 2011 — January 2014: The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals rules the Federal Communications Commission can’t enforce net neutrality rules because broadband Internet services don’t fall under its regulatory authority.

Senator introduces net neutrality bill that would ban the FCC from enforcement.

January 2015: Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduces a net neutrality bill as a discussion draft that would ban Internet service companies from blocking or degrading services or access to certain content, but would also strip the FCC of authority to enforce any of these rules.

The FCC chairman proposes to reclassify broadband Internet services and enforce net neutrality.

February 2015: Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler introduces the current net neutrality proposal. Internet service companies such as AT&T and Comcast would be banned from offering paid prioritization to content providers such as Amazon for faster access. But the proposal would also allow Internet service companies to prevent other companies from using their wires to connect homes to the Internet.

The FCC is expected to vote on rules today.

Feb. 26, 2015: The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposed rules this morning. The rules are expected to pass in a 3–2 decision with the two Republican commissioners dissenting.

This almost certainly will result in another fight.

The details of the new rules won’t be made public until after the vote. Experts expect challenges to the rules as soon as they are published. Michael Powell, a former FCC Chairman and current president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, told CNBC it could take “at least two and up to five years before the rules are fully and finally settled.”

Related coverage: Read about American state laws that make it difficult for cities to provide cheap, fast Internet through municipal broadband networks.   ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

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Stealth campaigns in the net neutrality battleground



by Robert Faturechi, ProPublica
October 9, 2014

On a recent Monday evening, two bearded young men in skinny jeans came to a parklet in San Francisco’s trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood and mounted what looked like an art installation. It was a bright blue, oversized “suggestion box” for the Internet.

The boxes, sometimes accompanied by young people in futuristic costumes, have been popping up on both coasts for weeks, soliciting messages of support – but their sponsor has been a mystery. The web site for the campaign, Onward Internet, does not say. Their domain registration is private. And the site includes no contact information, only an animated video heavy on millennial lingo: “The internet was made to move data…we got blogs, likes, selfies and memes, OMG, BRB and TTYL.”

The lone hint at a larger message is oblique. “The Internet is a wild, free thing,” the site says. “Unbounded by limits, unfettered by rules, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Internet continues to advance.”

Turns out Onward Internet may be the latest stealth entrant in the increasingly nasty battle over net neutrality, which will determine how the government regulates Internet providers.

The production agency for Onward Internet wouldn’t say who their client is, but an employee for the company that rented the space for the Hayes Valley installation let slip that “It’s something called the National Cable and Telecommunications Association” – the principal trade group for the telecom industry.

Telecom companies have been the fiercest opponents of a proposal under which the American government would treat broadband like a utility, making it easier for regulators to keep internet providers from blocking certain sites or saddling some content providers with slower speeds or higher fees.

As the United States Federal Communications Commission nears a decision on new rules, suspicions have grown that industry players are funding independent groups to create the appearance of diverse, grass-roots backing. Think tanks have been accused of being co-opted. Nonprofits have been criticized for concealing who they represent. In one case, the telecom industry was accused of fooling unwitting businesses into joining a coalition against broadband regulation.

NCTA officials did not respond to questions about Onward Internet and would not confirm they’re behind it. “What led you to the conclusion that this is an NCTA effort…?” asked Brian Dietz, a vice president for the organization, before he stopped responding to emails.

It’s unclear what the lobbying giant hopes to get out of this particular campaign, but the Onward Internet website, call-in line and Twitter feed are collecting messages of support from visitors who would have no way of knowing they’re backing a telecom industry campaign.

 “Sorry we can’t come to the phone right now,” the call-in greeting says. “We just got wind of the juiciest celebrity rumor and we’re working to confirm it. So please leave your suggestion for the future of the internet at the beep and visit Onward Internet dot com next month to see what we’ve done with it.”

Many in the tech community have pinned their hopes for saving net neutrality on the reclassification proposal that would give the FCC more power over internet providers. Their belief is that it would make it harder for internet providers to charge content providers more for faster service, and thus protect tech startups from being squashed by established brands that have the resources to pay a premium.

That’s why there was surprise in Silicon Valley when a nonprofit called CALinnovates, which says it represents the interests of technology companies and start-ups, entered the debate by taking a stance against the government regulation plan.

 “We’d never heard of them until then,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Engine, a nonpartisan startup advocacy group.

CALinnovates filed comments with the FCC opposing the plan. The group’s executive director Mike Montgomery wrote a column for the Huffington Post, echoing warnings raised by the telecom industry that more regulation would hamper innovation.

“Would we even know what an iPhone is if Steve Jobs had to run his pricing models past the FCC?” Montgomery asked. “Would Twitter be fomenting revolution if Jack Dorsey needed to check with regulators about what kind of data can be shared online and by whom?”

Most notably, the nonprofit got a flurry of press coverage for a poll it commissioned that found Americans don’t support more regulation: “Only one in four Americans believe that government policies can keep up with the pace of innovation that we are seeing with technology, such as the Internet.”

The group’s stance gave the anti-reclassification camp a backer from within the tech community – a boon for one of CALinnovates’ supporters, AT&T.

In an interview with ProPublica, Montgomery declined to say to what extent his organization is funded by the telecom giant, which is listed as a “partner” on its website. Asked if AT&T consulted with him about his net neutrality stance, he said “We have input and advice from all of our members.”

Later, a spokesman for the nonprofit released a statement to ProPublica saying, “CALinnovates’ position on net neutrality was based on a thorough economic and legal analysis and reflects CALinnovates’ independent thinking on matters important to the tech industry.”

The organization’s telecom-friendly position didn’t seem to mesh with its advisory board, which includes some of Silicon Valley’s more prominent names. Ron Conway, for example, is a well-known angel investor who has been a strong backer of government action to protect net neutrality.

Asked about the apparent contradiction by ProPublica, Conway’s spokesman lauded “diversity of viewpoints” and CALinnovates but said his boss was on “opposite sides” with the nonprofit.

Days later, Conway resigned from the CALinnovates board.

Outside of CALinnovates, Montgomery has worked for other organizations with telecom ties. Before heading up the nonprofit, he worked for a lobbying firm and political candidates that have taken money from AT&T.

Montgomery said he did not feel he needed to disclose CALinnovates’ AT&T ties in his columns on net neutrality.

“We receive support from all of our partners,” he said. “I think you’ll see a diversity of opinion if you spend some time reading all the things I write.”

The FCC has been taking public comments and hosting forums on net neutrality for months, and is expected to make a decision by the end of the year.

Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu – who coined the term net neutrality in 2003 and is a proponent of government regulation to protect it – said he worries astroturfing efforts may lull some lawmakers into inaction.

“The effect of the astroturfing is to make everything foggy,” Wu said. “It propels the argument that if things are cloudy, government should stay away (and) let the market decide.”

Creative Commons

Robert Faturechi covers campaign finance for ProPublica. He was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times from 2009 to 2014, where he exposed inmate abuse, cronyism, and wrongful jailings at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

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Bitcoin brew

F&O bitcoin

Bitcoin entrepreneur Mitchell Demeter buys a medium-roast coffee from barista Chris Fujiki. Demeter’s company installed the “world’s first” bitcoin ATM at the Waves coffee shop in downtown Vancouver. Photo Deborah Jones © 2013

The world’s first ATM capable of swapping bitcoins for any official currency started operating this week in a coffee shop in Western Canada.

Bitconiacs, a storefront currency exchange owned by three 20-something entrepreneurs, claims to be first in the world to set up an automatic teller machine dedicated to the digital currency.

The machine stands flush against a wall at the Waves coffee shop in downtown Vancouver at Howe and Smithe streets. At first glance it looks much like any other automated teller. But instead of using bank or credit cards to distribute cash it lets customers deposit Canadian dollars into their online bitcoin account, or withdraw cash using their bitcoins, via an online exchange.

The coffee shop  is one of some 15 city businesses in the city to accept the digital money.

Bitcoins – sometimes called the currency of the so-called “Dark Web” – are based on an algorithm invented in 2008 by an anonymous computer scientist known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. In recent years bitcoins have become popular in high-inflation countries such as Argentina, in Germany (which recently declared them officially a “private currency,”) and in cities popular with high-tech entrepreneurs. The currency, yet to be regulated by any government, has run into its share of controversies. It’s volatile, has been utilized by drug gangs, and poses challenges for tax authorities. It’s also increasingly embedded in  the investment community, and has drawn interest from a range of activists from libertarians to social entrepreneurs.

Watch for an upcoming Facts and Opinions feature on the new digital currency, and its implications for governments, policy makers and citizens.

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